WATCHING my half paralysed father trying to say goodbye to his dying 95-year-old mother last year was one of the saddest things I had ever witnessed.
A shell of the man I knew, stooped over my grandmother's deathbed, reduced to an undignified, non-stop drooling, sobbing, mess. Here was the stalwart of our lives strangely coherent despite his stroke-inflicted aphasia, whimpering, "I love you mamma. I love you mummy. I hope you're still here when I come back in the morning."
Dad's poor stroke-battered brain was so overcome, he lost bladder control as my mum, Maureen, held him to stop him falling on top of his mother as he tried to kiss her goodbye.
I spent four nights watching nan die in Wyong Hospital. When she was conscious, she kept begging my sister Kath and I to "Look after Donny."
Those long nights, I had plenty of time to think about how I could do that. So I started researching stroke.
After 26 years in journalism, much of it spent anchoring news bulletins, I had broadcast so little about it. What I discovered enraged me.
Stroke is the second biggest killer of Australians. It kills more women than breast cancer, more men than prostate cancer.
It strikes down people of all ages. One in six of us will have a stroke. There's one every 10 minutes. And here's the thing. Most strokes are preventable.
So why are Australians not being told how to save themselves? We know how to stave off a heart attack. Why not a brain attack?
It beggars belief that we have no national co-ordinated approach to stroke, even though stroke was identified as a national health priority in 1996.
Successive governments have simply ignored it.
Year after year, there's little improvement in stroke services in Australia, but the number of survivors left cruelly disabled is expected to double within two decades.
In some cases, things are going backwards.
We have hospital stroke units but the beds are disappearing. On average, the number of stroke beds has shrunk from eight to five in the past three years, and only 50 per cent of stroke victims actually make it into a dedicated stroke unit.
We have a miraculous clot-busting treatment known as thrombolysis that can potentially reverse the effects of a stroke. But in Australian hospitals only 7 per cent of eligible patients actually received it, according to a 2013 national audit report.
And it gets worse. Stroke is a time crucial disease. Survival is about early treatment and recovery is about early rehab. It took my father more than a year to learn to swallow again and perform the simple act of drinking a glass of water. Rehab is vital.
But 412,000 Australians are leaving hospital after a stroke and don't get any rehab.
And don't even get me started on the lack of co-ordinated support for carers, the unsung heroes in all of this. There?s virtually nothing for them. Bugger all, despite the fact 90 per cent of survivors go home after a stroke.
Let's pretend we don?t care about the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of Australians. Let's disregard the human cost and just talk purely in dollars and cents.
Stroke cost the health budget $5 billion in 2012 alone. If around 80 per cent of strokes are preventable and we had a national awareness strategy in place, and for argument?s sake, prevented just 30 per cent of those strokes, imagine the savings. You do the maths!
Fixing stroke services costs money, but making a start on the stroke crisis we're facing in Australia with a simple, federally funded, national awareness campaign to prevent strokes would save lives and money.
The Stroke Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation, battling heroically to get the stroke message out there. It has a national action plan ready to go, but it needs federal funding to make it happen.
The prevention message is so simple. Apart from the usual healthy lifestyle choices we all should make, the best way to guard against stroke is having simple, regular, blood pressure checks. Hardly confronting!
Almost 4 million Australians have high blood pressure, putting them at serious risk of stroke and most don't even know it. We need a stroke revolution in this country. Starting a long overdue, national conversation about stroke to kick it off will help save lives and stop disability.
Next Wednesday, the Stroke Foundation is launching the international symbol of stroke unity, the Stroke Solidarity String.
For more information visit the Stroke Foundation's website: www.strokefoundation.com.au, on Facebook or on Twitter @strokefdn