How Ken found the power of speech again
A stroke left Ken Rollin unable to communicate, but he fought back to live a normal life. He tells Sarah Brealey how he did it.
Ken Rollin became a local legend when he scored the fastest-ever try in a rugby league cup final at Wembley in 1960. But his proudest achievement is not Wakefield Trinity’s 38–5 victory over Hull FC, nor receiving his medal from the Queen, but learning to communicate again after a stroke left him unable to talk, read or write.
Ken’s battle began in 1999, when he was 61. He recalls: “I was at a rugby dinner and I was talking to the BBC commentator Ray French. Suddenly I lost the power of speech. I realised I had a problem but I didn’t know what it was. I thought I had better sit down. Fortunately one of our friends saw me and asked if I was alright – when I couldn’t say anything, he phoned for an ambulance.”
This speedy reaction meant that Ken was treated quickly. He suffered no physical disability, but his road to full recovery still proved to be a long, slow one. He had aphasia, a disorder characterised by the loss of ability to speak, read or write. This happens when the stroke damages the language centre of the brain, and affects one in three people who have a stroke.
You feel like you have it all in your brain, you can see it but you can’t say it
Ken, who worked as a draughtsman and later as a sales director in a printing company after his rugby career, says: “For months I could hardly communicate at all. I didn’t know my wife’s name. People were talking to me but I didn’t know what they were saying.
They used to write things down in front of me but that wasn’t much better. They wrote ‘You’ve had a stroke’ – but I didn’t have a clue what a stroke was. It took two months for me to really understand what the problem was. Eventually I realised I had had a stroke, and that I had aphasia.
“It is a dreadful thing. The problem with aphasia is that you feel like you have it all in your brain, you can see it in your brain but you can’t say it. You can see two plus two but you can’t say four. It is the ultimate in frustration. You feel like tearing your hair out.”
The main treatment for aphasia is speech and language therapy, which Ken underwent for more than two years. He describes his speech after two years as similar to that of a five-year-old, and estimates that he has now regained about 70 per cent of his former ability to communicate.
“I think I have probably got as far as I am going to, but I can manage most things now. Understanding numbers is the hardest thing – if someone is arranging to meet me at a certain time and date, they have to spell it out slowly. When you tell someone you have aphasia, they say ‘What’s that?’ Then once you say you have a communication disability they ask what help you need, and they are usually happy to do what they can for you,” he says.
Ken became chairman of the Wakefield branch of the charity Speakability, which supports people with aphasia. He is also involved in a Yorkshire charity called SpeakwithIT, which helps people to build up their communication skills through computer software programs specifically developed to restore speech. He visits people who are recovering from a stroke and uses his own experiences as encouragement.
I went from being hardly able to speak to being able to communicate with anybody
He says: “When I go to see people six months after the stroke, the carers ask if they will get better. I say that most of the time they will. But you can’t just sit and watch TV – you have to work at it, and then you will get better. People can see that I went from being hardly able to speak to being able to communicate with anybody.”
Ken and his wife Anne have been married for 50 years, and have three children and seven grandchildren. He acknowledges that the experience has been difficult for his family, too. “Anne has been fantastic. When you live with someone who can’t speak it is very difficult. She has supported me all along – without her I don’t know where I would be.”
Ken had already been diagnosed with coronary heart disease ten years earlier in 1989. He was playing golf on holiday in Majorca and walking up a hill when he started feeling a pain in his chest, which he found out later was angina.
He says: “I went to see the doctor when I got back. I can still remember his words, ‘You might have a heart problem.’ It was an absolute shock, it really was. I was 51, I was active, and I had never had any health problems. I saw a consultant and within four months I had a heart bypass.”
The bypass operation went well, but three months later, when Ken went back for a check-up, he received some more bad news. He says: “They did some more tests and the doctor said, ‘There is a problem with your heart. If I were you, I would retire.’ I asked what the problem was and he said one of the bypass grafts was partly blocked already and the other three would probably become blocked. He said that I probably only had six to seven years to live.”
This was more than 20 years ago, and today treatments are better and the prognosis could be quite different. But at the time Ken felt he had no option but to retire immediately and make the most of what he thought would be his last few years.
And he did have a chance to improve his situation. “The doctor told me it was important to do the right things, like exercising and eating well. From that point I did everything, exercise, eating the right things, thinking positively and taking my medication. And I am still here 24 years later. I get a touch of angina from time to time, but that is all.
“I hadn’t realised at first how important the lifestyle changes were, but then I really embraced them. I still watch what I eat, and I play golf twice a week with a handicap of 11, bowls twice a week, and once a week I go to a fitness centre where I swim and use some of the equipment. The golf and the bowls are sociable too – I play crown green bowls for Slazenger’s Bowling Club in Horbury – and I really enjoy it.”
Ken benefited from many of the BHF publications, such as Angina and Having heart surgery. He says: “In the beginning I didn’t know what angina was, or what a bypass was, or what it did. All that information came from the BHF and it was so useful. I have read all of the little booklets and I still have them now.”
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Ken’s Wembley moment
My breakthrough came in 2001 when I recited a short poem in front of a large congregation at my granddaughter’s christening
Overcoming his health problems changed his priorities, he says. “The two biggest things for me are communicating again after my stroke, and the heart bypass and lifestyle changes. Scoring a try at Wembley was amazing too, but at the end of the day it was one match that you win or lose. My bypass has kept me going for 24 years and learning to communicate after a stroke took me 13 years – as opposed to 80 minutes of rugby.”
For many years Ken has been a keen charity fundraiser, especially for the BHF. He also did a lot of public speaking at Rotary dinners and similar events, so losing the ability to talk was a cruel twist.
He says: “At the end of my NHS speech therapy, I asked if I would ever be able to go back to doing that again and the therapist said, ‘No, unfortunately not.’ But I said to myself, ‘Yes, I will.’
“My breakthrough came in April 2001, when I recited a short poem in front of a large congregation at my youngest granddaughter’s christening. That was a new beginning for me and I have never looked back since.
“After ten years, I gave a speech at the National Stroke Association conference in Harrogate in front of 300 people, many of them doctors, nurses and speech therapists.
“That was my real Wembley moment.”
Find out about the Stroke Association