Observer writer Euan Ferguson takes us back to the day he had a stroke - and ignored it - just after his 50th birthday. Since that day he has learned more about himself, the value of friendship, and the tough love of the NHS. Euan has been a journalist for over 30 years and lives peacefully by the sea in Hove.
Photography by Alex Lake
This is a tale of unfortunate stupidity, both short- and long-term. Unfortunate, because in both cases the high stupidities were very much my own.
It’s been two years, almost to the day, since I had a stroke, not long after my 50th birthday. Not one of the nastiest, but far from the nicest. My discharge notes from the subsequent weekend say, in language which lacks a certain ethereal poetry: “2 to 7 day history of dysarthria and right-arm weakness… MRA head showed acute infarcts in left MCA territory… carotid doppler showed a 70% stenosis in the left ICA.”
The circumstances of the stroke were odd, to say the least, in that I didn’t seek any treatment for a good 36 hours. I happen to live sans girlfriend, sans even dog, at the moment, down on the lovely Hove seafront, and when I woke that Wednesday morning was deeply reluctant to admit that anything was wrong. I was just 50, for goodness’ sake! Fine, I couldn’t get my right hand, most of the arm in fact, to move properly, but put that down to having slept over-heavily on the thing. I tried, with disastrous consequences, to get some coffee bubbling on the percolator, but normally the idea is to get more water into the reservoir than onto my own bare feet. Sighed. Tried to dress, with hilarious cuff-buttoning results. Sat down at my desk, with, eventually, coffee, and evaluated things, over a cigarette. Things weren’t right, no, and I’d been up for a full hour, but as long as I could still type – I was on deadline for The Observer that day, a 1200-word TV review to file by 4pm – I could pull things out of the fire, and deal with whatever had happened to me afterwards. My brain hadn’t stopped working, at all.
But my hands had. I was constantly backspacing, misspelling the simplest words in the most laughable ways, and by 3pm had managed a grand total of 280 words, few of them good. And was growing more fatigued by the sentence. I called it a day and went exhausted to bed for a dreamless 12 hours, hoping to wake the next morning as if Wednesday just hadn’t happened. But it had, and I didn’t wake any better. If anything, I was slower. I called my editor, finally. I think she thought briefly I was drunk, which is when I fully took in that I’d had a stroke, and admitted as much. She used rather choice language in her suggestion that I get myself, with some urgency, to hospital. I hung up and, finally, after telling someone, after simple human contact, wept.
But I got to the Royal Sussex County Hospital, via ambulance, by 5pm. I mentioned at the start that there were two great stupidities here. The first one, of course, was in my having smoked for approximately 870 years: the stroke had pretty obviously been caused by the furring of arteries, as I don’t have high cholesterol and am not unusually stressed. The second stupidity was in not having got help first thing on the morning of the day before. The tyranny of deadlines meant I had been more scared of letting down work than of what my own body was telling me: but no job is worth dying for, and one in five strokes is fatal.
I had actually been incredibly fortunate. My face hadn’t fallen, I wasn’t limping, and a couple of days later, having been scheduled for an carotid endarterectomy the following week and allowed (with much tutting reluctance: but I didn’t want to be a bed-blocker, or what I was horrified to learn last week we now have to call an “involuntary contribution to preventable bed occupancy”) I actually walked the three miles home in sunny celebration, pausing only at my local to regale them with stuttering tales of the overwhelming bloody professional niceness of the NHS.
And I meant every single word. The experience had been astonishing. Not least for its fierce lack of judgmentalism: I wholly deserved to be horsewhipped for having ignored (and God knows as a professional TV viewer I’ve seen enough of the adverts) the F.A.S.T. warnings, a rare unpatronising non-infantilised example of a government health warning.
But every single health worker I encountered – old, young, black, white, gay and gossipy or straight and wry, and all permutations of the above – treated me with a subtle and a tender understanding, even when having to be direct to the point of brusqueness. One day, for instance, I was moved in the ward by a frankly petrifying elk of a matron, who wanted to swap three beds. It turned out that the old boy in the corner was sleeping 23 hours a day. She had simply wanted me to be able – I hadn’t even asked – to lie by a window, and see the sea. I was immensely touched. She didn’t crack a smile. But she winked. As the op. approached, with its concomitant risk – there was a one per cent chance I would die on the table – I appreciated the more everything that was being done to gladden my soul and downplay risk. From the gorgeous Scots-Italian lass with the flashing eyes in pre-op, to my two invaluable and ever-unappreciated anaesthetists, to Mr Mike Brooks, my surgeon, who had the previous night even troubled to tee up his iPod with music I liked – John Coltrane and Steely Dan, since you ask. I was to remain conscious (if sturdily de-nerved in the relevant parts) throughout, so I could tell them if I was suddenly feeling particularly wrong, while Mr Brooks, behind various tents, cut out the not-trivial artery on the left of my neck, deloused it and sewed it just-so back in again, all the while festooned in arterial blood. The operation lasted almost three hours.
I wasn’t better instantly. For the first few weeks I was immensely prone to wild tears and laughter, but mainly tears. I cried at Sixty Minute Makeover. But things improved, primarily because I gave in and let my parents drive me back to Edinburgh for three weeks. Comfort food, care, long walks along the Water of Leith, and soon I was better in leaps and bounds – catching tennis balls in the back garden, speaking better every day. Physical and speech therapy had been offered in Brighton, but I only actually needed one visit (tremendously helpful, if only because I was advised that, of course, there was nothing wrong with my hand, just the synapses commanding its control, and the brain would most like learn to re-route itself): I recovered almost fully up north. As I said, I was immensely lucky with the stroke – every stroke is like every snowflake, all impossibly different, and it says a great deal for the health system that it’s fluid enough to cope with wild variations, gradations and prognoses – but even I didn’t expect to find myself back at work within nine weeks.
The lessons I’ve taken are many. I’ve stopped smoking. Learned to trust some family and friends more, rather than think I am an island of (occasionally charming) cynicism. And would now go to the barricades to defend the myriad laughters, tendresses, oddballs, cultures and innovations and quirks, and the all of it tethered to a steady pulse of professionalism, which still remains, 73 years after Beveridge, the soul of the NHS. As opposed to the myriad spreadsheets, targets, politicking, charmlessness, press releases, “directives” and blame which still remain the meagre soul of the bean-counter.