International Journal of Stroke review finds young stroke survivors in Australia struggle to return to work

CHALLENGE: Work for Newcastle's Meredith Burke has been a struggle since a stroke six years ago. Thousands have similar difficulties across Australia. Picture: Marina Neil
CHALLENGE: Work for Newcastle's Meredith Burke has been a struggle since a stroke six years ago. Thousands have similar difficulties across Australia. Picture: Marina Neil

Meredith Burke had to learn to walk again.

Learn how to talk too – from ABC’s to fluent, but now draining conversations.

All at age 39. 

Her progression post-stroke hasn’t been easy. 

For the past six years, she’s battled to adjust to her “new normal”.

She’s one of thousands of young adult stroke survivors who are missing out on the support they need to return to work, according to an International Journal of Stroke review which found just 66 per cent of working-age survivors had returned to work up to four years after suffering a stroke.

With about 475,000 people in Australia living with the effects of stroke and 30 per cent of those of working age, it’s a situation that Stroke Foundation CEO Sharon McGowan says needs addressing.

“Advancements in treatment mean more Australians are surviving stroke than ever before, but for the stroke survivor and their family the impact of stroke is far reaching,” she said.

“Health and social care services are not well set up to deal with younger stroke survivors, and compared with those over 65 years, younger survivors are less likely to be referred to rehabilitation services.”

Ms Burke, of Newcastle, was a vocational trainer before her stroke, but could not return to the role.  

“It’s the cognitive drain, when young people try to go back to work,” she said. 

“There’s no way I could cope with all the things that go along with training, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was too intense for the brain to cope with.”

NEW LIGHT: Meredith Burke believes the community aren't aware of the challenges young stroke survivors face. Picture: Marina Neil.

NEW LIGHT: Meredith Burke believes the community aren't aware of the challenges young stroke survivors face. Picture: Marina Neil.

Day-to-day is a struggle for the 45-year-old. Her speech fatigues after a few hours, an email that takes most two minutes to write could take her 45 minutes, driving is draining and even getting dressed saps energy. 

But part of the struggle to find work, is the lack of help. 

“There’s not really anyone in the community, or an organisation, who can sit down with you and go: ‘ok, you’ve got deficits in this, maybe you could try this’,” Ms Burke said. 

Misconceptions are also a problem. Good physical recovery can often hide hidden issues like fatigue, depression, sleep problems, anxiety and pain.

“Stroke is about learning a new normal for your life,” Ms Burke explained.

“For 39 years, I had the context of my life all built up. But it literally goes in one south route, in one day. You have to build up your life again...

“It takes a long time to come to terms with that and say: ‘well, what can i do now?… what can I do post-stroke that I’m interested in, that I can build a life from?’.”

Ms Burke has fought on and is now studying fitness, alongside hosting regular Stroke Foundation information talks with community groups and organisations. 

She believes businesses in the Hunter would be willing to employ young stroke survivors, but aren’t aware of their day-to-day challenges.

Most of which, she says, can be overcome with adaptive work structures.