Belfast Telegraph

Jackie Fullerton: The terrible day I thought I might die

A triple heart bypass has put sports broadcaster Jackie Fullerton off our screens for the last few weeks. He talks to Gail Walker about how the experience has affected his life.

By Gail Walker

Jackie Fullerton breaks into his trademark smile and, that voice as mellifluous as ever, confirms: "I'm good."

Jackie Fullerton breaks into his trademark smile and, that voice as mellifluous as ever, confirms: "I'm good."

In fact, in many ways, the veteran BBC NI sports presenter is better than he's ever been.

For the past three months have seen Jackie confront his own mortality, conquer his deepest fears and come out the other side with his trademark panache, charm and wit.

Now, five weeks after the triple heart bypass that saved his life, the 61-year-old declares: "I'm not a brave man and yet I can honestly admit that I now don't feel any fear at all. I feel very positive about the future. I have complete confidence that this operation has revitalised me.

"And I also have complete confidence in the medical team that looked after me. The NHS has been much maligned but I couldn't have asked for better care. "

Still, there's no doubt that Jackie has been through the mill.

Chatting at his Ballymena home, he may appear back to his suave, relaxed self. But the last few weeks have seen him on an emotional roller-coaster, and he freely admits there were times he wept openly and uncontrollably.

Of course, Jackie's an immensely popular man, so it was no surprise that when he found himself tested in the line of fire, his pals scrambled to lend their support.

Chin-up telephone calls and letters poured in from some of the best-known names in sport. Sir Alex Ferguson, Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Jim Nicholl, Bryan Hamilton, Billy Hamilton, Mal Donaghy and Lawrie Sanchez and the current NI team were among those who bolstered his flagging spirits.

But, stresses Jackie, equally important were the hundreds of letters and cards that arrived from his many fans across Northern Ireland. "That was very humbling and, believe me, it does sustain you," he says, with feeling. "I'll never be able to thank everyone enough for helping to keep my morale up."

Years of sports reporting mean that Jackie recounts the saga of the last few months as if he's filing a match report, complete with a timetable of the main action, with moments of drama and colour flagged up. "And you may want to put this in," he advises on several occasions.

Jackie's health scare began innocuously enough. One evening in September he was at home with wife Linda, a former primary school teacher, when he felt a little discomfort in his chest.

"I was watching a football match on TV and I started to feel this mild pain," he recalls. "I put it down to indigestion but it lingered and I began to feel it was quite strange. It was the first time anything like that had happened to me and, although I'd always thought a heart attack would feel like a big thud in the chest, I eventually I decided to go to hospital anyway and get checked out.

"And I can tell you it was quite a shock to the system when, at Antrim Hospital, they said I had something wrong with my heart."

After a series of tests, doctors reassured Jackie that his heart had suffered minimal damage. The problem, they said, was caused by a small artery that had closed over and they were sending him on to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital to have a stent inserted.

"I'd known many, many people who had stents put in so I wasn't unduly worried when, five days after my initial scare, it was my turn to have one inserted," he says.

"The procedure took about one and half hours and I was awake throughout and able to watch what was happening on a TV screen. They insert a catheter in through the groin, then go up to the heart via that, and insert the stent."

Jackie recuperated in hospital and, initially, felt great.

But three days later it suddenly became clear that all had not gone according to plan.

"I started getting mild chest pains again," he recalls. "They used an angina spray on my tongue, which should have stabilised everything within about three minutes but didn't.

"I was perspiring heavily and, for the first time, I thought 'God, I could die. They have done the procedure but this thing has come back.'

"Obviously, given my own lack of medical knowledge, all I could think was 'well, what the hell else can they do?' I genuinely thought that this could be it for me."

Thankfully, doctors eventually brought Jackie's symptoms under control. They reckoned the problem might have been caused by some debris in the artery left over from when the stent was inserted, and decided to wait for a few days to see if it would clear of its own accord.

In the meantime Jackie was told he'd have to remain in hospital. But a few days later another catheter test revealed that, this time, more drastic action was needed.

Jackie can manage a chuckle now as he recalls his reaction:

"They told me I would need a heart bypass and I remember looking up at the guy and saying 'well, whatever it takes.'

"He squeezed my shoulder and he must have thought 'hey, this guy's Clint Eastwood, he's a cool dude.' The truth was it hadn't sunk in at all."

Doctors explained to Jackie that the procedure involved removing a vein from his leg and re-fashioning it into new coronary arteries.

They also advised Jackie that it would be best if he stayed in hospital because that would mean his surgery would take place sooner. If he went home, he might have to wait months for a referral.

For Jackie, a sociable, busy man, the three weeks of hospitalisation that followed were among the toughest he has ever faced.

"I don't mind admitting that I had a weepy few days," he says. "I found myself in a kind of no-man's-land. I knew I had to stay in hospital but I'd no date for my operation. How long was I looking at?

"And, for people like me, who like to be active, it's a big change. Suddenly, all the things you'd normally be doing are taken away from you. Obviously there was an element of 'why me?'

"I remember lying there thinking 'I want my life back.'

"Previously I'd have scoffed at the idea of anyone being teary in my circumstances but I realised how wrong I was.

"Okay, I had a little TV in my room and a telephone, but whenever Linda left at night I'd cry. It was that feeling of isolation. My job and everything I'd enjoyed had been taken away from me.

"I suppose there was a lot of delayed shock in there, too. Basically, I couldn't believe it was happening to me."

Then, eleven days ahead of the date, Jackie was told his surgery would take place on Monday, October 25. "My first response was 'that's great.' But then I thought 'my God, major surgery.'"

Overall, however, Jackie managed to remain calm until the day before surgery.

"For the most part of the week preceding my op I felt fine, quite relieved even. I was thinking 'this is the end of the loop.'

"But the day before surgery was daunting. It all started to seem really real. Suddenly I had to shave my entire body to get ready for the op.

"And it goes without saying that it was very emotional when Linda left that night. But throughout she's been a real rock and I tried very hard to keep up for her benefit."

At 10.30pm on the Sunday evening nurses gave Jackie two sleeping tablets. "They told me they would wake me up about 7am and give me another sleeping tablet and my pre-med.

"The next thing I knew a voice was saying 'Mr Fullerton.' I thought 'it's 7am' but the voice continued 'it's all over.' I said 'thank you' and drifted into a morphine-induced sleep.

"Somehow I had lost 14 hours but all I can recall is that, even in my stupefied state, I felt a sense of relief."

Following a night in intensive care and another in a high dependency unit, Jackie returned to a routine ward.

"By the third day I was up walking, and by the fourth day I was walking a 250-yard lap," he says with discernible pride.

A few days later he was allowed home.

Understandably Jackie's perspective on life has shifted considerably.

At one level, his months of treatment meant he lost his lifelong phobia of needles. "Put it this way, compared to heart surgery, a trip to the dentist counts for nothing now," he jokes.

But it's clear that, beneath the quips, a more fundamental change has taken place. "Suddenly your own mortality comes into view," he reflects, "and that makes you weigh up everything.

"Yes, people keep asking me when I will be going back to work - and the BBC have been very good to me - but I intend to ease myself back. I'd like to get to Old Trafford for a match in March but we'll see. You have to have targets but you have to take care of yourself, too."

Overall, Jackie's enjoying an excellent recovery. Ironically, although a keen sportsman (he played for Derry City, Cliftonville and Crusaders) he has never been that fond of going for a good daily walk. But all that has changed. He now sets off every day for a brisk stroll.

Jackie says: "I'm blessed because generally things have gone very well since I came home. Early on I had a couple of bluesy days but I think that's maybe because there's a bit of panic about being away from the hospital and no longer having a back-up team or the same psychological support.

"In fact the mental side can prove bigger than the physical side because I've found the scars on my chest and leg have healed really well. I've had no pain from either."

Crucial to Jackie's recovery has been the love of Linda and the couple's three sons, Darren, 34, Nicky, 30, and Gareth, 26. "Linda visited me every day for seven weeks. She'd spend two hours with me in the afternoon, then go the hospital canteen, have her dinner and do crosswords, and then come back and sit with me for another two and a half hours in the evening. There was so much worry and trauma for her and the boys."

His voice quivers lightly, too, as he talks about his grandchildren - Darren's six-year-old twins Jack and Erin. "Jack phoned me and said: 'Granda, how's your heart' and I replied: 'My heart is doing well.'"

Slowly but surely, though, the shock of the last few months is giving way to Jackie's wry humour.

"The amazing thing is - and I suppose this isn't really funny - but the week before I first took chest pains, my granddaughter Erin broke her arm and then my wife tripped in the back garden and damaged ligaments in her ankle," he adds.

"I was in Wales for Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier that week and I remember joking on the phone home that since things come in threes I'd probably trip going into the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

"If only I'd known what did lie ahead ..."

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