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One minute John Laverty was sitting at his desk, the next fighting for life after suffering terrifying stroke

Almost a year on, Belfast Telegraph journalist John Laverty relives the night he fell suddenly ill and how it has given him new appreciation for life

Journalist John Laverty and his wife Claire McNeilly
Journalist John Laverty and his wife Claire McNeilly
John Laverty's daughter Soley
Actor Charlie Lawson who had a ‘TIA’

By John Laverty

They call me a survivor. It sounds strange hearing that. I wasn't involved in a car crash, bomb explosion, or some natural disaster. No, but I survived a stroke.

And for that, I'm eternally grateful to the colleagues, medical staff and family who made it possible.

The word 'survivor' may indeed sound strange, but at least I'm around to hear it.

Survival was touch and go on June 15 last year, when I collapsed at work after suffering what I now know to be a 'left temporal lobe hypertensive haemorrhage'.

Yes, it's every bit as scary as it sounds. Not for me at the time, however; I was out of it.

But I do remember the paramedic asking three simple questions as I drifted in and out of consciousness: What is your name? How old are you? Where do you live?

I couldn't answer any of them. Hadn't a clue. "But I'm all right..."

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"No, mister," he replied, "you're a long, long way from being all right."

I was in the Royal Victoria Hospital Acute Stroke Unit for a week. I'll be on medication for the rest of my life. I'm constantly tired and my vocabulary - one of journalism's essential tools - deserts me at crucial times. The thesaurus, once arrogantly shunned, has become a trusty friend of the needy.

The consultant told me that, with a little luck, I'll be "back to 95% of what you were in two years".

John and his daughter Soley
John and his daughter Soley

What you were, eh? It's what I am now that matters; one of the lucky ones.

Denuded vocabulary and short temper aside, I feel reasonably normal. After nine months of recuperation I'm back at work; colleagues assure me I'm every bit as annoying as before.

I don't look any different either, but a lot has changed. You just don't see it.

And that's one of the issues.

I read earlier this week that over a quarter of adults in the UK don't actually know what a stroke is, and that 82% who know a stroke survivor say they could support them better if they knew more about it.

I blame the word itself. You have to admit that 'stroke' is vague; in the United States, they call it what it is - a 'brain attack', when blood flow to that vital organ is interrupted. Without blood, your brain cells start to die.

This can lead to lasting disability and, in too many cases, death.

Like heart attacks, there are different types. The three main ones are transient ischemic attack (ie TIA or 'mini-stroke', suffered by Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson in October of last year and often considered the 'least' catastrophic), ischemic (when a blood clot keeps blood from flowing to your brain) and haemorrhagic (when a blood vessel ruptures, spilling into the surrounding tissues), which I had.

(Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a friend from my sports editor days, suffered something similar a month before me, and underwent emergency surgery at Salford Royal Hospital.)

Don't feel bad about not knowing this; according to that Stroke Association research, some 14 million UK adults didn't know that a stroke actually occurs in the brain.

Suffice to say, my work colleagues that Friday night are no longer among those 14 million.

It had been such a normal day; a typical June afternoon. The World Cup had just started; Portugal were playing Spain.

Part of my job is writing headlines. Good, bad or indifferent, I can always think of one. But not this time.

I found myself staring at the screen, unable to come up with anything.

Writer's block? In books, yes, but not headlines. Something wasn't right. The more I tried to think of something, the more stressed out I became. This is not me.

John Laverty with the former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson
John Laverty with the former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson

Later, on the phone to my wife Claire, I started talking about fairies in the garden. We don't have a garden, let alone one with fairies. I was actually thinking about 'ferries'; Belfast was hosting a Vespa World Day, and we had pictures of the little scooters coming off a ferry at the docks - but my mouth was relaying something different. I returned to my desk, more confused than ever. The last thing I remember was colleague Billy Weir, sitting next to me, announcing that Ronaldo had just completed his hat-trick. By then, however, I was away with those aforementioned fairies.

Apart from that failed quiz in the ambulance, I can't recall much else.

When people ask if it was traumatic, I say yes… for my colleagues, my wife and little daughter Soley, not for me. I still feel guilty about what I put them through, even though I had no say in it.

Even when I was conscious, I was too drugged up to know exactly what was happening.

Ultimately, in hospital, relief was the over-riding emotion. I could still walk, still talk, still think with reasonable clarity. I had 'survived'.

Indeed, for a while I was thinking 'you know, this wasn't so bad'.

John enjoying precious family time with wife Claire McNeilly and their daughter Soley
John enjoying precious family time with wife Claire McNeilly and their daughter Soley

Wrong! When it came, the psychological trauma hit me like a train.

I was scared of going to bed; terrified that I wouldn't wake up. It wasn't an illogical fear either; many victims have their strokes while asleep.

I thanked God every morning that there WAS a morning. That daylight used to be a given; now it was an everyday gift to be treasured.

Anxiety - that big, black, mangy dog that just lies there, lazily refusing to go away - reared its ugly head too. Agoraphobia? Check. Hypochondria? That too, although, considering what had already occurred, it was both ironic and unnecessary.

To borrow a line from that Will Smith film, it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you…

There were also post-traumatic, hypothetical stress episodes; what if it had happened a couple of hours earlier, when my daughter, who'd just turned four, was in the car? What if it happens again? How soon could it happen again? And does worrying about that make things more stressful; ergo, more likely?

A twelve-week rehabilitation programme with the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association helped a lot.

Family and friends had played their part - eventually they'd know when to approach and when to stay away - but it was particularly therapeutic to meet up with fellow 'survivors'.

As someone in his mid-fifties, I was one of the youngest in the group - but not the youngest. There was a lad of 32 there; that really shocked me.

They say stroke is an old person's affliction and, although that remains predominantly the case, there are a growing number of younger people struck down.

But anyone who overindulges in nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, suffers from stress or is prone to high blood pressure, can be affected, no matter the age.

Our group's weekly, two-hour sessions in a south Belfast church hall involved gentle exercise and sitting around, sharing experiences.

It was like an AA meeting; you felt you could speak frankly and confidentially to people who'd been in the same place as you and were now on the same road out of it, albeit at different points of the journey.

Most were pragmatic about what had happened; I think you need to be. There's no reverse gear in this process. It was cathartic, though.

There was only one person I already knew; he hadn't been anywhere near as fortunate as me. His speech was badly slurred and most of his day was spent in a wheelchair.

Unlike the fellow patients, I could picture him as a younger, fitter, healthier man; it was devastating to see what had become of him.

One minute he'd been sitting, enjoying a glass of white wine, after a round of golf. The next...

Every time we met, I felt that bizarre fusion of sadness and relief; sorry he'd suffered so much, glad it wasn't me.

Next month, it will be a year since it happened.

The consultant was right; I'm not the person I used to be. But that's maybe not such a bad thing.

The old me had made little effort to strike the right life-work balance; before this, I thought it was just a phrase annoying people used in chat shows.

We try to convince ourselves we're irreplaceable; sorry, John, but the paper came out, on time - and with decent headlines written by someone else - that night, and every day since. So what was all that fretting about?

It's true what they say; episodes like this make you more aware of your own mortality.

The Grim Reaper didn't make it through the door this time, thank God, but he was rapping it with his knuckles. Only a fool would pretend they didn't hear that.

At present, I'm on a 'phased return' to work. My employers have been hugely supportive - unlike others I've since heard about, unfortunately - and some colleagues have even taken up first aid courses.

In the meantime, when you're not busy readjusting your work-life balance, be on the lookout for someone who displays sudden numbness in their face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body. Or someone who has trouble walking, or suffers dizziness, loss of balance or lack of co-ordination.

And if, like me, they start referring to fairies in the garden, dial 999 immediately.

If they're still talking - even about fairies - they've still got a chance.

Belfast Telegraph


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