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Volunteering changed brain injury survivor's life

When Derra Kew was given a diagnosis of a brain condition, she expected the treatment offered would help her. Instead the radiotherapy designed to deal with the brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) left her paralysed down her right-hand side.

Unable to return to her role as a care worker, she instead decided to volunteer with Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

And when she did finally recover enough health to go back to work, Derra stayed as a volunteer because – as she puts it – the experience is "good for the soul".

Volunteering gave me confidence

Derra, 36, lives in Lossiemouth in Moray. Today she’s an activity organiser in a care home. But her passion is in her volunteering role with Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

She says: "I always thought the people you worked with got the most out of volunteering, but that really isn't the case. Volunteering came into my life when I had lost so much confidence because I wasn’t working.

"Volunteering not only gave me masses of confidence, but it gave me experience and helped me get a job because I had people who could give me a reference and something to write own on a CV.

"But the most important thing it gave me was people. I've met so many amazing people along the way. Volunteering is good for the soul, it gives you a good feeling. You're brightening someone's day as much as they are brightening yours.

"It's funny how life works out. If my circumstances had been different, I don't know if I'd have become a volunteer. Now I can’t imagine life without this."

Life-changing diagnosis

Derra had been diagnosed with a brain AVM – a tangle of abnormal blood vessels and arteries – in 2010. The condition can cause a haemorrhage. Although Derra had no symptoms, doctors decided to treat her with radiotherapy to try and avert any potential problems.

However, the radiotherapy caused Derra’s brain to swell, and the outcome left her with paralysis on her right side and, initially at least, difficulty with speaking. All of those symptoms are similar to stroke. While she has recovered her speech and is able to walk now, her right hand has no function.

All of this meant that Derra wasn’t able to continue her carer role with Moray Council, and she was paid off in 2013. She looked around for a volunteering role and decided she and Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland were a good fit.

It's funny how life works out. If my circumstances had been different, I don't know if I'd have become a volunteer. Now I can’t imagine life without this.

Since then, Derra has been involved in a number of different roles for the charity, including working with a community friendship group, making weekly support calls during the pandemic, joining a walking group, supporting the hospital service and providing one-to-one support.

She says: "I needed to stay positive, and I thought volunteering would help. There is always someone who is going to be worse off than you."

Giving back

"My most enjoyable roles have been with communication groups because you get to work with different people and do different things every week. I’ve learned so much in these groups," explains Derra.

"I was also giving one-to-one support for a gentleman who wanted to be able to read again and work on his communication skills. We couldn't do this in the usual way then Covid came along - but we found a way to make it work.

"Now I still see him every two weeks and we do the same communication work.

"I really miss seeing people in person. We all need the human contact, and I can’t wait until we bring back our in-person groups."

Paula Leask is the Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland Community Services Coordinator for Moray and works directly with Derra.

She says of her volunteer: "Derra has such a lovely, kind manner, and she always puts her good energy into everything she does. She’s caring and compassionate and always willing to help others. Derra makes her time ours, and that is very special.

"The gentleman she supported was so happy with her support that he said he didn’t know what he would do without her. I don’t know what any of us would do without her!"

Interested in joining our incredible team of volunteers? Find out more about the benefits of volunteering with us, browse opportunities and apply now at chss.org.uk/volunteering

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