The river to recovery

Scottish Sporting Gazette

We chat to Rob Donald, whose love for fly fishing has played a fundamental role in his recovery from a near fatal stroke. 

When Rob Donald was warned that he might never regain the use of his legs after suffering a near terminal stroke, his future looked as if it was going to be drastically altered, with the chances of pursuing his lifelong passions again seeming a relatively distant fantasy. However, with sheer fortitude and a burning desire to be reunited with his fishing rod, Rob has made a remarkable recovery.

At only 42 years of age, Rob had no reason to suspect any possibility of a serious health scare. In fact, only a few weeks earlier he had passed a medical for a life insurance policy with flying colours. However, while surfing in Cornwall with his wife and three children, Rob suffered a fall which initially appeared to be nothing more than a minor head injury, but, unknowingly, had actually ruptured his carotid artery - one of the main arteries in the neck. A month later, while in his office, the clot in the damaged vessel dislodged, causing the ischemic stroke. Rob had just enough time to Google his symptoms and diagnose himself before he was taken into intensive care with his life hanging in the balance.

'That night I was given a one in six chance of surviving through the night,' Rob explains. 'I underwent a hemicraniectomy, which removed half of my skull and temporarily saved my life.' The following Friday, however, Rob had a relapse, resulting in the most critical point in his medical emergency. Doctors told his wife Katie to prepare for the worst. Yet for the second time, Rob defied the odds and pulled through. 

After gradual progress, he was discharged from the John Radcliffe to Stoke Mandeville, where he spent three months before being moved to The Oxford Centre for Enablement. 'At this stage I was being pushed around in a wheelchair and assisted with all my day-to-day personal care,' Rob explains. 'Simple everyday tasks were a challenge for him and he had to re-learn the basics, from dressing to using a knife and fork.'

Depression can be a common occurrence amongst post-stroke patients, but Rob never fell into this abyss during his nine-month rehabilitation, which is an accolade to his infectiously upbeat character - and his zeal for fly fishing. 'The therapists used to talk persuasively about the benefits of mental imagery,' Rob begins. 'So in my bed I was always clutching a double-handed salmon rod and hooking big fish in the Beech pool of the Shin. That daydream allowed me a state of normality.'

Having grown up in Northumberland on the banks of the River Coquet, Rob is a fly fishing fanatic and he recollects childhood memories of strapping his rod to the handlebars of his bike and peddling a two miles to the river everyday throughout the season in hope of filling his creel box with wild brownies. His love for fishing has taken him to exotic corners of the world, including Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Tierra del Fuego where he landed an unforgettable 29?lb sea trout on a single-handed rod.

'Other than dreaming of fish, my family and friends were amazing throughout my recovery - although some less so than others.' Later that year, after years of anticipation, Rob was due to fly to Reykjavik to fish the East Ranga with his close friend Chris Brown. 'I obviously couldn't go,' Rob continues, 'and so lying on my plastic mattress looking out over the Vale of Aylesbury, I was getting updates from Chris every hour on the first afternoon about what I was missing out on. Twenty one salmon were caught that day!'

Having missed his long-awaited venture to Iceland, this became Rob's goal for the following year. 'It was always identified to my therapists that my ambition was to be back fishing as soon as possible,' he explains. And it was this unremitting determination that saw Rob flying out to the Ranga the next season for his reintroduction to the water.

Chris has fished alongside Rob for more years than he can remember and when visiting him in hospital, their next fishing trip was always the topic of conversation. 'I'd been to the Ranga the year before and thought it was the ideal place for Rob to get going again,' Chris says. 'I asked him if he thought he'd be able to make it and there was absolutely no hesitation in his answer.'

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Chris was also on hand to witness Rob getting back into his usual catching stride. 'It was brilliant to watch him land that first grilse,' Chris says. 'He went from strength to strength after that, doing stuff that his body really shouldn't have been able to do. The only problem was stopping him doing too much.'

Rob's recurring dream had become reality again and he swiftly got back into the routine, using a pulse from electrodes running down his leg to allow him to walk in waders and managing to use one arm to cast his lightweight 12ft Sage rod.?

Having whet his appetite, he had no intention of decelerating and so three weeks later travelled north to the River Shin where he enjoyed further success, landing a fresh-run 10lb salmon in the Eleanor's pool on a 3" Sunray. He did not allow himself to be held back by his condition and insisted on flicking a fly into the tricky nooks and crannies he knew intricately from years on the river. 'There was one point when sidestepping across a ladder to reach a fast pool that I thought: 'if my occupational therapist could see me now she'd have kittens',' Rob recalls with a chuckle.

Despite his cheerful nature and gritty determination, it is unlikely that Rob will ever regain his full pre-stroke strength, however his improvements are incredible given that he faced such minimalist chances of survival on two separate occasions. Rob describes the week on the Shin as 'intensive fishing therapy, which was hugely influential in his post-stroke rehabilitation. And with a reminiscing grin he concludes; 'I'm definitely in need of more rehab next year.'

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