A little girl turned superhero in March this year when her grandmother fell ill and 8-year-old Olha Tserklevich recognised the symptoms of stroke. Their story has a happy ending, thanks to an award-winning global stroke education initiative that was designed for precisely this outcome.
It is 2pm on Wednesday 3 March 2021, and 8-year-old Olha Tserklevich has just come home from school. After a lunch of fried potatoes – Olha’s favourite – she and her grandmother, 71-year-old Svitlana Ivanivna Tserklevich, are spending the afternoon together while Olha’s parents are repainting the kitchen of the family’s apartment on Naukova Street in Lviv.
Lviv is the largest city in western Ukraine and the region’s main cultural centre. With its cobbled streets lined with fragrant coffee houses and trolleybuses rattling through the city, it has all the Central European charm of Prague before the tourists arrived. Its rapid economic growth is made visible by a spurt of modern high-rise apartment buildings in the Frankivskiy district, which is named after the poet Ivan Franko, writer of the first modern poetry in the Ukrainian language.
It is here where a life-changing event is about to strike the Tserklevich household.
Olha means “blessing” and Olha Tserklevich, born 20 years after her brother, is indeed a blessing to her grandmother, Svitlana. The two spend hours together, playing dominoes, chess and hide-and-seek, hiding Olha’s toys all over the apartment. But during this afternoon’s game of dominoes, Olha notices something odd about her grandmother. Svitlana’s face is drooping on one side. She seems unable to pick up the dominoes with her left hand and when Olha asks what is wrong, her grandmother’s lips can’t form the words.
She had a crooked face, a weakened arm and a broken tongue,” the 8-year-old later told an interviewer from the BBC.
Olha instantly remembered a cartoon she had seen at school. Her teacher at Lyceum 66, Olga Tarasko, had shown the class an animated short film about a superhero boy called Timmy and his superhero grandparents. In the two-minute film, which Olha enjoyed so much she watched it three times and knows the story off by heart, Timmy’s grandfather suddenly falls ill with the same symptoms Olha was now observing in her grandmother.
The boy placed his grandfather’s head on a pillow and called 103,” Olha says. “An ambulance arrived and when the grandson saw his grandfather again he was healthy and happy. I remembered everything.”
Olha not only recognized the symptoms of stroke, she also understood the importance of acting fast. She ran to the kitchen to alert her parents who placed a call to the local emergency service right away.
The family was lucky, Svitlana’s daughter-in-law, also named Olha, says. Emergency services in the city of Lviv can take up to an hour to arrive, but on this occasion the ambulance came racing down Naukova Street within 10 minutes of receiving their call. Svitlana was taken to an emergency hospital 12 kilometres away, where an MRI scan was performed ahead of treatment at Lviv Military Hospital.
After six days in hospital Olha’s grandmother was well enough to continue her convalescence at home.
The animated film Olha watched at school forms part of a unique stroke awareness campaign aimed at children aged five to nine. The FAST Heroes campaign was developed by the Angels Initiative in partnership with the University of Macedonia to raise awareness of stroke symptoms and the need to act quickly to save patients’ lives. Its unique strategy is to reach an older population most likely to be affected by stroke but with little exposure to digital media, by deploying their grandchildren as the vehicle for education.
In the course of the five-week school-based programme, each child is given the mission of educating at least two Grandheroes, inspired by an engaging animated character, Timmy, who becomes a FAST hero by learning to beat the Evil Clot and save his Grandhero’s life.
The programme capitalises on the relationship between children and their doting grandparents and relies on incidental learning via
materials such as posters, masks and tasks to deliver the message to parents as well. Home-based remote schooling as a consequence of the Covid pandemic has exposed even more parents to FAST Heroes, and a recent survey of over 4,000 parents showed a 74% relative increase in knowledge of stroke and the appropriate emergency number immediately post campaign, and a 72% relative increase six months after the campaign ended.
The FAST Heroes campaign was launched two years ago and today is available, localised for emergency number and language, in 17 countries including Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and Brazil, and reaching as far as Canada, Iceland and South Africa. In Ukraine over 600 schools had been registered and over 20,000 children reached by the time Olha’s turn came to earn her FAST hero stripes.
In the Tserklevich apartment on Naukova Street, Olha has decorated her grandmother’s bed with paper dolls she made herself. She is excited to share the news, gleaned in the classroom from teacher Olga Tarasko, that a new superhero is about to join the FAST Heroes family.
"It’s a girl named Vika,” Olha says with satisfaction.
Because as Olha Tserklevich and her grandmother know, little girls are superheroes too.