‘Strangers assumed mum was drunk’

Thomas (right) with his mum Sarah and his brother

Thomas (right) with his mum Sarah and his brother - Credit: Archant

An inspirational young man has been honoured for setting up a charity at the age of 18 after his mother suffered a stroke.

Thomas with Dr Peter Rawlinson, Trustee of the Stoke Association

Thomas with Dr Peter Rawlinson, Trustee of the Stoke Association - Credit: Archant

Thomas Gray, who is now 20, was called out of class at his boarding school in Oxford three years ago and told that his mother, Sarah had had a stroke – a day that “changed their lives forever”.

Sarah, who was 57 at the time, had a haemorrhage on her brain the size of an orange, and she survived an operation which removed a third of her brain – against all the odds.

The haemorrhage was the largest doctors have recorded anyone surviving.

But she was left with the speech disorder aphasia, as well as problems with her short and long term memory.

Sarah Gray's painting

Sarah Gray's painting - Credit: Archant

Thomas, who now lives in Dalston Lane and is studying business management at Birkbeck University of London, said: “When I saw my mum in the hospital that day, she was so unwell that she didn’t recognise who I was.

“She didn’t know who she was or where she was, it was pretty heavy.

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“I remember being so frightened, but mostly scared about the unknown.

“I hardly knew anything about stroke or its effects at the time.”

Gradually, Sarah underwent rehabilitation, but she was left with speaking and communication difficulties – something which affects a third of stroke sufferers.

Thomas said: “It took her a while to understand who she was, she had no idea who we were, she had no idea she had any sons.

“At the time it was like a fate worse than death, my mum was there physically but the person I knew seemed to have vanished.

“What she kept was her sense of humour, she has a brilliant one, even though she was so confused, bless her.”

Following Sarah’s return home from hospital, Thomas and a school friend decided to set up a charity called Never Gray to raise awareness of stroke and aphasia through fundraising, blogs and local talks.

“My mum was an author and a very proud woman, but when she would go to the supermarket, people would think she was drunk or on drugs, she would come home crying and it made me upset too.

“Because of mum’s aphasia, people would assume that she was drunk and dismiss her straight away. This was really upsetting and proof of how little awareness there was around aphasia, and the impact stroke can have on people’s lives. I wanted to change this.

“The way I describe is if you imagine your brain as a library and all the books are words, they fall on the floor, get mixed around, and then they are put back in the wrong place so whenever anyone tries to recall a book or say the word it’s often the wrong one.

“The frustrating thing is they will be aware of it, so my mum might try and describe a handbag but say a pigeon. She will say it’s not a pigeon, if people can take time and be patient then it allows the people with aphasia to speak.

“They speak better when they are relaxed, for people who have had a stroke too much frustration or stress can lead to a seizure, and that can lead to death.”

Thomas has now received a Highly Commended Life After Stroke Award from the Stroke Association recognising his support and determination in setting up the charity.

Thomas is really proud of his mum for the way she has moved on. Although she has suffered a huge loss in not being able to read or write any longer, she has developed new passions, and is hoping to exhibit her wax paintings in an exhibition and also busks with a friend who also had a stroke.