Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Doctor battles stroke's cruel blow

Family's life left in tatters after rare ailment robs wife and mother of her speech.

Joannne Scott was about to start a dream job in Ireland with husband Leon Birt and son Conner before her Haemorrhage. Photo / Greg Bowker
Joannne Scott was about to start a dream job in Ireland with husband Leon Birt and son Conner before her Haemorrhage. Photo / Greg Bowker

Joanne Scott had it all. A loving husband, a healthy 1-year-old son, and a successful career as a brilliant young doctor.

But in seconds her life was left in tatters when she had a sudden cerebral haemorrhage, or bleeding on the brain, which threatened to kill her and left her unable to speak.

The 33-year-old Auckland woman was with colleagues in July last year when the bleeding, a rare type of stroke, jumbled her speech and affected the right side of her face.

Rushed to Middlemore Hospital, Dr Scott was given a 50 per cent chance of surviving, but only if doctors could operate almost immediately to remove an abnormal connection between an artery and vein which had ruptured.

Dr Scott's husband, Leon Birt, said the connection was removed, but because it was in the left frontal lobe of her brain, in the same place as her speech centre, that was also removed leaving Dr Scott unable to say a word.

"She's got 100 per cent of her knowledge and comprehension so it's one of those cruel fates," Mr Birt said.

"Frustration is the dominant emotion."

Mr Birt, 38, said his wife an Auckland City Hospital haematologist was thankful to be alive but her life was on hold indefinitely while she struggles to learn to talk again.

For eight months she has been having intensive speech therapy for the aphasia and can now say about 50 words, including her son Connor's name.

During Dr Scott's recovery in hospital Mr Birt, an English and philosophy teacher, said Connor reverted to crawling and stopped saying words.

Initially the toddler was overwhelmed by his mother's condition and heartbreakingly didn't want to touch her.

"The day I put him down on the bed and he touched her face and gave her a big kiss, I rate that as, alongside my wedding day, the happiest day of my life."

The couple are now worried that Connor, although a happy 20-month-old, could be affected by the lack of stimulation from his mother.

"Jo does her best to use her voice with him.

"When we read stories she says whatever she can say but it's not the same as having two parents gabbling away at you all the time."

Because the hole in Dr Scott's brain caused seizures, the couple had to put the little boy in full-time day care after Mr Birt returned to his job at St Cuthbert's College.

Dr Scott had been about to take up a dream position in Ireland practising and teaching haematology when the bleeding happened, and Mr Birt had resigned to become a stay-at-home dad.

The injury put a financial strain on the couple, but Mr Birt said it was the cost of the speech therapy at least $270 a week that he needed to raise money for.

He put the cost at $15,000 a year including physiotherapy costs for Dr Scott's weakened right side.

Mr Birt said they had hoped Dr Scott's conversational ability would return in a year, but they were a long way from that goal.

"We can have conversations. We know each other so well we can get into some depth, but probably those conversations involve tears at least every second day.

"Whenever it gets too bad we remind ourselves she is alive and Connor's got a mum and I've got a wife."

Donation to the Givealittle website have raised $16,000, and Mr Birt said money given would be used to intensify Dr Scott's therapy so Connor "will never know her like this".

- NZ Herald

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