With help after stroke, I taught as well as ever

November 30, 2007

Michael Somerton explains how medical, university and union aid got him back into class. I was able-bodied for 64 years until a year ago. Then in June 2006 the course of radiotherapy I was undergoing for prostate cancer was interrupted by a massive brainstem stroke.

This led to severe paralysis in my left arm and left leg, hearing loss in my right ear, dysphagia and partial paralysis of the right side of my face. If that weren't enough, I then contracted pneumonia, swiftly followed by MRSA. My speech became slurred. Even now, I find I have to articulate words more deliberately. Friends tell me I speak more slowly than I did before - not a bad thing for a teacher. And I still have considerable mobility problems.

Initially I was so ill that I had no idea if I would continue working. I will be 65 next birthday, so perhaps, I thought, it was an appropriate time to bow out after some 40 years. Concerned colleagues gently counselled me to retire. But I couldn't give up. I wanted to show I could still do it.

So, while in hospital, I rewrote my syllabus and did some preparatory reading. Then came a blow. I received a letter from the university human resources department saying that before offering me a contract they would need medical advice as to my fitness to undertake the work.

I wrote back telling them that I had already started working on the module, that I was intellectually coherent, that I expected to do the course and would give them a note from my GP just before the module commenced. Two weeks elapsed, then without explanation a contract arrived. My union had intervened because the withholding of the contract was arguably discriminatory. The university was obliged to make reasonable adjustments under the relevant disability discrimination legislation to allow me to teach.

I was discharged from the stroke unit and received regular treatment from a speech therapist, physiotherapist, dietitian, stroke nurses, district nurses and occupational therapist. The last helped me to regain some use of my left hand and wrote a letter to my GP and the university occupational health manager saying that with appropriate support I would be able to teach, but from a wheelchair to conserve energy.

The problem was that I could not raise my arm high enough to use anything but the very lowest areas of the whiteboard, but anyway, being left- handed, my writing was barely legible and too slow. The disability adviser suggested a support worker to scribe for me.

I approached my first day back with trepidation. I worried about my voice and deaf right ear. Would the students hear me and I them? Would I have enough stamina to last for three hours?

I had sent Peter, my support worker, a note explaining how I would run my classes. His duties consisted of summarising my exposition on the whiteboard as I went along. In addition, he opened doors for me, helped me to the toilet and steadied me if I threatened to fall when getting out of my wheelchair. He took notes of student requirements for handouts and gave out documents for me because I couldn't do so. He also packed my bag at the end of the class and helped my wife get me into the car.

The module went well. One student said: "Your knowledge of the subject and passion was great to see and listen to. It shone through despite the many difficulties your ill health has caused you. I felt very humbled by the sheer effort and time you gave us as a class."

Another said: "It is hard trying to fit in a full-time job, look after my little girl and do homework, but when I think of your situation it makes me work that bit harder as I see how courageous and inspiring you are."

Important points emerge from my experience. First, some colleagues, for honourable reasons, were ready to write me off as being unfit to work so soon after my hospital discharge. Second, the employer's primary legal obligation is to make reasonable adjustments to allow a return to work. The support of the University and College Union gave me confidence to insist that I would be able resume work six months after my stroke. Once that had been established, the university was extremely supportive, and the emotional and practical caring support that my wife gave me was indispensable in helping me cope.

In the end, that module rated among the best half-dozen classes I have ever taught and, buoyed by the comments of the students, I shall be teaching again in December.

Michael Somerton is a fellow of Hull University and a part-time lecturer in sociology. A longer version of this article appears in the November issue of Adults Learning.

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