A Rotorua grandmother was able to diagnose her own stroke with the help of some instructions on a pen.

Kathryn Emery was at work on July 11 when the right side of her face and body began feeling tingly and weak, tell-tale symptoms of a stroke people often fail to recognise.

"I had the tingling down my arm, a weakness in my arm, a tingling in my face, and my speech felt funny to me," the 51-year-old said.

"The best way I can describe it is that feeling when you come out of the dentist."


Thanks to a Stroke Foundation pen she had been given in a police tote bag last year, Emery had an inkling she knew what was happening.

The pen had a pull-out panel which described the symptoms of a stroke, using the FAST (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 111) message.

Its "unusual" pull out, which Emery's grandchildren liked to play with, meant the message had stuck in her mind.

"The pen was always just on the coffee table at home, the moko liked playing with it, and I guess I read the message and it just sank in," Emery said.

"Having the pen I knew what the signs were.

"It was really good because deep down I knew straight away it was a stroke, but I didn't want to admit it to myself."

The Stroke Foundation stroke pen with insert that described the symptoms Kathryn was experiencing.
The Stroke Foundation stroke pen with insert that described the symptoms Kathryn was experiencing.

Emery rang the healthline to describe her symptoms, who told her to get to a hospital immediately.

"The one thing I did wrong was not call 111 straight away," she said.

Emery was told she had suffered what's known as a mini-stroke, meaning there had been no bleeding on the brain.

It was discovered the stroke was caused by sleep apnoea, a condition Emery had not known she suffered from.

"You hear stroke and it's pretty bad and you think 'it must be worse than this' but I was lucky I got a little one," she said.

"Everything's coming back to normal. I was really lucky, I've got no real lasting [damage]."

The stroke had been a "wake-up call," Emery said, prompting her to quit smoking, start exercising regularly and make changes to her diet.

Her son and his partner were trying to quit smoking now too.

"It's a warning sign really, that's how I'm seeing it, to take better care of myself."

In hospital, her doctor was curious why Emery had figured out what was happening so quickly.

"She asked me how I knew it was a stroke and I said it was because I had the pen. She was rapt it was working."

Stroke Foundation boss Mark Vivian reckoned about a quarter of a million pens like Emery's were given out in the last year.

"It's great, in any situation where the FAST message makes a difference," he said.

"We're just pleased any time the FAST message is picked up and saves folks from serious disability."

The sooner people got to the hospital for treatment, the more likely they were to not only survive a stroke but recover from it.

"The key to it now is getting to hospital fast.

"One of the key parts to this is that 80 per cent of strokes are because of a block in blood supply to the brain," he explained.

People had a window of about four and a half hours in which to seek treatment before the block started to do lasting damage to the brain, Vivian said.

"If they can get to hospital within that window, clot busting treatment can really make a difference to the outcome. The treatment is reducing the number of people who die from a stroke and it's increasing the number of people who have very good outcomes."

Even someone was only showing one of the signs of a stroke, Vivian said they should call 111 immediately.

"You're better safe than sorry and that window is relatively short."

Stroke facts

• Around 9000 people have a stroke in New Zealand every year - roughly one an hour, every day.

• Stroke kills around 2500 people a year, second only behind heart disease and all cancers combined.

• In 2009 it was estimated stroke cost the country more than $450 million every year.

• About 15 per cent of all stroke survivors are institutionalised. Disabilities from stroke make it one of the highest consumers of hospital beds, services and community support.

• It's estimated the two-thirds of strokes every year could be prevented, if people made better lifestyle choices around diet, exercise, alcohol and smoking, and got their blood pressure checked regularly.

There are 60,000 stroke survivors in the country.