One rock, 15,000 kilometres: How a boy’s memory inspired a once-in-a-lifetime trip

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Ben Littlewood was just 17 when an ischaemic stroke claimed his life.

He did not smoke, nor did he drink alcohol. That is why it is likely doctors misdiagnosed the aneurysm, a coroner ruled in 2019, and by the time the stroke had been identified four days later, “there was no realistic treatment option, and he tragically passed away”.

The coroner determined it was probable that a quick movement of Littlewood’s head caused an artery tear in his neck, sending a blood clot to his brain. The teen had been making dinner for his family when he suffered the seizure, dying eight days later in hospital.

Ben’s mother was inspired to paint stones in his memory with instructions to passing strangers.Credit: Rhett Wyman / SMH

Littlewood, from Manchester in the United Kingdom, was a teen with big dreams, his mother Vicki Brocklehurst said. He was studying carpentry, was an army cadet, and yearned to travel the world.

And so, on the fourth anniversary of her son’s death in April this year, Brocklehurst painted several rocks, attached his photo alongside a note, and placed the messages throughout the UK in the hope that the tragedy would serve as a warning to others.

But Brocklehurst never imagined that one of “Ben’s rocks” would make its way to Bondi Beach, sailing some 15,000 kilometres from San Diego via Hawaii, French Polynesia, the Reunion Islands, Tonga, and arriving on Sunday in Sydney.

Lesley Wilford and her husband, Kim, carefully transported the stone after Lesley discovered it at Menorca Airport, where she works.

“It was a bit of a sad moment when it came to saying goodbye. (The rock has) been with us this whole time, and it was hard to walk away, but we waited and watched a couple pick it up, and now he’s on another journey,” she said.

“For us taking (the rock) with us felt like (Ben) was experiencing travelling as a young man which, if he had lived, he may have done one day. Before I read Ben’s story I had no idea that young people could have a stroke and I really hope that Ben’s message is heard because it could save some lives.”

Lesley and Kim Wilford “carried Ben with them” as they sailed to Sydney.Credit: Rhett Wyman /SMH

The latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that stroke is one of five leading causes of death in Australians over 15 years of age, and, on average 23 people die each day as a result.

According to The University of Melbourne research, only about 35 per cent of ischaemic stroke patients reach hospital in time to receive drug treatment. Clot-dissolving drugs must be given within four-and-a-half hours of stroke onset; treatment outside this window can result in long-term disability or fatal outcomes.

The Stroke Foundation says warning signs to look out for are weakness, numbness or paralysis of the face, arms or legs; difficulty speaking, dizziness, loss of vision of sudden blurring; headache, usually severe and difficulty swallowing.

Ben’s rock has travelled the world.

“The way that people have engaged with the stones and Ben’s story has been breathtaking,” his mother said.

“Even if the stones have just travelled a few miles down the road, when people share their pictures, when I see Ben’s face in those places, I do feel like he’s there.”

In just seven months, the rocks have clocked up some mileage, finding their way to Canada, New York, Florida, Dubai, Egypt, Pompeii, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, Iceland and France. But the journey to Sydney has been by far “Ben’s greatest”.

“Looking at his pictures is thrilling, I know it’s exactly the kind of places Ben would love to be,” Brocklehurst said.

“I always wanted some good to come from Ben’s passing. Something needs to change because too many of our young people are having strokes, and it’s getting missed because everyone thinks strokes only happen to the elderly.”

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