Jim Wells says wife Grace 'will get out of hospital soon, but she'll not walk again'
Jim Wells has been told his wife will never walk again.
Grace Wells has suffered two strokes, one on each side of her brain, which the former Health Minister said was highly unusual.
Grace, who turned 57 in April, was diagnosed with Platypnea Orthodoexia Syndrome, a condition so rare that there are only 50 cases worldwide each year.
The condition means that she has a hole in her heart which has been undetected but which affects her ability to breathe.
Now, six months after the first stroke, Mrs Wells is still in a Brain Injuries Unit in a Belfast hospital.
"We have been told that Grace will never walk again," the former Health Minister said.
"We had a very tearful meeting with the clinicians and were told that people who have two strokes are never really able to walk again.
"We are hoping to have her back home in September. I will have the whole house adapted although the work has to be done.
"She will be in the Brain Injuries Unit until then and it has been a very worrying time. It has been a fairly wretched experience."
But he said while Grace has proved slow at times to co-operate with medical staff, she lights up when friends call in.
"She can sit up and talk about her knitting and crocheting for hours but then at times just looks through me. The doctors are baffled, as are the family," he said. Jim joked that in the 32 years of their marriage, he had never seen his wife go for more than an hour without picking up the knitting needles.
The family - the couple have two daughters and a son, all in their 20s, who prefer to stay out of public view - maintained a round-the-clock vigil at Grace's bedside for many weeks.
For the first six nights, Mr Wells refused to leave her side in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Then they worked out a rota to ensure that Grace always had someone with her and he has spent many nights with her since.
On February 20 came the devastating news that Grace had suffered a second stroke.
"We had thought it was a seizure at first. It was very upsetting to hear it was another stroke. But the damage was limited, and she was soon breathing normally again. The real fear then was of a third stroke," he said.
"Grace was getting injections every day to prevent a third stroke - with the risk they could cause bleeding. But her speech was improving considerably. At times she was very drowsy."
It was very slow going at first. One day she sat up and looked at Facebook for three hours. But medical progress was slow, Mr Wells said.
"She had come through a difficult operation. We were told at one point the part of her brain that controls breathing had been damaged beyond repair. It was a very anxious time," the Assembly member said.
In early March a consultant warned Mr Wells to prepare himself for really bad news and the entire family gathered at Grace's bedside.
"We were told she might not get through the night. That was the worst, it was just dreadful. We were just sitting through the night watching a screen.
"A few days later she was breathing without any assistance and chatting away to us.
"If I was confused you should have seen her consultant!" he said.
He is always insistent there were lighter moments, too. He went to a hospital reception desk where the staff member did not know him.
"I could see a plaque on the wall saying I had opened the unit, so I pointed to it, and said, 'That's me there'," Mr Wells quipped.
After the first seven weeks and a long period on high pressure oxygen, Grace was taken off it and only had a small nasal tube, which meant the medical staff could concentrate on the rehabilitation on Grace's left side.
"At times she was quite alert and remained strong throughout, and her speech was becoming clearer and she was taking more to eat," said Wells, who at the time was still struggling to fight a General Election constituency battle - including hustings meetings.
"After the election I was able to have a lot more time with my family as well as to focus on day to day issues in south Down."
The party had given him a reprieve, with then Finance Minister Simon Hamilton taking over Health for a period before assuming the portfolio full time after the reshuffle in May.