Carrick couple had great life but since Gary Beaumont's brain injury wife Heather doesn't know if he even remembers her
Co Antrim woman Heather Beaumont has recently been nominated for a prestigious UK Carer of the Year Award with charity Headway for her devotion to Gary who suffered a brain haemorrhage.
Heather Beaumont, from Carrickfergus, knows what she wants for Christmas this year. More than anything the 55-year-old wants to spend the festive season in her own home with her husband of 20 years, Gary, who is the same age as her.
"For the past three years Gary has been in hospital so Christmas hasn't really mattered to me," she explains. "I haven't put up a tree or any decorations and I have just spent the day as normal at the hospital by Gary's side. This year I am doing all I can to get him home where he belongs so that I can put up my decorations and just enjoy having him home with me."
Life changed drastically for Heather and Gary three years ago during a holiday to London.
"There was just the two of us as we don't have any children but we were extremely close and had a great life," recalls Heather.
The couple met at the gym in 1992 and, after chatting, Gary convinced Heather to go for a drink with him.
"I wasn't really sure at the start but we just hit it off and had a lot in common," she says. "And we have been together ever since. We married in 1996 and were very blessed."
Life for the couple, though, turned out to be bittersweet.
"Gary had a good job as an engineer and I worked in an office and we loved to travel. We were on a weekend break to London with my sister and her husband when everything changed.
"We'd been out all day and then enjoyed a meal with some friends that evening. We came back to the hotel and went to bed.
"Gary slept on his back which he didn't normally do. I woke up during the night as he was making a sort of choking sound. I realised he couldn't get a breath so I banged on the wall next door to my sister. They came rushing in and we called 999. The ambulance arrived and the crew worked with Gary for some time giving him CPR, but he was without oxygen for a long time."
Gary was rushed to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington where he spent three weeks in intensive care.
"I stayed by his bedside and it was petrifying. The doctors seemed to think it was either sleep apnoea or something to do with him having an undiagnosed under-active thyroid which had caused him to have a brain haemorrhage.
"My husband was lying fighting for his life, covered in tubes and I didn't know what was going on."
A little solace came for Heather when Gary was airlifted home to the City Hospital in Belfast and she was closer to friends and family.
"It made such a huge difference just having people to support me. My mum and dad were there as well as my sisters and their husbands."
Over the next three years the support of those close to her proved a lifeline for Heather, who says that on the night Gary fell ill she lost her soulmate.
"After a year in the City, Gary was transferred to Musgrave Park Hospital and then, Thompson House, in Lisburn which looks after patients with restricted consciousness."
Every day without fail Heather makes the lonely drive from Carrickfergus to Lisburn to sit with her husband. "Gary is in bed a lot of the time. He can't really move, he can't speak and he is fed through a peg in his stomach.
"He does turn his eyes when I enter the room and he looks at me. I know he knows I am there.
"The Gary I knew and loved has gone but I have learnt to love this new Gary and I honestly wouldn't be without him.
"I'd hate it if anything happened to him. People ask if I'd rather he died that night but no I wouldn't.
"I will never give up hope and I could never give up on him. I know he will probably have a limited lifespan but I appreciate him every day he is here.
"He is my husband and this is the hand we have been dealt. I know Gary and I are still very young but we are blessed in that we had got married, built up a beautiful home together, travelled and done a lot of things.
"A young person at 20 who is maybe in a car accident and has a brain injury as a result has their whole life wiped out in front of them.
"I don't know if Gary remembers me as the person I was but he looks for me and he responds to my voice.
"If one of my sisters is with him they put the phone up to his ear and I talk to him. His eyes light up and he knows it is me and that means the world to me at this stage."
Heather explains that even in his present state Gary has come a long way.
"The main worry is the risk of him getting an infection as his immune system is so low and I hate to see him in pain.
"I had him home for a few hours in July and it was fantastic just to have him in his own environment.
"Seeing him sitting in the back garden in the wheelchair was amazing.
"That started me thinking that with the support of Headway, a charity that supports those with brain injuries, we could look at having him back home again permanently. I started doing work to the house to convert two bedrooms into one to make room for Gary and all his equipment.
"I have had a lift and a hoist put in and now we are trying to get a care package together as we will always need two people to lift him and work with him."
Heather knows that she will need extensive support but she is relentless in her pursuit of getting Gary back to the home where she feels he belongs.
"Headway is a remarkable charity and has helped me so much. Even just being with other people who know what you are going through and who can understand how you feel makes all the difference. Gary and I always donated to charity and it is hard asking for things and taking support from charities but it is now that we need it."
Of course Heather has also been tireless in the support she has given to her husband and that dedication is now being recognised by Headway, which has shortlisted her for her prestigious UK Carer of the Year award. "I am delighted to have been nominated and am looking forward to going to the award ceremony in London next month," she says. "I will go with my sisters. It means so much to be nominated, but I am just doing what anyone else in the same situation would do - I have to look after my husband.
"Gary is still my husband. I see him every day and I miss him every day. I will always miss the man I married. He was a fit healthy man who went to the gym all the time. He watched what he ate and perhaps being in good shape before he fell ill as helped him do as well as he has done now. When I go to see him I just sit and talk to him. I've probably never spoken as much to him in my life as I do now.
"I talk about what is going on in the world, with our friends and family, and tell him what I have been doing. I don't know what level of awareness he has but I will always play songs and music that he liked on the iPad.
"I am also learning all about his feeding tube and medicines so that I can be in charge of that when he is finally home.
"I've sat in hospital for three years - a world which is completely alien to me as I have never been in hospital in my life. I have learnt a lot. The staff have been amazing. Each of them come in and do this day and daily, and they are so caring. I have so much respect for them and I owe them everything."
Heather adds: "I also owe so much to my friends and family for being there for me. They will visit Gary if I can't be there and will take time out to meet me for a cup of coffee. This gets me out of the hospital environment and into a bit of normality. The nomination for the award is also for everyone who has helped me."
- For more information about Headway, the brain injury association, contact its helpline, tel: 0808 800 2244 or visit headway.org.uk