How faith helped former globe-trotting executive Eileen Miller recover following stroke at 49
From a high flying career in international trade to having to learn to walk, talk and swallow again after her devastating illness, the outlook was not bright for the Co Antrim woman, but she made a remarkable recovery that confounded expectations, as she tells Judith Cole
Eileen Miller was at the pinnacle of her career. As head of international trade here she met with prime ministers, presidents and princes around the world, and her signature on a form carried great authority, allowing a company to send its products across unconquered borders to new markets.
All that changed in an instant, however, when Eileen suffered a major, devastating stroke. She was only in her 40s and it would take some 10 years for her to recover.
And the story of that recovery - the struggles, setbacks and, ultimately, how she confounded a desperately poor prognosis - is quite remarkable, not least because of what she decided to do after regaining her health.
Eileen has just published her inspiring story in a new book - Greatly Blessed, Highly Favoured, Deeply Loved - which, she admits, she never intended to write.
But it's a fascinating page-turner, and the Randalstown woman's deeply held Christian faith is a constant throughout.
Eileen grew up on her father's farm near Moneymore, the youngest of four, and has two sisters and a brother. She fondly remembers an idyllic childhood and loved helping her parents out on the farm. The children were sent to church meetings and Sunday school and, at the age of 13, at a mission in Cookstown she became a Christian.
"The preacher was talking that night about the passage in Matthew chapter 24 where it says that when God comes to take his people to heaven, some will be left behind. I knew that daddy and mummy were saved, and my sister, so I was afraid of being left behind."
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Some years later Eileen met her future husband Ian (now 68) at a crusade and they eventually married and had two children, Sharon and Derek. When the children reached secondary school age she decided to return to work and after studying at Bible College entered full-time Christian work.
However, after suffering what she describes as "a dreadful hurt while in church ministry that nearly destroyed me mentally as well as physically" she changed course and took up employment with the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. Eileen rose to become head of international trade.
"I learned a lot through that - international banking, international law," she reflects. "I met many interesting people; I was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, I had meetings in Brussels. As a member of the Institute of Export I delivered lectures for people taking professional exams.
Eileen's path crossed several times with Sir Edward Haughey of Norbrook Laboratories, and she has fond memories of their encounters.
"He was very good to me," she says.
"When I went to Norbrook in Newry I was treated to silver service. He worked with me to get their products into international markets and at the time they were exporting to 98 countries - many more now, of course."
Eileen was called upon by many top companies for advice on trade, including the export of chickens to the UAE and the compliance with halal slaughter which that involved, although this was a one-off occurrence for the firm in question.
"I sent all companies in Northern Ireland notification if there was an embargo against a country, so that they knew not to export there, and there were some in place because of the great opposition of some countries to the UK and US," Eileen says.
"I was also called upon when a lorry carrying expensive goods went on fire while in transit. Every item on that lorry had to be accounted for. There were all sorts of situations."
She played a pivotal role when, during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in England, a NI company was having trouble getting goods out of the country.
"It was reported on the radio one morning that a company wishing to move dairy products had their goods sitting ready to be exported but they were going to be lost because of foot and mouth," Eileen recalls.
"I made enquiries that same morning as to why the goods weren't being allowed to leave - the outbreak hadn't spread here, yet the Ministry of Agriculture were saying they couldn't let them go. Then I advised the people holding the goods to amend the paperwork slightly - it stated European Community-United Kingdom but I told them to add European Community-United Kingdom-Northern Ireland.
"That made it clear where the goods were from - it was known that the outbreak hadn't come across the water to NI.
"Then it was on the news by midday that the goods had been allowed to move. It just took a bit of common sense."
And Eileen met all kinds of interesting people, too, including prime ministers, ambassadors and princes, such as President of France Jacques Chirac, the Crown Prince of Jordan and the then UK PM John Major - "he was very nice, very friendly".
She adds: "I had a meeting with a senior dignitary of South Korea, who was visiting the UK. You have to do your research before greeting people like this, it's actually very rude to shake hands with him. You exchange a business card instead," Eileen says.
However, her high flying career soon came to a sudden and shocking halt. Arriving home one Friday in 2004 after another busy week she spent an enjoyable evening with her husband, who worked as a pastor, and their children, who by this time were grown up.
The following morning when Ian woke he found her unconscious.
Eileen was rushed to hospital where it was discovered she'd suffered a massive stroke.
She was paralysed down her right-hand side, had lost her speech and her ability to swallow.
"After many weeks it was suggested that I be moved to a nursing home or the geriatric unit of a hospital to finish out my days," Eileen says.
She was just 49 years old.
"I had been trying to do too much," she reflects. "I was burning the candle at both ends, up until late at night and then heading off early in the morning again.
"But I was always very determined, and I had not lost my ability to think. Lying there in hospital I made a vow to God, because I realised that I'd been forging ahead and putting my career first and God second. So I said to God: 'If you will forgive me for the sins I committed against you, if you give me my speech back and movement in my legs I will serve you'. I thought that would be around home, I never imagined it would be much more than that."
It was some 10 years before Eileen was fully recovered. Watching her now, hearing her talk, the transformation is so remarkable that no one would ever know she'd ever been ill.
"It was a long, slow process and there were many days of tears," she acknowledges.
"People say: 'Why did God not heal you immediately?' Well, He healed me eventually but He had a lot to teach me along the way.
"For instance, I remember after I'd come home from hospital and I went out for the first time, I was in a wheelchair.
"Ian took me to a shopping centre and only a short distance in we met people we knew. They looked at Ian and said: 'Well, how's she doing?'
"I just thought: 'Well, I can't talk or walk but my brain still works. Why don't you speak to me as well?' I was deeply hurt.
"When they finished talking to Ian I indicated to him that I wanted to go home, I didn't want to face that again. But it taught me how to address people in wheelchairs, to speak to them before their carer, and to get down to their level because I know it's hard for the person to keep having to twist their head to look up at you."
Eileen also gained an understanding of what it's like to be helpless, to lose your dignity and to have to depend on others for everything.
"I had to learn patience, and it was in short supply," she says.
"It was dreadful, so degrading, I couldn't do anything for myself. I depended on the nursing staff and they were wonderful.
"I had to learn how to eat, to swallow, to talk. From travelling all over the place, conducting business meetings, to this. I have to say that depression set in. I really had to fight that."
Some time into her recovery a lifeline came when her consultant, who'd heard Eileen was a talented artist, encouraged her to visit the nearby Holywell Hospital to help patients there with crafts.
"There were people there who wouldn't get out of bed. I went in three days a week and I loved it, I enjoyed encouraging people," she smiles.
"I told them that I'd been where they were and they appreciated that."
Eileen's determination was evident in her recovery, and indeed she suffered a number of mini strokes over the years that saw her back in hospital each time.
She recalls: "After I ended up in hospital yet again, with another mini stroke, a good friend, Mary, came and stood at the end of the bed and said: 'Eileen, unless you wise up and stop pushing yourself I'm not going to come and visit you anymore'.
"The thought of losing her as a friend made me stop and think. I was pushing myself hard, beyond what my body was capable of, so I really had to rein it in. I had to concentrate on trying to take more rest and allow my body to heal."
And as she made her way to a full recovery, Eileen realised that a new chapter in her life was about to begin. In time it would take her to the most unexpected places.
"About five years after my stroke I was invited to speak at a church meeting, and then this became a more regular occurrence," she explains.
"Eventually, I was speaking at meetings all over Northern Ireland, down South and on the mainland.
"Then after hearing one of my services, a pastor from Uganda contacted me and asked me if I'd go out and do some teaching there. I laughed at the idea, but he persisted. I prayed about it and it was very much shown to me that this was the way I had to go."
Eileen made her first journey to Uganda in 2014, having never been to Africa before. She was introduced to a young man, Pastor Godfrey Mugolo, (inset, top left) who would be her interpreter when she spoke at church services. He soon became a great friend, partner in the ministry and has been a dependable guide and adviser ever since.
She has travelled to Africa twice each year since her first journey and spends her time speaking at missions in the towns and villages throughout Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda - many remote with primitive living conditions, no running water or electricity... and some unwelcome guests.
"The last time I was out, there were rats the size of cats in our sleeping area," Eileen says.
"One night I was lying down on my bed and I heard rustling and looked up - a big black rat was on top of the rucksack and it looked at me as if to say: 'Mind your own business'. I froze and didn't move all night and I just prayed that the Lord would keep it away from me."
Despite the conditions, Eileen is grateful to have been able to preach at crusades, pastors' conferences and missions across these African countries, and she also delivers online tutorials that go out across the world.
She is looking forward to returning to the mission field in February. And at her recent book launch in Ballymena she was thrilled to be presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Theology by Rev Dr Bill Mackie.
"God has and is doing mighty things in my life and I'm humbled that he chose me to serve in the teaching and preaching ministry internationally," she says.
Greatly Blessed, Highly Favoured, Deeply Loved, by Eileen Miller, is published by Ambassador International, £9.99, and can be purchased in Christian bookshops and online at www.ambassadormedia.co.uk and www.amazon.co.uk