After a stroke at 22, it took a “big warm hug” to help recover

Posted 8 months ago by David McManus
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Caitlin said she really needed “a place to go,” after experiencing a stroke at the age of 22. Happy Paws Happy Hearts Team Leader Justin Palazzo-Orr and former rescue puppy, Astro, were some of the welcoming smiles she needed. [Image: Supplied]
Caitlin said she really needed “a place to go,” after experiencing a stroke at the age of 22. Happy Paws Happy Hearts Team Leader Justin Palazzo-Orr and former rescue puppy, Astro, were some of the welcoming smiles she needed. [Image: Supplied]

Key points:

  • Each year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [RSPCA] cares for more than 124,000 animals awaiting adoption
  • Happy Paws Happy Hearts was founded in 2014 to bring people who have experienced isolation and seclusion together with rescue dogs — providing training, care and smiles

 

When Caitlin Kelly experienced a stroke at the age of 22, it became difficult for her to reconnect with the community around her after long periods of rehabilitation and recovery. Caitlin said that she felt “shame” and the path to self-expression was “quite lonely.”

Plans to see Taylor Swift and travel the world were cut short and followed by a complicated and gruelling recovery, learning how to eat and walk again. Caitlin said she needed somewhere to go and when she found ‘Happy Paws Happy Hearts’ [HPHH], all of the effort that she had put into her recovery began to pay off as she became an ambassador in an important initiative. She described the feeling of working with HPHH to be like a “big warm hug,” which made her feel brighter.

HPHH provides a community for vulnerable people to come together and share a mutual love of animals, learn new skills, and give back in a meaningful way — which gave Caitlin the opportunity she needed to hone her insight and represent others like her.

“It has been enriching, just all of it,” Caitlin began, “it has been enriching for the lives of myself and others.”

“I will talk about it to people that I feel comfortable with and I like being able to navigate the conversation myself. It’s still difficult to talk about and it’s not something that I want to talk about with a random person who doesn’t know me.”

Stigma surrounding people who have survived a stroke is a significant social burden, which Ms Kelly has bravely fought against. Public perception of a stroke may lead people to believe that a stroke has purely physical or neurological consequences, but the crushing burden of isolation and insecurity is a struggle in-and-of-itself, the ambassador explained.

“I want to break the stigma that strokes only affect older people. You can be born a stroke survivor. Babies can have strokes in utero and a lot of people don’t know that,” she added.

“I was 22 when I had my stroke, and I didn’t know anyone else that had a stroke when they were my age. You don’t think it’s going to happen to you, so you don’t think about it.”

Caitlin said she benefited from the HPHH programs and had regained a lot of confidence, which pushed her to openly advocate for the charity — something which she felt she could not do two years prior, when she first started at the ‘Handle’ In-Shelter program.

“I knew I wanted to head into maybe a volunteering role, just to get out of the house and meet some new people,” the ambassador recalled.

“I don’t think it was something I ever thought I could do. I’ve become a different person in terms of my confidence and my people skills. I’ve gotten to interact with all kinds of different people and animals.”

As an ambassador, the past eight months have been filled with press interviews recounting her recovery, dispelling stereotypes and encouraging people living with disability to engage with HPHH, as it may change their life in a similar way.

“I loved the way it made me feel when I didn’t talk about how I feel […] I just love how accommodating everyone has been,” she said.

To date, the education and employment-pathway workshop provider is home to 42 employees, with seven locations across Australia and 80 weekly group sessions to support people.

If you need a ruff solution to a rough time in your life, get in touch with HPHH and join in on an affirming and open group of uplifting people.