Small stroke, big wake-up call

Senator Murray Sinclair says his stroke woke him up to “my obligation to take better care of myself”

One day when he was 56, Justice Murray Sinclair woke up feeling a little “fuzzy headed.” He chalked it up to a poor sleep and proceeded to get ready for a day in his Winnipeg chambers. It took him longer than usual, because he felt a bit dizzy and kept forgetting what he was about to do next.

In his office, he had trouble typing. “I wasn’t hitting the keys properly with my left hand so there were a lot of typos. And I was bumping into things on my left side – the desk or the doorway.”

Still, he worked his way through his court docket, finishing just before noon. “I thought I should check in with my doctor, and the nurse had me come right in.” He would soon learn he had a stroke.

Justice Sinclair, now a Canadian senator, is best known as co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba and as chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2015). He talked to us about his 2007 stroke, the aftermath and recovery.

What happened when you saw the doctor?

The doctor did a number of tests on the spot. He asked me to lift one leg, then the other. When I lifted my left leg, I started to tip over. I held both my arms out and closed my eyes, and when I opened them again my left hand had dropped. He had me take an Aspirin right away, and said, “I think you may have had a small stroke.”

My wife came and drove me to the hospital. They gave me more pills – “clot busters” – and then they performed more tests, including an MRI of my head. They found signs of damage in one lobe of my brain, but an ultrasound of the blood vessels of my neck and my head found no evidence of more clotting. So they monitored me for a while and around midnight I was able to go home. I was put on blood thinners and Lipitor , an anti-cholesterol medication.

How did your recovery progress?

I recovered at home. I felt really exhausted for several days after the stroke. I was still bumping into things and unable to control my left hand or read very well.

I saw the neurologist a week later. At that appointment he showed me the scan and explained that I had suffered a minor stroke.

Even five or six weeks later, if I walked for any length of time I would constantly veer to the left. The only way I could walk a straight line was with a cane. And I still had trouble typing or doing anything with my left hand. The grip was weaker and my coordination poor on that side.

After about six weeks off work, my doctor gave me the go-ahead to return. I did fatigue more easily when I returned to work, and travel really tired me out. One of the first things I did after I was cleared for work was take a trip to Vancouver to visit my son and his family – but by the time we landed I was so tired that I slept for most of that day!

What about now – do you notice any lingering effects?

The left hand is fine now, and things are pretty much back to normal for me. Medication helped a great deal to clear that sense of fuzziness in my thinking. Thereafter it was really just a matter of doing the exercises to get my coordination and strength back.

I continue to take a preventive dose of medications for high cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as baby Aspirin to reduce the risk of another blood clot.

What was your biggest challenge in your recovery?

Acceptance. I didn’t really believe it for a long time. I told people I’d had a TIA (transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke) because that sounded more minor, like it was not “really” a stroke. It took me the better part of a year to build up the courage to really talk to my doctor about it.

Once I learned to accept it [the stroke], then I realized I was continuing to ignore my obligations to take better care of myself. I wasn’t taking recovery very seriously. So I made an effort to lose weight, to monitor what I eat and to get more exercise, to keep physically busy. And I continue to take my medication.

Before my stroke I was overweight. I was not eating properly and probably not sleeping properly. Plus I have a family history of stroke. My mother died from stroke at 25, although I wasn’t aware of that at the time I had mine. My paternal grandmother, who raised me, suffered a stroke in her 60s. She had to learn to walk again with a cane, and she did exercises to regain the use of her hand.

Today I am living a healthier lifestyle and I would say that I’m healthier now than I was before my stroke.

And your greatest success?

Right from the beginning my wife and daughter were there with me, and my whole family helps me monitor how I’m living. When I travel, sometimes they go with me or if I’m travelling alone, I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t talk to somebody in my family.

And I had good medical attention. It’s good that I was able to see my doctor so quickly, because while I knew that something was off I didn’t know what it was. I’m convinced that without such prompt attention, I could well have ended up with greater damage to my brain.

One thing I have learned over the years is in the Indigenous community, there is a significant lack of proper resources at the community level. I feel lucky that when I had a stroke I was living in an urban area, because if it had happened in some of the communities where I have traveled over the years, I would have suffered significantly from the lack of appropriate medical care, particularly urgent medical treatment.

In rural and remote communities in Canada, people can go untreated, unaware that they have had a stroke.

Learn more about stroke