BRIAN Lowe was standing on top of a ladder when he suffered his first stroke.
The Wallsend man was 73. A handyman.
"I was repairing a ceiling and I felt a bit funny," he said.
"My left hand wouldn't go where I wanted it to go. I got down from the ladder, and drove myself up to the hospital. But I struggled to find the gears. I couldn't turn the radio off.
"They got me through pretty well straight away."
It was the first of three strokes that he has had.
"With the last one, I just slid down onto the floor. My foot was dragging," he said.
"It was scary, but when it's happening, you can't do anything about it."
Mr Lowe, who is also fighting lung cancer, has participated in a first-of-its-kind study looking at theatre performance as a therapy for stroke survivors, and he could not recommend it more.
Mr Lowe, and other survivors, shared their personal stroke stories which formed the basis of a "verbatim" play - which they learned and rehearsed over an eight-week period.
They performed it at Rankin Park, at the same rehab centre where they themselves were sent after their stroke.
Their audience was mostly people at the start of their own stroke rehabilitation.
"Being involved helped me a great deal," he said. "It can be very hard to talk it over with a partner or a family member sometimes, because you're not after sympathy, you're after understanding.
"It's easy to talk to people in the same boat, who understand you.
"This was just like a family."
The pilot study, documented in an ABC Compass program set to air on Sunday, has surprised, impressed and excited Hunter rehabilitation researchers, who did not anticipate the "huge improvements" they witnessed.
Stroke recovery researcher and physiotherapist Gillian Mason, from the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rehab Innovation - and supported by HMRI - said she had not expected the theatre performance would be "particularly therapeutic" as a rehabilitation intervention.
"There are some other researchers internationally using similar sorts of drama intervention as therapy, but this is the first time this process has been used anywhere in the world for stroke survivors," Ms Mason said.
"I thought it would be something that would be nice to do, that might help people's wellbeing. I didn't expect that the program would actually stretch people's capacity.
"But we found it was having an effect on their function, which means it was having an effect on their brain.
"It was a very small study, and the first one, but in terms of what we saw in people's thinking function and their memory - and their ability to form a script, learn a script and think flexibly - we were really impressed."
She said participants had felt the process brought them "extra joy". They had enjoyed the feeling of belonging to an ensemble. They had liked that by sharing their own stories, they became teachers - healers.
Ms Mason said after the first six months, there was little rehabilitation offered for people who had suffered a stroke.
"There is usually really high rates of depression, and people report they have low self esteem," she said. "They feel like they don't have as much value if they are not able to work, for example, or their roles have changed, and there isn't anything that's offered as therapy for people to try to improve their memory, or thinking function, or to work on their wellbeing."
Ms Mason said the next step was to scientifically prove whether performance could improve "cognitive function" for people more than six months post-stroke, as well as confirm the psychological benefits.
Drama practitioner and performer, Dr Linden Wilkinson, researched and developed the process in her previous work with people with post traumatic stress disorder.
She devised the play, My Mind's I, from the stories and dialogue the participants had shared.
"The methodology to devise performance from personal narrative has become very popular - it's generally known as verbatim theatre, and it's a form of applied theatre," she said.
"I had used it both for my masters and my doctoral degrees.
"You feel heard, you feel listened to, and you feel valued. That is what an audience brings.
"Talking, and telling their stories the way they tell it - from the heart and with humour - has an intensity you wouldn't pick up if you just read it in a book of stories.
"They wanted to sit on those chairs and say to the audience, 'If I had known then what I know now, then would have been so much better'."
Some of the project participants had been motivated to begin developing a second play - called Turning Points.
Stroke Stories is set to air on Sunday, July 21, at 6.30pm on TV and ABC iView.
People who have suffered a stroke can sign up to the Stroke Research Register here to take part in future Hunter studies.
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