17 May 2022

The road to recovery begins with a blink

Magherafelt-born PSNI officer's book 'a testament to looking a crisis dead in the eye', writes Cathal McGuigan in his review of Clodagh Dunlop's 'A Return to Duty'

The road to recovery begins with a blink

Clodagh pictured in hospital as she recovered from Locked In Syndrome which left her unable to walk and talk.

“I try to move my head to look around. Nothing happens. I try moving my arms, my legs; I try shifting my body in the bed. The white sheet that is covering me doesn't move. Nothing moves. I panic and scream, but I hear nothing – only the beeping machines. I haven't made a sound.”
A Return to Duty follows Clodagh Dunlop from Magherafelt as she fights to regain control of her body – even learning to breathe again – following a stroke at the age of 35.
After collapsing while working the night shift on April Fool's Day, Clodagh soon found herself unable to move or communicate, while being aware of everything that was going on around her.
This fit and active PSNI officer, who ran four miles a day, is suddenly faced with the prospect of never talking, walking or having a normal life again.
The early chapters of the book make for terrifying reading. Clodagh describes how the inability to move or talk can turn simple things (an itch, a hair on your face) into hours of unimaginable torment.
Imagine lying in an uncomfortable, painful position, just adjusting an inch would help, but knowing that you will stay in that position for hours and hours on end.
Or worse still, when you fear that the unbearable heat in the room is literally a matter of life and death.
For Clodagh “every night feels like a Bear Grylls extreme survival challenge.”
The long road to recovery begins with a blink.
From here Clodagh's world begins to grow again and it's from there that Clodagh's story becomes something truly amazing.
It's not just that she overcame locked-in syndrome that is remarkable, but the strength and grace she displayed as she overcame it.
Finding ourselves in Clodagh's position, I think a lot of us would be broken fairly quickly, worn down by the boredom and the pain and frustration.
Happy moments for others would be bitter reminders of all we can't have, the normal day-to-day problems of our loved ones lives would seem insignificant to what we are dealing with.
Many would turn away from the world, lost in self-pity.
But Clodagh seems to have superhuman drive and determination. She became a police officer after six failed attempts.
Before her stroke she travelled around Africa in a tent (a tent!) and skydived in Namibia.
This 'locked-in syndrome' messed with the wrong woman – she is a lionheart.
It says everything about Clodagh as person that when she can't even raise her hand, she worries that her partner isn't eating right at home. When a family argument swells up, she blinks four times – at that stage pretty much the maximum physical movement she is capable of – to lighten the mood.
Even when she finally is able to communicate through a spelling board, she puts the feelings of others above what must be her aching need to be heard again after so much silence. In some of her first words with her partner, she makes sure that he apologises for the way he spoke to a nurse.
She spells out jokes so that people won't feel uncomfortable when they visit her.
Which is not to say that everything is rosy on Clodagh's journey to recovery.
The difficult parts are here too – the fights and frustrations, the tears and tantrums, setbacks and dark moments – all here without being glossed over.
Maybe that's the policewoman shining through in her writing – this is the way it really was. Just the facts.

Here too is the truth of dealing with an imperfect NHS.
Some staff ignore or patronise Clodagh, or think it makes sense to ask questions like “What's wrong?” to a person who can only answer with blinks.
Others treat her with the utmost care and kindness, nurses who take the time to put themselves in their patient's shoes, to sing to them, to go out of their way to find a special item that means the world to a patient.
A lot of books like this are about people in recovery – they say they are 'in' it, a passive environment they find themselves in. A Return to Duty is different because it is about creating your own recovery.
It's a testament to looking a crisis dead in the eye, then putting your head down, gritting your teeth and slowly grinding out a victory.
Clodagh's story is one of determined struggle and mental strength when the worst – and this is the worst – has happened. It is a story of continued hope, when hoping seems utterly pointless, even damaging.
“I must block my ears to anything negative,” she says, and keeps pushing and pushing and just will not accept the situation.
Here's hoping that this book is there to provide advice to the NHS on improving stroke services, insight to families struggling to understand what their loved one is going through and comfort to someone dealing with locked-in syndrome, who can be read this book and know they are not alone.
A Return to Duty is available to buy now at local bookstores or online at

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