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How Ulster rugby star Chris Henry overcame mini-stroke to play again, marry and campaign about condition

Chris admits he was lucky as doctors came to his aid immediately. He tells his story to Stephanie Bell to help promote a campaign by NI Chest, Heart and Stroke on the signs and dangers of mini-strokes

Ulster and Ireland rugby player Chris Henry has opened up about the terrifying moment he suffered a mini-stroke as he throws his weight behind a new health campaign in Northern Ireland. Chris was only 30 and an incredibly fit international sports star at the height of his career when he suffered a mini-stroke while preparing to play an international match in Dublin four years ago.

Although fully recovered and back to doing what he does best on the pitch, he says the experience has left him fearful that he could be at risk of another stroke.

"It was absolutely the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me," Chris says.

"When something like that happens it changes how you think.

"At the time I didn't even care about getting back to rugby, all I cared about was being able to use my arm again and being able to smile again, not was I going to be able to play rugby again," he adds.

Chris shares his experience today to help promote a new campaign which aims to educate people on the signs and dangers of a mini-stroke.

The campaign has been launched by NI Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) after research carried out by the charity revealed people are not aware what a TIA (mini-stroke) is.

The 'Mini Stroke, Massive Warning' campaign highlights that one in 10 people who have a mini-stroke go on to have a full stroke within a week.

Chris (33) has been in Dublin preparing for a Test rugby match against South Africa when he took a mini-stroke in his hotel room early that morning.

Fortunately the team doctors were having breakfast and were with him within five minutes.

He spent four days in hospital in Dublin where it was discovered he had a hole in his heart. He underwent a procedure to correct the hole and within just four months was back on the rugby pitch.

He recalls how he knew immediately something was seriously wrong. "I was in Dublin for a game against South Africa on November 4, 2014, and it was first thing in the morning. I was in the bathroom wakening up by putting water on my face when I took a mini-stroke," he says.

"My face dropped, I couldn't speak and my left arm went completely numb. I suspected it could be a stroke and deep down thought 'this can't be happening to me'.

"Luckily it happened where it did because I had the best support around me."

Because of slurred speech Chris was unable to tell his room mate Rhys Ruddock what was happening.

It was obvious to Rhys that something was seriously wrong and he didn't hesitate to seek help, dashing through the hotel corridors in his underpants.

Within a few minutes a team doctor was by Chris's side.

Chris says: "Even though I had regained some feeling by the time the doctor arrived it was obvious something serious had happened and that there was no way I was going on the rugby pitch that day.

"At the Mater Hospital they did every test available and discovered I had a hole in my heart which apparently is a lot more common than people think as one in four people have one.

"Looking back I was very lucky it happened on that day as it could have happened anytime, maybe even when I was driving.

"The nature of my profession is that you get a lot of bumps and bruises and this can lead to a higher chance of small blood clots.

"They think that it is likely that the clot took a shortcut through the hole in my heart and got to my brain."

Chris had surgery at the end of November 2014 to close the hole in his heart. He was put on blood thinning medication while he recovered.

At the end of March 2015 he had been off the medication for a week when he went to the IRFU doctor in Dublin for a check-up.

He was told his heart was fully healed and given the all clear to become available for selection by Ulster.

His first game back for Ulster was against Cardiff Blues on March 27, 2015, a match which Ulster won.

It was a naturally nervous Chris who took to the rugby pitch that day.

In the back of his mind was the fear that it could happen again.

He was brought on to play with 20 minutes to go and as he got into the game the fear soon left his mind.

"It was a big challenge for me and I had to tell myself that the doctors wouldn't let me go out and play if there was a risk it would happen again," he says.

"After my first tackle and then my second it was just back to normal for me."

Physically Chris has made a full, speedy recovery and is back on top form.

Chris got married to his long-term girlfriend Jade Hamilton (25) last July in Buncrana, with the couple honeymooning at the five-star Constance Moofushi resort in the Maldives. Jade, a graduate of Glasgow University, is from Greencastle, Co Donegal.

Today he still feels fortunate that he was in a place where he was able to receive immediate treatment.

He is also grateful that he is back to good health but says that lingering anxiety is hard to shake off completely.

"There is still some element of 'what if' that exists in my mind because my dad had a stroke a few days before he died," he says.

"I know the hole in my heart has healed, but because my dad had a stroke, I cannot rule out the possibility that it will happen again for normal cardiovascular reasons.

"That's why I think this new campaign is so important. I didn't realise I was at risk. I was just 30 and really fit and at my peak, and it was the last thing I thought could happen to me.

"I've met a lot of young people since who have suffered mini-strokes and didn't realise they were at risk.

"I am very grateful and was very lucky to be in an environment where a team-mate was able to get me help and medical experts were on hand so quickly. Many others are not so lucky.

"I also was overwhelmed by the support from the rugby community.

"My story has a happy ending but it has left me determined to raise awareness of mini-strokes. This is a really impactful campaign by NI Chest Heart and Stroke and I hope the message gets through to people so they can recognise the symptoms and know to call 999."

NICHS has launched the campaign on the back of new research which shows that across all age groups, two out of three of us don't know what a TIA - which stands for Transient Ischaemic Attack (the medical name for a mini-stroke) - is, with men less aware than women - 76% of males to 59% of females had no idea what it was.

Fiona Greene, director of care services at NI Chest Heart and Stroke, said: "Our research was very telling and quite concerning that despite numerous widespread messaging the term TIA just wasn't resonating with people - if people don't know what it is, they can't take heed of the warning.

"So many people are not aware that a mini-stroke is a medical emergency. It is a massive warning that a full stroke may be on the way. Although the symptoms are the same as a stroke which is the FAST acronym - they disappear quickly and that leads people into a false sense of security that they are okay and don't need to call an ambulance.

Fiona adds: "A huge part of the problem is people's inability to recognise the symptoms and the seriousness of those symptoms even after they have disappeared.

"The truth is one in 10 people who suffer a mini-stroke will go on to have a full stroke within a week, which is a significant number."

In Northern Ireland over 36,000 people have had a stroke or TIA, with 10 people admitted to hospital every day.

How FAST reaction to symptoms can save lives

Mini-stroke symptoms are the same as stroke symptoms:

FAST acronym:

Face - has their face fallen on one side? Can they smile?

Arms - can they raise both arms and keep them there? Don't forget legs - the patient's ability to walk is often affected too.

Speech - is their speech slurred?

Time - to call 999. For more information on the 'Mini Stroke, Massive Warning' campaign visit www.nichs.org.uk.

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