Face to face with Hazel Simons

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to ancient history expert, archaeologist and researcher Hazel Simons, whose world was turned upside down when she had a stroke at the age of just 41.

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to ancient history expert, archaeologist and researcher Hazel Simons, whose world was turned upside down when she had a stroke at the age of just 41. Left disabled and forced to leave her job and home in the Middle East, Hazel sunk into a deep depression. But, after forming a north Norfolk branch of the support group Different Strokes, she was given a new lease of life . . .

After graduating from Birmingham University with a degree in ancient history and archaeology, Essex-born Hazel began working on excavations as a volunteer for the Verulamium Museum of Roman Britain at St Albans, Hertfordshire.

She was then offered a permanent post and spent the following 7 years as a museum assistant before deciding to up sticks and move to the Isle of Man, where she spent 4 years working on a new archaeology centre for Manx National Heritage.

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Eager for a change of scenery, Hazel gave up her job to travel overland from London to Kathmandu, Nepal, spending 6 months sleeping under canvas before trekking her way back to the Isle of Man to work as a waitress in a vegetarian cafe.

A trip to Iraq with the campaign group Voices in the Wilderness was followed by a spell working on archaeological projects for the University of Liverpool.

But Hazel found her "homeland" when, after completing an MA in Middle Eastern studies then travelling to Beirut to work on research for the Lebanese American University Institute for Women's Studies, she landed a job in Jordan researching women's human rights for the Council for British Research.

Having made a home - and many friends - in Jordan, she was devastated when, one morning 3 years ago, she woke up with no feeling in the left side of her body.

A health scare in 1994, when doctors discovered a vein malformation in Hazel's brain, had led to Hazel undergoing 3 sessions of radiosurgery and, four years later, she underwent further treatment after developing a brain aneurysm. But, having been given the all-clear in 2005, the stroke came as a brutal shock.

Left disabled and forced to leave her possessions and friends behind to return home to live with her parents at Sheringham, Hazel's self confidence hit rock bottom, and she sunk into a deep depression.

Helped by counselling and physiotherapy, she slowly regained her independence, and, after moving to her own home at holt in 2007, she enrolled on a counselling course, began working as a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer, and joined her local gym.

With the help of North Norfolk District Council disability development worker Terry Read, Hazel also set up a north Norfolk branch of the UK charity Different Strokes, which offers support and advice to younger stroke survivors.

The group, which meets fortnightly at St Joseph's church hall Sheringham, now has 15 members on its books, who enjoy activities ranging from armchair yoga to art therapy, and outings from river cruises on the Norfolk Broads, to trips to London attractions.

Hazel still has no movement in her left arm, but an operation to straighten her foot has allowed her to work towards walking without the help of a stick and she is gradually seeing improvements in her mobility.

She has recently completed a programme run by the Shaw Trust, which helps people with disabilities find jobs, and is hoping to go back to work very soon.

For more information on the north Norfolk branch of Different Strokes, visit www.differentstrokes.co.uk or phone 01263 710262

What is the best thing about your job?

With the best will in the world, people who haven't had a stroke don't understand how it feels, and what is really good about Different Strokes is seeing people develop, and the fact that we can talk about anything, even things that might be embarrassing. You can get round the physical side of having a stroke, but you can't get emotional support from physiotherapy, and I hope that is what we provide.

And the worst?

I've always hated the organisational side of things.

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

Baconsthorpe Castle, because I much prefer ruins to whole buildings and I love to be surrounded by history.

Where do you go to unwind?

Unwinding for me is climbing up the cliffs at Sheringham and sitting watching the sea.

What is the one thing you would change about north Norfolk?

I'd make it more multi-cultural - living here, I really miss seeing difference.

What makes you angry?

Intolerance and judgemental people.

Whom do you most admire?

Anyone who stands up for their beliefs.

What is your greatest achievement?

I don't know if it ranks as an achievement, but whenever I've come to a crossroads in my life, I've always followed my gut feeling and done what I wanted to do.

And your proudest moment?

One of the proudest - but also the funniest - was, when I played tennis for the Isle of Man, we always lost every single match. But, playing Guernsey and Jersey one year, myself and a friend won all our matches and beat them - it was a sort of a landmark victory for Isle of Man women's tennis.

Who or what is the love of your life?

It has to be something Arabic, so I'll say travelling in the Middle East - it is where I feel I belong.

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

Yes I have!

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

Book: The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath; film: Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother and I don't have a TV by choice.

How would you like to be remembered?

I always think you have to laugh through life and I've never let my experiences stop me from doing what I want to do, so I'd like people to say, "she had a laugh".