Chris Murray went to bed thinking he'd an ear infection, but the next morning his face was paralysed. Now, after treatment for a brain tumour, he's back to work and passionate about saving the planet
The 31-year-old from Newtownards tells Mark Bain about his shock diagnosis and why Prince Charles has been an inspiration
Being diagnosed with a brain tumour wouldn't normally be seen as a positive experience, but just six months after lifesaving surgery a Co Down man says it's inspired him to try to make the world a better place.
Chris Murray (31), from Newtownards, is now turning the experience of his own battle into a nationwide crusade to save the planet with The Conservation Volunteers.
Having returned to work after staring death in the face, he is now on a mission to persuade as many people as possible to embrace the wonders of our planet to make sure it, like him, learns to survive against the odds.
Having already spent four-and-a-half years tending to trees and plants at Clandeboye Estate's tree nursery with the conservation charity, where he now works as an education officer, Chris already had a good grounding in environmental issues.
But he says there's nothing quite like a brush with death to give you a new lease of life, and to help Northern Ireland's woodlands.
Chris says: "I thought I had an ear infection. I was a bit sore, but I went home and went to sleep, as you do.
"But the next morning I woke up and my face was paralysed. It all happened as quickly as that.
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"I had a lot of people coming into the tree nursery that day so I turned up for work as normal. They took one look at me and told me to go to hospital. I started to think I might have had a stroke.
"But the doctors couldn't find an infection and there was no sign of a stroke. Thankfully they had the foresight to give me an MRI scan.
"I was sent home with strong painkillers, but three days later I got a call to come back in. I thought they'd found an infection or something simple as they got in touch so quickly, but when I got there it was very tense. When they took me into a room the four doctors were all looking at their feet. They looked very white and I knew straight away it wasn't going to be the best news.
"Then they showed me the photo of the tumour in my brain.
"Had my face not gone paralysed I'd never have known. I would probably have put up with what I thought was an ear infection for a while and the tumour would just have grown bigger.
"It was all a bit of shock. The tumour was big. They feared it was going to be aggressive and they sent me straight to London.
"They had, of course, given me the worst case scenario, and while it was a scary time there wasn't a lot of choice for me.
"Five days later I was sitting in London, going through the operation, and three weeks after that I was home.
"I didn't really have a lot of time to think about it all.
"When I first came around after the operation I was relieved that my face didn't seem too bad.
"Yes, I had the staples in my head and they'd taken a skin graft from my tummy to help close over the ear to stop infection getting a direct channel to that side of my brain.
"They told me I was over the worst and then it was a case of let's get you home. I thought it was all going too well."
What followed was 40 days of intense radiotherapy in the cancer unit at the City Hospital.
"For the first two weeks I was thinking: 'This is okay, it's easy'. But once it hit I was exhausted. It was quite extreme having your brain blasted. With a head injury you're not allowed to drive and if it hadn't been for the ambulance team getting me to and from hospital every day I wouldn't have been moving.
"I slept a lot. My hair fell out, but it's back now and so am I. As soon as I got a rest and was able to drive again I hit the ground running.
"I never thought ringing the 'cancer bell' as I left the hospital after the final treatment would have felt so good.
"Even now the movement in my facial muscles is continuing to improve but it was weird to walk around a supermarket and see people stare at you."
Given a second chance, Chris found further inspiration on his first day back when Prince Charles, already well-known for his environmental campaigning, issued a stark warning to world leaders over the crisis the world is facing.
"On the first day I was back at work I watched Prince Charles literally telling world leaders we have about 18 months to really start saving the world," he says.
"If we don't start now it's just not going to happen. That sparked something in me. It dawned on me that with enough engagement I could make a real change. We've got the land, the ability, the full support of Lady Dufferin here at Clandeboye Estate, who has a real passion for environmental projects. Now we have to maximise the potential.
"If one tree we plant here can last 200 years, taking carbon out of the atmosphere all that time, then we have to do it.
"I've always had people coming to the nursery but they tend to already hold an interest. What I'd love to see is others who might not have considered the trees and plants around them and the benefits they have for the world coming along to take a look at what we do.
"I wanted to be a paramedic when I walked in here off the street five years ago. It didn't happen but I fell in love with this place, even as a volunteer back then. You could say I saw the wood for the trees and I want to show it to others.
"We're working on the back of generations of people here. We're in the original walled garden of the estate and we're in such a privileged position. Not a lot of people know this place is here and we have to change that.
"My job now is to help people who might be struggling to find work, get them in here helping to plant trees, learning about environmental conservation. I want to help people who might find themselves unemployed to gain skills, be out here in the fresh air planting trees, caring for the wildflower gardens, learning about the world around them. That might just help them go on to gain employment
"When a doctor tells you the very worst circumstances, you do start to evaluate your life differently. I will get frequent check-ups but until they're completely certain I know I could find myself sitting in that room again with more white-faced doctors, but I'm determined to throw myself into this. The focus here is a great thing for me.
"If I can get the message out there, the resources are here. The opportunities are here. What I'm trying to do is take one small step, but it's a step in the right direction.
"We're lucky we're living in a very green country, but we have to maintain that. The more we plant and grow and save native woodlands the better for the whole world.
"With a bit of luck I hope we can start a snowball effect. Wildflowers, trees are all so important. I'm looking to use what has happened to me as inspiration to do something for the better, make my life matter.
"I've come out the other side of dark tunnel and if I can do a small bit to help the world recover too I'll be delighted."
The Conservation Volunteers celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and has been growing native trees from locally-collected seed for nearly 30 years at Clandeboye Estate, producing more local native trees for a number of major partners such as the Woodland Trust and their own tree planting projects.
"I hear a lot of people say they love the environment, I hope to encourage more people to show it in a practical way," says Chris. "I have to make hay while the sun shines!
"I'd love to think more people will be here in another 60 years celebrating what this place has become and the contribution it has made to the environment.
"We'll work with any community group, any person, and hopefully the knowledge I can pass on will have deep roots, reach out to others and start a real movement to look after the world we all live in."
To find out more about The Conservation Volunteers, visit www.tcv.org.uk/northernireland