The science of surviving

30 May 2017

Dr Lavinia Codd is discovering new ways of helping the brain to heal itself. As a post-doctoral research fellow at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), Dr Codd’s work focuses on improving recovery outcomes for stroke survivors - an interest that stems from her own experiences.

As a young mother of two, Dr Codd had difficulty recognising her children’s faces after experiencing a debilitating stroke. Now the stroke survivor turned researcher and advocate is at the forefront of finding new treatments for others.

While it is hard to picture the woman who holds herself with such patrician grace and poise as anything but articulate and collected, she recounts the long journey to recover from the aftermath of her stroke.

“My injuries didn’t manifest themselves externally; unlike other survivors, I don’t have paralysis or speech problems. Instead, my deficits are hidden, they are in my ability to form new memories and my vision,” said Dr Codd.

“A year after the stroke I still wasn’t confident that I’d remember what my daughter looked like – I would always verbally memorise what she was wearing as a backup in case I couldn’t recognise her face when I picked her up from day care.

"It is confronting when you're used to being an intelligent person to suddenly not being able to remember where anything is or conversations that you’ve had.”

Dr Codd (Bachelor of Commerce ’89, Bachelor of Science (Neuroscience) (First Class Honours) ’07, Doctor of Philosophy (Biological Science) ’15) suffered a stroke at just 31-years-old while in the midst of completing a science degree and raising a young family. The former chartered accountant was attending a function for her husband’s work when the stroke struck, taking with it her memories and part of her vision.

With a two-year-old daughter and an 11-month old son, Dr Codd was initially faced with the inability to recognise their faces and reality of getting lost in places as familiar as her family home.

 Dr Lavinia Codd and her daughter Zoe at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI)
Image: Dr Lavinia Codd and her daughter Zoe at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI)

Doctors told Codd that her recovery would plateau and that she should resign herself to staying at home and filling her days with television.

“There was no treatment available to me at all. Because what do you do when someone doesn't have speech problems or paralysis?”

Instead of simply accepting this fate, Dr Codd chose to return to UQ and finish her degree, thereby challenging her mind and strengthening the areas damaged by stroke.

"The only way to get better was to challenge myself, and for me, UQ was a safe environment, I knew it really well, there were maps, signs and friendly people to ask if I got lost.

“I returned to UQ because I felt safe here.

"I was challenging the very parts of my brain that were damaged in the stroke - learning and memory. I had to change the way I learnt, I stopped learning visually and I became a verbal learner.

“All those techniques that I had to come up with in the lecture theatre and library made my transition to the workplace that much easier,” she said. 

It was because of her undergraduate science degree that Dr Codd first met QBI founder and former Director, Professor Perry Bartlett and happened upon her life’s work.

"Part way through my studies I was invited to join the Bright Minds program, as a component of this you need to find a mentor. 

"I had a good look around and discovered QBI - I emailed Professor Perry Bartlett who was the Director at the time and he offered to meet with me; I've been with him ever since. 

Professor Bartlett took Dr Codd under his wing when she was an undergraduate student and helped cultivate her passion for research.

"Perry has been really supportive, this whole time he has kept me on despite the fact that I have a memory deficit, he's been considerate and so has everyone in the lab and in QBI who know about my experience. 

“No one here at QBI has ever made me feel bad when I forget things and without that support, I probably wouldn't have kept going.” 

Dr Codd said she was drawn to her current line of research because it was the area in which she could make the biggest impact.

"I got into this line of work because I want to help people, because I recovered so well compared to many other stroke survivors and I felt guilty about that and thought 'what can I do to help others? And where can I create the greatest impact in my work?'

“Once I had been in Perry's lab at QBI it became clear that this was neuroscience and fundamental science, I was totally hooked,” she said.

With the support of QBI Director Professor Pankaj Sah, Dr Codd has become a strong advocate for stroke research. She has not only given back to the area she cares about through staff giving and volunteering, but has inspired others to give back as well. This includes motivating donations such as the Brazil Family gift, a $5 million gift to QBI that will open up a new clinical arm providing Brisbane patients with direct access to QBI’s exceptional researchers and facilities.

“The Brazil Family Foundation gift is so generous and it will really transform stroke research, funding and support like this really means everything to me,” Dr Codd said.

“Receiving funding through a generous donation like this is an affirmation in the value of the work you are doing. I mean we as individuals already know how valuable our work is, but as a researcher it is nice to have that recognition from the community as well. 

“I think this has the potential to really result in great leaps forward in terms of the research we are doing. It really does just make such a difference.” 

Dr Codd says she is driven by a sense of duty to other survivors.

“I guess to a point you could say it's a mixture of survivor’s guilt and the duty I have to other stroke survivors in addition to my firm and absolute belief in the power of what we are doing - that is the reason I am an advocate for this cause.

"I wouldn't be as well as I am if I hadn't come back to UQ - it was all of those challenges that helped me recover and yes I owe it to my future self, if I have another stroke, and other stroke survivors.”

Stroke is a leading killer in Australia, with 50, 000 Australians suffering a stroke each year and it is estimated to cost the healthcare system $54 billion per annum.

While there is a perception that young and healthy individuals don’t suffer from stroke, this isn’t true, and one-third of all stroke survivors, like Dr Codd, are under the age of 65.

Research into stroke understanding, treatment and discovery is widely undertaken at UQ through QBI, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), the Telerehabilitation Clinic.

This stroke research is absolutely supported and enabled by philanthropic funding, not just through large gifts such as the Brazil Family Foundation donation, but through the consistent and dedicated generosity of staff who give a portion of their pay each fortnight.

To find out more about supporting research or an area you are passionate about through the UQ Staff Giving program please contact Dr Margaret Hammer on 3346 3900 or email staff.giving@uq.edu.au.

Latest