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Jim McDowell's had run-ins with the Grim Reaper but stroke 'was particularly scary in silent way it crept up on me'

Ex-Sunday World editor Jim McDowell has survived attacks by paramilitaries and even a helicopter crash. He explains why he has the quick thinking of his wife to thank for still being around after falling ill last Christmas.

Seamus Heaney co-compiled a book of poems called The Rattlebag. I am that Rattlebag. Because every time I step down off the kerb, I rattle.


It's not the 67-year-old bones. Although after 36 years in a rugby scrum, training for and running 11 marathons, and doing a bout of boxing (both inside and outside the ring) they grind and groan a bit, too.

No, it's the pills.

A legacy of the stroke that sneaked up on me around this time last year, the Sunday before Christmas.

It's not that I'm on a tower block of tablets daily to counter clots, chisel my cholesterol and keep a bin lid on my blood pressure… whatever that is.

But I'm on enough to make me sound like a refugee from tin pan alley when I step off the pavement in public.

And in the pub after a few pints. Well, let's just say I could pass an audition for the wind section of the Ulster Orchestra... without playing a note on a musical instrument.

So let's just say I gave the Brussels sprouts a bye-ball with my Christmas dinner.

But I'm jammy. I survived the stroke to swallow a forkful or two of turkey stuffing last Christmas Day.

And I did the same last Sunday.

And that's where I knew something was badly awry around 8pm on December 20 last year.

The swallowing part. The first smoke signal of my stroke.

I'd just had a wrap with some meat in it to eat. I wasn't drinking. I was the designated driver for the night to get the folks back to Belfast from Bangor.

I was standing having a yarn with the good lad who cooked the food.

And then I found I couldn't talk. My words were coming out, slowly, and it was if they were shifting gear by themselves as I struggled to control the flow.

The good fella who I was talking with asked me if I was all right.

I managed to mumble: "Aye..."

But then it was as if my throat was contracting; I felt that I was beginning to suffocate.

I managed to hirple, rather than walk, out on to the outside terrace.

"Fresh air will clear my head," I thought.

I walked over to the patio edge and grabbed the railing, peering over a black night sky framing Belfast Lough, with the Copeland Island lighthouse blinking back at me over Ballyholme Bay.

I breathed deeply. Tried to gather myself, as we say in Ulster.

Then tried to turn to go back to where summer seats still sat on the patio. I tried to lift my right hand off the cold metal rail. It wouldn't move. Seemed like it was stuck with Superglue.

My left hand was still working. I used that to prise the other free.

I half-turned. Tried to walk. My right leg was dead. Inflexible. Immobile.

"You're in soapy bubble here, McDowell," I murmured.

But I managed to half-drag half the side of my body that, I now realised, was paralysed over to one of the summer seats. It was beside a big window into the kitchen were people were gathering to eat and drink.

I tried to swivel and wave in with my good hand, the left.

My wife Lindy saw that but thought I was just outside yarning to someone, and was letting her know where I was.

She came out. She recognised, too, that I was in trouble. I told her I couldn't lift my arm or move my leg. "It's a stroke," she said.

She reached for her handbag. I thought she was digging to find the insurance policy; my insurance policy.

She wasn't. She was hoking for an ibuprofen pill. She thought this might have much the same effect as aspirin.

She also thought about giving me a glass of water to take with it.

Later, medics stressed to us that if you think someone is having a stroke do not give them anything. Aspirin - and much less ibuprofen - doesn't help. Trying to swallow when your throat is affected could choke you.

Our friend Carolyn Stewart, from U105, came out.

She confirmed Lindy's fear.

FAST - that absolutely vital, accurate and lifesaving advice from the TV advert campaigns - began to kick in. They instantly checked for 'F' - face drooping. Negative. Then 'A' - arms drooping or immobile. Positive. 'S' - speech affected? Positive also. 'T' - time to dial 999 and get an ambulance.

That last was what the girls did. And it got me into the Ulster Hospital A&E at Dundonald within about 40 minutes, well within the three-to-four hour window that the medics need to treat a stroke victim if there's to be a decent chance of full recovery.

Or of sidestepping death.

Dr Gerry Sloan was on duty in A&E. He had me stretchered into the big scanner.

He told me there was a clot on my brain. There was an injection that may fix it. It's called a 'clotbuster' by ordinary punters like us.

It's called thrombolysis by the clinicians.

It can cure you.

It can leave you disabled by the stroke.

Or, in some cases, it can kill you.

No choice. I signed the consent form, albeit with a squiggle with my left hand while still lying on my back.

It worked. By 5am the next morning I was groggily half-sitting up in bed and able to shake Dr Sloan's hand - with my right hand - when he came round to see how I was.

Two days later I was out of the Ulster. Three months later the consultant, another smashing medic, Michael Power, closed the file.

A year later I feel like I've placed a bet with Dr Power's namesake Paddy the bookmaker and hit the jackpot.

Because although I shrug it off - kind of - now, when people kindly ask how I'm doing, and I reply: "Ach, sure it was only another traffic bump on the road of life."

It wasn't, folks.

I've come close to shaking hands with the oul fella brandishing the big scythe a few times.

Not least 20 years ago this year when a helicopter I was in spiralled, feathered and flopped into a field from 1,500 feet up over Co Fermanagh, and a few of us got away with broken backs.

Or seven years ago at the Christmas Market outside Belfast City Hall when a team of UVF bogeymen from Ballybeen tried to resculpture my baldy head with their boots.

And there were a few times during the so-called Troubles when I stared death in the face with terrorist godfathers threatening to shoot me.

And I have had close enough escapes from bomb blasts or bullets.

But the difference with this stroke thing is its silence.

How it crept up. A clot. Tiny. Minuscule even, cascading, like kids on a water park flume, through your bloodstream.

Until it stops. In your brain.

The medics certainly understand it. I don't.

And don't want to.

However, there are moments, say in bed at night, when a cramp clamps its (silent) teeth deep into your thigh.

And you wonder: is this another one?

And you can't hit your head off anything because of the anti-coagulant blood-thinning drugs, in case that crack on the cranium causes a bleed on the brain.

You've got to be wary of eating or drinking anything that might spark a stomach bleed.

But I'll stop my gurnin' here folks. I've no right to gurn about anything.

I'm still out jogging - or, with my dodgy Donaghadees (knees), pocklin' - five mornings a week, getting a bubble of sweat on the baldy head.

I'm still standing. I'm still casting a shadow.

And as far as that 'another traffic bump on the road of life' goes, my own oul engine is still sparking.

And let's face it, this Christmas season, again, I'm still lucky to be rattlin' along.

Just like The Rattlebag I mentioned at the start.

Belfast Telegraph


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