'I was very lucky to survive'


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:I WAS alone in my hotel room and it wasn’t until I went down for breakfast and joined colleagues that I discovered I couldn’t speak.

That was last September 3rd, the morning after the launch in Drogheda of a book on the tabloids in Ireland by Irish Daily Mirroreditor John Kierans.

I remembered a week before when I was at home alone in Donegal I also couldn’t speak. It was as I answered the door to the postman or when I attempted to make a phone call. My speech loss passed within the hour and I made a mental note to see my GP but when nothing worse happened, and my voice returned, I promptly forgot.

I persuaded my friends in Drogheda when I managed to put a few slowly spoken words together that my voice would be back in an hour and I was given a lift to Dublin Airport for my bus home.

By Cavan, I realised my voice wasn’t returning. Also, I had the loss of some power in my right hand. I was confused about my condition. I phoned my wife, Bernadette, and tried to combine sufficient words to persuade her to meet me. She cut me short and immediately observed that I was having a stroke.

Later she explained that my voice was the give-away. Although my cholesterol was at a reasonable level, hers was high and she was on medication so she took a keen interest in stroke warnings, whereas I didn’t.

I honestly believed that if a person suffered a stroke they would be rendered unconscious or at least their face would sag noticeably. I did not believe there were any other indicators.

My wife and her three sisters quickly abandoned shopping plans and immediately phoned the Bus Éireann manager in Letterkenny. He contacted Dublin and they in turn raised my driver on the mobile phone.

I heard my name called and indicated where I was sitting. The driver told his caller I appeared to be fine. At the same time that message was being passed back to my wife and she kept insisting I should be taken off the bus, I indicated to the driver that I felt uncomfortable.

The next few minutes were to change my life although I was unaware of it at the time. I was speedily transferred to an ambulance outside Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, checked by the crew and driven direct to a dedicated stroke unit at the Erne Hospital, Enniskillen, where I spent the next week.

I quickly realised and had it confirmed later that I was in one of the best stroke units in Ireland.

A team, to which I am indebted, gave me a CT-scan to check my brain and a carotid doppler carried out a neck ultrasound to establish if there was thickening of arteries leading to the brain.

There was more than 60 per cent blockage in the right carotid and over 30 per cent in the left. The right blocked some blood to the brain and I had suffered a stroke.

Over the next few months, having been referred to a specialist in Dublin and stroke doctor in Sligo, my brain, heart and arteries were repeatedly scanned and I was on medication. I also underwent speech therapy for a while, fearful that my work would suffer if I didn’t regain my voice. The voice came back, although on a Saturday morning local radio programme I wrote my questions in advance so as to read them from a script and not give any hint of a slight stutter that was still apparent for some months.

I had broken all the rules and was lucky to survive or that my stroke wasn’t considerably worse. I didn’t press the alarm button when I had the first voice-loss. I was told later it was a TIA (transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke).

I again didn’t seek medical attention when I lost my voice and part of my arm-power that morning in Drogheda. I now know the quicker a sign of stroke is spotted and the patient rushed to hospital, the greater the chances of recovery.

If the blockage in my right carotid was somewhere above 70 per cent, surgery would have been required and that would have increased the risk of another stroke.

At above 60 per cent, so long as it didn’t get bigger, I was not a candidate for surgery.

Medicine, and above all, a change of lifestyle including dieting and exercise, was the way to success.

The man opposite me in the stroke unit was in his 70s and couldn’t move a single muscle. He couldn’t even move his eyes. The fear in his eyes indicated to me he could hear and he was helpless to do anything.

I was so lucky I wasn’t in the same condition.

I used to love my sirloin steak, with the fat. I can occasionally treat myself to a little red meat but I have opted to do so no more than once a fortnight. I have readily adapted to chicken, fish and lots and lots of the right vegetables and fruit.

Alcohol is restricted to 11 units a week, which means an occasional glass of wine with a meal or a single pint in the pub and that’s not every night. Funny, after a life of rampaging as an old-style journalist who loved to meet contacts in the pub, it’s not a big deal any more. I got away with it for most of my 66 years and I suppose it’s time to behave.

Recently, a reporter asked me if a journalist’s life was to blame. I thought for a second and I realised the way I lived journalism was partly to blame. It wasn’t the stress – one senior doctor put that way down his list of priorities. The lifestyle was the big factor.

Most important of all, I make sure to abandon my computer every day for a three- or four-mile walk now. I live in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland and I have a choice of country roads between the fields or one of the longest beaches in the country to strut and I enjoy it immensely.

I have knocked two stone and three pounds off my weight. Some jackets and trousers are already too big for me.

I’m supposed to be in semi-retirement but I continue to work, even if it’s only to pay for a wardrobe for the new, slimmed down me.

I genuinely haven’t felt healthier in decades. I have pills to help ensure I don’t get another stroke and I’ll be on them the rest of my life. It’s not a problem.

At one stage in the hospital my wife was concerned I wouldn’t pay attention to the detailed medical instructions for a recovery and full life. My two daughters told her not to be silly; that I wasn’t a fool and I would do as told.

I mightn’t have, but hearing my daughters’ belief in me was the decider.

For more information on strokes, see stroke.ie