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"I had a stroke in my 20s but it won't stop me"

A young lawyer working in London, Emilia Richards was just 26 years old when she had a stroke that damaged the occipital lobe of her brain and left her with significant sight loss on her right side. Now Emilia is registered as partially sighted.

“It was a huge shock,” she said. “As the stroke was caused by an undiagnosed heart condition, I had no idea there was any risk of it happening to me at all. I had never even heard of a young person having a stroke – I thought it was something that only happened to the elderly.”

At the time, Emilia struggled to come to terms with how her life had changed.

She said: “It was a really difficult time: I was off work for months and really anxious about what my future held. I felt like I couldn’t trust my own body anymore, after it had let me down so badly.

“It’s been quite difficult adapting to life as a sight impaired person. My occupational therapist taught me how to check my blind spots while walking through busy crowds to avoid bumping into people. However, I do still find public transport really challenging: I tend to avoid the tube and busy transport hubs. I catch the bus as much as I can!”

As part of her recovery, Emilia began swimming regularly. She was a decent swimmer in primary school and in her adult years was active and had frequented the gym, but it had been years since she had attempted more than two pool lengths in a row.

“My younger sister took me swimming a few months after my stroke, so she was the one who got me into it. I think we both found it quite a calming reprieve from what was a pretty turbulent time. She looked after me when I was recovering and is the best person I know - I don’t know how I’d have coped without her.”

Emilia decided to set herself an ambitious challenge that would give back to the charities that had supported her – Stroke Association and RNIB, a charity that assists people with sight loss – and prove to herself that this disability would not stop her from making the most of her 20s.

“I began with some faltering laps of shaky breaststroke but as the months went on I became stronger and stronger. Now I can swim 800 metres of freestyle without stopping! I’m so lucky that, aside from my vision loss, my stroke didn’t affect my physical abilities and so I really want to make the most of that.”

Emilia signed up for the Swim Serpentine’s half-mile open water swim. “It doesn’t get much more quintessentially London than Hyde Park! Plus the Serpentine itself is beautiful.

“I suppose I’ll be quite nervous about how not being able to see properly might impact my performance. It might mean that I’m a little slow. On the whole though, I feel like the water is a bit of an equaliser - it’s difficult for anyone to see through goggles! But no matter what happens on the day, I’ll be so happy just to have done it.”

Already Emilia has exceeded her fundraising target to raise a combined £1000 for the Stroke Association and RNIB.

“I’m so proud of myself and can’t believe how far I’ve come over the last 18 months. I finally feel like I can trust my body again.” 

For more information, visit Emilia's Virgin Money Giving fundraising page