A good rehab programme
helps stroke survivors make
a remarkable recovery.
It was a normal morning like
any other. Janet Yeo woke up,
got ready for work, and noticed that her right hand wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do. Simply,
it wasn’t following instructions.
“I was trying to put the cover back on the teapot but I kept missing the right spot,” Yeo
She thought nothing of it, and drove off to work. It was going to be a busy day as usual, and she also had to give an interview to a magazine.
When she climbed the stairs at her office, she realised that her body was lopsided.
“My body was collapsing,”
she says. “When the phone rang,
I couldn’t reach for it. My head was pounding and I asked my manager to drive me to the hospital.”
It was at the hospital that she found out she had had a stroke. One often imagines that a stroke strikes suddenly and without warning, but this was not the case. It was gradual.
“It was quite comical,” Yeo, 68, remembers. She is able to laugh about it now, as the right side of her body has recovered many of its functions.
But the frustrations that initially followed her stroke in 1989 prompted her to set up the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (NASAM) almost 17 years ago. She remembers being in the dark and not knowing what having a stroke entailed. Worst of all, no one told her what she was supposed to do.
“Stroke patients will tell you, the first thing that comes to their minds is, why me?” says Yeo. “Fear kicked in. I asked all the doctors and nurses, is there someone who can get me back on my feet? But all my doctor could tell me was that I had had a stroke, and I had lost the use of the right side of my body.
“And if I were lucky, I would recover in six months. Otherwise I would have to accept this condition for the rest of my life. It was like a death sentence.”
At that time, Yeo was heading two advertising agencies. She was at the peak of her career. She was used to being in control, and suddenly she was no longer in control of even her own body. But true to her nature, she wasn’t about to give up without a fight. She was determined to do something about it.
Her husband, Yeo Chee Yan, sent her to a stroke rehabilitation unit in Singapore. There, she got all the information she needed, and the rehabilitation programme required her to perform routines such as brushing her teeth and tying her shoelaces, by herself.
“In the hospital, I kept asking God, ‘Why me?’ ” Yeo recalls. “And God said, ‘Why not you? What’s so special about you?’ And I accepted it, and let God lead the way. I only asked Him for strength and wisdom.”
After seven months of rehabilitation in Singapore, she felt she had learned everything she could. She asked her physiotherapist what was next. He suggested that she follow their team to Los Gatos, California, where they were going for training.
A fellow stroke survivor from Singapore was also there, and the two of them looked out for each other. Every day, they walked from their apartment to the bus stop to board a bus to the hospital, and after therapy, they took the bus home and walked back to their apartment.
In Los Gatos, she had to literally learn to crawl again before she could walk. Two years later, she regained movement in her fingers. She regained her speech from reading storybooks to her young children every night.
Yeo feels blessed that she has a husband who understood what she needed at the time. He had refused to get her a maid, and made her do everything herself. It served as a powerful motivation for her to know that she could.
Once, he wanted her to accompany him to a formal function. She was hesitant because of her condition and how people would react. But her husband told her: “I’m not embarrassed of you. Why should you be embarrassed of yourself?”
“My previous doctor here thought that my recovery was remarkable,” says Yeo. “All the physiotherapists and the doctors agreed that the ‘death sentence’
of two months or six months
is not true, and that one can continue to improve even
“I asked God, ‘You have given me so much information. What do I have to do?’ And the answer was, go out and help other stroke survivors.”
The reporter who interviewed her on the day she had a stroke, interviewed her again about her recovery.
“In the story, I expressed my wish to start a stroke survivors support group,” says Yeo. “After the story was published, my phone was flooded with calls. I discovered there were so many stroke survivors who were like me in the beginning, totally lost without proper information, without hope.”
She started a support group and requested her regular physiotherapist in Singapore to come over and give demonstrations.
She realised meeting only
once a fortnight wasn’t enough. They could see the recovery
and motivation of the stroke survivors.
She opened a centre next door to her house. A group of South African expatriates heard about it and went over to help out. There were some physiotherapists among them.
“These women were so cheerful and really helped me,” says Yeo. “They came by and volunteered every day. From there we kept on building it up. We had our first food fair in the garden with eight stalls. Recently we had our 16th food fair with 51 stalls.”
About 30,000 people turned up. And today Nassam has eight centres, including centres in Penang, Perak, Malacca, Sabah and Johor. To date, Nasam has 3,000 members and every day, 300 stroke survivors walk through their doors. The organisation is hampered by two factors – the lack of physiotherapists and funding. It currently employs 22 physiotherapists.
Nasam has 200 volunteers, including everyone on its board. Each centre, or “club” as Nasam prefers to call them, is managed by five volunteers. And as its programmes are holistic – covering the physical, emotional and psychological aspects – Nasam also has volunteers in the areas of counselling, communication, art and craft, and therapy for relaxation.
“We are training groups of volunteers to help in our speech programme under the supervision of our speech therapist,” says Yeo. “At our Petaling Jaya head office, we need volunteer writers for various stroke-related publications. We need Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia translators.”
Volunteers need to have passion and compassion, says Yeo. And most importantly, they need to commit time.
“It bugs me all the time that there are people deprived of a rehabilitation programme which can help them recover,” says Yeo. “If I didn’t get rehab, I would probably be in a wheelchair, slurring away. This is what saddens me, and what drives us at Nasam.
“We try to gather as many people as we can to help. It is tough for us to raise funds, but we are not deterred because it’s worth it.”
For more information and to volunteer, call the Nasam headquarters in Petaling Jaya, Selangor (03-79564840) or visit