Specialist centre in Derbyshire giving stroke survivors a new lease of life

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A specialist centre in Holmewood is giving people a new lease of life.

The Derbyshire Stroke Centre – the only service of its kind in the UK – was set up by friends Julie Wheelhouse and Debbie Newton.

The idea came about after they noticed there was very little contact for survivors outside home life.

Julie launched an evening group once a month after originally working with survivors in their own homes.

Together, Julie and Debbie then set up a support group during the day.

But the bad news came when there were no funds available to allow them to carry on developing the group despite its success.

Julie said: “We couldn’t believe it – we could prove it worked and was cost effective, but no, the funding was withdrawn.”

It was then that Julie and Debbie made the brave decision of quitting their jobs to start up their own service.

The support immediately went to five days a week with meetings anywhere they could beg a room, from Chesterfield Bowl to the fire station.

The pair also started to apply to various funds for help as the need was growing and they needed a more permanent premises where they could bring together all the various groups under one roof.

So when Julie saw a county council office unit which had been empty for five years, she put together a business plan and asked if they could have it for a heavily-subsidised rent until 2019.

They took over an empty shell in 2014 and, thanks to the different grants they had been able to access, put in partitions to create various meeting spaces, carpeted the building, created a gym and installed a kitchen.

It became the first, and indeed is the only, specialist stroke service in the whole of the UK.

Now more than 200 people a week come to use the facilities and to prove that having a stroke doesn’t suck the joy out of life.

Activities at the centre include arts and crafts, quizzes, singing and the occasional speaker or entertainer, but there is so much more.

“The most important thing is to build people’s confidence and to help them keep on improving,” Julie said.

“We never put a time limit on what they can achieve, they can come here for as long as they wish.

“We have a ‘can-do’ ethos here and there is not a lot that people can’t achieve if it’s important to them.

“Some of the goals are functional like standing and making a cup of tea. In the case of one lady, it was developing sufficient mobility to enable her to sit on her bed and put on her own foot splints. She has her independence and can live alone safely because that was all that was stopping her.”

Julie added: “People need to have a feeling of safety when they have had a stroke and when they are discharged from the hospital they just panic. There are problems with depression, cognitive and communication issues. We can help by arranging and reminding them of appointments, and managing details of their lives where they can’t remember where they should be at a particular time and we can protect them from being duped.”

There is even a resident dog - Finley Walter - who has a very important job to do. It has been proved that stroking a pet lowers the blood pressure, but he can help in other, more subtle, ways too. A patient who is reluctant to do formal exercise can achieve quite a lot from throwing a ball for Finley to catch, and they both have fun.

A bus takes people to and from the centre and there is a robust team of volunteers to help run the different activities.

In the gym people are encouraged to work to their own level.

They are currently looking to fund a special therapy pool which will give their guests the opportunity to exercise in the water without falling – and develop the muscles, stamina and strength to improve body image. It costs £41,000, but Julie is hoping that with crowd funding it can be in place soon and be one more thing to help.

Carers are looked after too with regular meetings and sessions of things like aromatherapy and relaxation which are invaluable for people who look after survivors.

Being the only centre of its kind in the UK means they get calls from people all over the country asking for help. They give on-line support to a mother in Cambridge whose daughter has had a stroke; a group from Coventry visit often as well as a visitor from Boston in Lincolnshire.

“We are here for anyone who wants us – if they want to come they are welcome,” Julie said.

An open day is being held at the centre on Holmewood Business Park, Holmewood, on Saturday, October 21, Everyone is welcome.