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How coming face to face with the Grim Reaper, like Boris Johnson, has given John Laverty and Paul Hopkins a new appreciation of life


Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he speaks from 10 Downing Street praising NHS staff

Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he speaks from 10 Downing Street praising NHS staff

Getty Images

Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds

Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds


Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he speaks from 10 Downing Street praising NHS staff

The Prime Minister's brush with death from coronavirus infection proved that our mortality is but tenuous. Two Belfast Telegraph writers tell how a similar experience changed their outlook.

‘After recovery I worried that I would go to sleep and not wake up’

John Laverty

You know you're in big trouble when you can only see their eyes. And that overhead grey sign with the yellow arrow you spotted on the way in - Intensive Care Unit - that was a bit of a giveaway too.

Once is enough in that place. Although, ironically, you'll never meet nicer people.

I've been there twice - the first visit in November 1981 after a ruptured appendix led to peritonitis and life-saving surgery.

"Can you hear me, John? We have to operate immediately..."

He had a face mask on but I could tell from the eyes and accent that he was of Asian extraction. The ICU nurse later said he was Indian.

I still think of that man every time I hear the Elton John song Someone Saved My Life Tonight. But, to my shame, I can't recall his name.

Although that episode may sound rather dramatic in retrospect, I never really thought back then that the Grim Reaper was lurking nearby.

I was 19 years old. No one dies when they're 19... do they? They're indestructible, like Captain Scarlet.


Doting dad: John with daughter Soley

Doting dad: John with daughter Soley

Doting dad: John with daughter Soley

It's a different story when you're in your mid-50s, the human equivalent of a car that has gone though more MoTs than its owner can remember.

Bits of you are starting to creak, some may even need replacing, you're less efficient with fuel than you used to be and the old engine's clogging up. And as for that big-end bearing...

People who know me will be aware that I sprung a leak of sorts - in the brain - a couple of years back.

For the first time in 37 years I was rushed by ambulance to the scary bit of a hospital.

And, just like in 1981, the medics were superb, the time spent in ICU was mercifully short and I was home within a fortnight.

This time, however, I felt yer man with the dark cloak's presence. This time I realised the only reason Captain Scarlet was indestructible was because he was made of non-biodegradable plastic.


Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds

Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds


Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds

Boris Johnson may have spoken many times about "flattening the curve" before he was wheeled into the ICU at St Thomas' but the experience may well have flattened a few of his own.

It doesn't matter how big, bold, arrogant or powerful you appear; ICU, especially in these unprecedented times, is a great leveller.

Your fame, fortune, followers, family or fiancee can't help you breathe, can't emolliate the terror, can't eradicate the thought that if it goes the wrong side of "either way" you'll die alone, PM or no PM.

BoJo is easy to chide; a bumbling buffoon of a politician, an untrustworthy and mendacious human being, but a genuine 'character' who is hard to dislike; your archetypal 'lovable rogue'.

It's probably time, though, that we laid off referring to him as "larger than life" because, having gone though a similar length of time in hossie, I'm sure a smaller, more chastened man has emerged.

A far-from-immortal being now all-too aware of his own mortality and, not only that, the effect his passing would have on his indeterminate number of dependents, including one well on the way to this diseased, inverted world.

You'll be more cognisant of your health: what you eat, what exercise you require, what stress and blood pressure fluctuations your body experiences - and, perhaps more topically, who you stay close to and shy away from.

And that's just the physical side.

I felt physically fine while recovering from a hypertensive haemorrhage to my temporal lobe but, psychologically, it was a different story.

For the longest time I went to bed fearing that I wouldn't wake up. I hated how suddenly vulnerable and mentally fragile I'd become.

It eventually passes - though never completely - but a more positive aspect of the metamorphosis is that you appreciate, in some cases even more, in others for the first time, what's around you.

It hardly needs saying that I'm even closer now to my little daughter Soley, that I'm more determined to see her grow up - though let's get real, John, you've done the math and she'll still be a relatively young woman when you pop your clogs.

One milestone at a time, pal.

But thinking too much about the future can denude the present, a present of enforced, yet wonderfully heightened awareness; the satisfying taste of home cooked food, the smell of wild flowers or freshly cut grass, a comfortable bed and warm, tidy home, the joy in NOT following fashion or 'needing to go out' just because it's the weekend, the therapeutic value of artisan roasted coffee, good sleep, reassuringly expensive, deliciously comfortable footwear, the much-improved management of finances, latent cognisance of the importance of punctuality and sun cream.

Oh, and the drawing up of a will for those loved ones you didn't realise you could love even more.

That last one may feel a little pessimistic but Boris, as a former philosophy student, might empathise with Ernest Becker, author of The Denial Of Death, who brokered the theory that the closer to death we are, the more creative we become.

That may not be a bad thing when there's a humanity-threatening pandemic, Brexit and a trip to the maternity ward topping your in-tray.

For the rest of us mere mortals - oops, shouldn't have typed that; you're never far from a lazy cliche where Boris is concerned - we just need to appreciate what we still have while it's still with us.

And you don't even need to be a humbled hypochondriac in your mid-50s to realise that.

Certainly not now...

'I drank so much I hurt myself and I hurt the ones I loved the most'

Paul Hopkins

There is nothing like a short, sharp brush with one's own mortality to jolt you back into a sense of what really matters in life, and to the realisation that this is no dress rehearsal, this is the real thing, and it is fleeting and somewhat tenuous.

I had my first dalliance with death 10 years ago next month when I underwent open heart surgery to mend a congenital cardiac defect which had finally caught up with me in middle age. I remember clearly the terror, although I was pre-op sedated, of having to sign that form that rids the surgeon of any culpability should you not come back from under his knife.

I survived, and for quite some time thereafter I was the 'new man', watching my lifestyle, counting my blessings, seeing life in the everyday minutiae of things - the colleague's laugh, the child's smile, sunset at close of day.

My surgeon at the time told me he had given me another 20 years to my life and I should use it wisely. Before long, though, I was back to my hedonistic ways, arguing that my predicament had been congenital.


Paul Hopkins

Paul Hopkins

Sunday Life

Paul Hopkins

Here's the thing: I have been a drinker all my life, ever since an uncle of mine introduced me to a bottle of Guinness in the Christmas of my 14th year. Love of alcohol is in my genes, both grandfathers were overly fond of a fair sup and down the years I have enjoyed the conviviality and companionship that alcohol allows in the snug of my local - any local, worldwide in my numerous travels - and the intimacy of those matters among men of similar disposition, lost in the familiarity of the alcohol-induced cocoon, like the comforting familiarity of an old and threadbare favourite overcoat. The world always seemed a much more manageable place, life an easier existence, through the prism of alcohol and I never, ever made apologies for that.

The thing is, the last year or so I was "given it the lash", as they say in these parts, most likely aided and abetted by, although I would never admit it, being lonely - my marriage broke up some years back and the kids are grown and (relatively speaking) gone - and I found solace and succour amongst men and women of an evening in my local where we'd discuss all and sundry from existentialism to Europe, trivia to Trump.

I was never that drinker who needed a fix first thing in the morning - never. But my day, particularly the last few years, was built largely around getting my work done and my daily constitutional out of the way and be down the pub by four or five for sundowners. But I was drinking, boy was I drinking, to such a degree that not alone was I unwittingly hurting myself, but hurting those around me, those I loved and who loved me - my daughter in particular, my 'best friend', hurting so much that she cried herself to sleep at night.

Three months ago I got a bug and largely took to the bed, with alcohol, strangely, the last thing on my mind. By day four I was in a bad place, and then a sudden, sharp assault on my very being; my head spinning, my eyes rolling, my legs going from under me, my breathing laboured.

I remember thinking, this is it, this is how you go out of this world; and then I prayed like I've never prayed before, somehow managed to make it back upstairs to my mobile phone and dialled Emergency, and ended up in hospital.

What I know now was that I was going through alcohol withdrawal symptoms over those four days - the DTs - and what finally floored me was in effect a brain seizure. Doctors told me that for the first four days I was (once more) at death's door.

I survived to live another day and tell the tale with no, thank God, permanent adverse effects from the seizure.

My name is Paul, and I am now 10 weeks alcohol free. And the crazy thing is, despite warnings to the opposite, I don't miss it, am neither craving it mentally or physically. I am eating so much better, sleeping like a baby, and have tons of energy I thought had long ago gone from me.

Despite the self-isolation of Covid-19 the last weeks have never felt so wonderfully good. As Boris may likely find, life goes on but life has changed. Yet it has never seemed so beautiful, so wonderful. And - and I can't explain this - I no longer fear my inevitable demise like I did, with unspeakable terror for so many years of my middle life.

I live now for each moment, moments lived more fully, creating meaning. I find myself re-sensitised to the satisfaction of the simple things life offers. Early summer has never been sunnier despite the lurking shadows of the coronavirus. I find people I meet on my daily walk and from that safe distance of abiding interest. The realisation too that this rogue microbe could, in theory, annihilate us, sees small pleasures having greater meaning now; the walk by the mill, my friend's just published book of essays, my daughter's phone calls.

Unlike many in lockdown and many in grief, I find myself unwontedly calm, like riding a bicycle without using my hands.

Without my daily addiction to alcohol, I am more free. I am more Me. The stuff that used to obsess me - those relentless circular thoughts because drink is a depressant - are no more.

My brush with death introduced me to my shadow - the other fella, him what drank. I came face to face with my dark double and it almost cost me my life. With a bit of luck the two of me have made our accommodations, but we won't be raising a glass to it anytime soon...

Belfast Telegraph