Valerie Eaton Griffith, who has died aged 95, pioneered a model for rehabilitation from stroke that has transformed the lives of thousands of people. Stroke can leave survivors with impaired cognition and a partial or complete loss of language and speech. The impact can be devastating – and yet, 50 or so years ago, there was simply no established protocol for supporting recovery.
Griffith changed that. Her research work for the Stroke Association (then known as the Chest and Heart Association) did much to shift perceptions of stroke from a catastrophic medical event with little hope of recovering cognitive abilities, to one in which, with a tailored rehabilitation programme, many survivors could learn to communicate and engage with their world again. The Volunteer Stroke Scheme, which she set up in 1973, became the foundation of the Stroke Association’s work today in helping improve life after a stroke.
Her natural capacity for empathy informed her approach. Griffith wrote: “People who have had a stroke are just as different as people who have not had a stroke.” Her model emphasised understanding what motivated and inspired each individual and then tailoring a rehabilitation programme to that. Remarkably, she developed this with no relevant training or experience, but out of sheer determination to help others.
Griffith’s exploration of stroke rehabilitation began in 1965, when the writer Roald Dahl, a neighbour in the village of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, telephoned her to ask if she would consider visiting his wife, the actor Patricia Neal. Several months before, Neal had had a series of near-fatal strokes which had left her unable to walk or talk and had severely damaged her memory and cognitive abilities. Griffith was herself recovering from a serious illness, and Dahl felt this would help her understand Neal’s situation. She accepted his invitation.
The two women hit it off from the beginning. As Neal said, “I did not know that complete recovery was within my grasp until the day Valerie Eaton Griffith walked into my room and took my hand.”
Together, the women embarked on what they called a treasure hunt – a search for ways to connect to the knowledge and abilities locked away in Neal’s damaged brain. Griffith recognised that the key was to find activities that would pique her friend’s interest and build her confidence. She devised games and puzzles, and shared celebrity news stories and pictures, all with the aim of encouraging the return of words, memory and concentration.
Griffith and Neal worked in this way for up to five or six hours a day, five days a week, for two years. It was a long and sometimes gruelling process of trial and error, yet Neal’s recovery was such that she was able to return to her acting career and a second Oscar nomination.
Through her work with Neal and other stroke survivors, including the writer Alan Moorehead, Griffith developed a form of amateur rehabilitation that could, in theory, be applied to anyone. She wrote a book about her experience and findings, A Stroke in the Family, published in 1970 – but she wanted an opportunity to test her model on a more diverse group of people.
Determined to pursue this line of research, in 1972 she received sponsorship from the Chest and Heart Association to run two pilot schemes – one in Oxford, the other in a rural setting in the Chilterns – recruiting volunteers to make home visits, and to provide stimulating activities for patients as well as weekly outings, using the same model that Griffith had pioneered.
The outcomes of both pilots were very positive and, in 1975, the results were published in the British Medical Journal – a considerable achievement for a woman with no medical qualifications or training. The Chest and Heart Association increased its funding of the initiative, which became known as the Volunteer Stroke Scheme.
Over the following years, Griffith worked tirelessly and by 1980 there were 35 schemes in operation in the UK, with more than 1,500 volunteers in total. Working in partnership with NHS speech and language therapists, the schemes’ success was such that, to reflect its expanding remit, the Chest and Heart Association changed its name to the Chest, Heart and Stroke Association (and in 1992 became the Stroke Association). As Griffith noted at the time, “I am proud that the work of the VSS led to the charity’s plunge into the wider field of stroke.’’ A Stroke in the Family became widely read and used as a handbook, with a third edition published in 2010.
Born in Hampstead, north London, Valerie was the elder daughter of Violet (nee Godson) and John Eaton Griffith, and was educated at South Hampstead high school. Her father, a civil servant, was, at various times, president of the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Valerie shared his love of tennis and sport in general, and she was a keen bridge player.
When their London home was bombed during the second world war, the family moved to Great Missenden. Aged 17, Valerie lied about her age so that she could join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she manned the searchlights in London and became a captain by the age of 21. She subsequently worked for Elizabeth Arden as a beauty therapist, before resigning with health problems.
In 1977 she was made MBE for services to the rehabilitation of those disabled following a stroke. She retired in 1983 and, with Neal, was made an honorary vice-president of the Stroke Association.
She is survived by three second cousins.
• Valerie Eaton Griffith, stroke rehabilitation therapist, born 14 September 1923; died 28 November 2018