My Second Chance

bright-cardiac-cardiology-433267Throughout this section, particularly in the early parts, there are elements of my story that I don’t recall with clarity. I have relied on those around me at the time to fill in the gaps. That said, I am confident that what I have included is accurate.

Lazarus Rises

Friday the twentieth of June 2014, about 8.50pm.

I’m sitting comfy in the brand new leather chair that arrived as part of a suite just a few days ago, watching the France v Switzerland World Cup Group E match.

It’s half-time. France are coasting, with goals from Giroud, Matuidi and Valbuena putting them 3-0 up.

My son, Ryan, has just left to meet his mates down at his local bar – Ownies.

My wife, Eileen, is just about to leave the house to visit her sister, which will leave me in blissful peace for the rest of the game. She changes her mind at the last minute and phones to explain the change of heart.

I can hear the general chat in the background as IT happens.

I’m aware that my gaze has involuntarily moved up to the ceiling. That’s strange. I can’t seem to bring my eyes down to the level of the TV screen.


Ah, if I tilt my head forward, I can just about see colours with a rectangular black outline.

I hear Eileen’s voice. “Adrian! What’s wrong with you?”

Wrong with me? Nothing I can think of. Well, that’s what my brain says, but my mouth utters “th-th-th.”

Again, I hear Eileen. “Your face looks strange.”

What about my face? I know I’m no George Clooney, but what’s she on about? I better give it a quick rub to see if maybe I’ve remnants of dinner or something on my chin.

Funny. I can’t feel my hand on my face. I look down at my right arm and its resting on the edge of the chair – it won’t move.

Come on. MOVE!

Nope, not a flicker. Left hand’s fine, so I raise that to my face. Everything feels OK.

“The right-hand side of your face has drooped.”

What? I better get up and check in the mirror.

Hold on. I can’t get up off the chair.

My right leg is like deadwood. It feels heavy – like a lump of lead.

This isn’t right.

“I’m phoning for an ambulance!”

No need, I’m fine, says my brain.


That didn’t sound right. I better be clearer this time.


I feel like I’m in blissful ignorance as I sit calmly in the chair, trying to work through what is happening, but I have absolutely no idea.

A few minutes pass.

Who’s this at the door?

Eileen goes to the door. “In here”, I hear her say.

A spectacled man in a blue uniform, carrying a huge bag, enters the living room.

What’s he doing in my house? I don’t know him, do I? Why is it so dark on one side of the living room?

Pitch black on the right hand side, but it’s barely dusk.

From that darkness, another stranger emerges. He’s in a similar blue uniform.
Is this an invasion?

Suddenly, I have full clarity. Hi fellas. What can I do for you?

I finally work out who they are. Paramedics.

For me?

But there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine, honest.

Still, no harm in letting them carry out a few tests – just to make sure.

Ryan suddenly appears, but he’s supposed to be at the pub. Why is he back so soon? He doesn’t say anything, but looks puzzled, or is it anxious?

I later find out that he had just ordered his first pint and was about to have a sip when he got a “come home quick” call from his mum.

I’m told by one of the paramedics that, as a precaution, I’m going for a trip to hospital. I’m in no position to argue. A wheeled chair is brought in.

Suddenly, I feel right as rain again. All limbs functioning, speech returned, visibility clear as day. I decide to help, and stand up to get into the chair.

I am Lazarus!

I am immediately pounced upon and told to sit down and gently helped from my comfy chair into the wheeled one. A white blanket is draped around my shoulders as I am transported out through my front door.

Oh, the embarrassment.

The neighbours are out, attracted by the large yellow vehicle and blue flashing lights. Surely I could have retained some dignity and been allowed to walk out?

I’m barely strapped into the back of the ambulance when I’m hit with a wave of confusion. Like earlier, I can’t move my right arm or leg, my head feels too heavy for my neck and I lose consciousness, though I can still hear voices.

I can pick out Eileen’s tones. I can hear what feels like fear or panic in her voice, but I can’t quite make out what she is saying. A male voice is there too. I can pick up the odd word, but nothing’s making sense.

I’m told later that my blood pressure had soared. So much so, that the Paramedic in the back with me had urged the driver to “push on a bit.”

The journey to Antrim Hospital took about thirty minutes. I remember about fifteen seconds of it.

King Juan Carlos of Spain Abdicates

As we pull into the Accident & Emergency entrance, I become fully awake. I’m half upright on a trolley, sailing past reception, through a series of double doors and into a white-painted room.

I have time to look around. Eileen’s there, trying to look calm, but her eyes give her away. Ryan’s in the background, but he should be at home.

He told me later that he was under orders to dig out a pair of pyjamas and bring them to the hospital. Despite leaving five minutes after the ambulance left, he put his foot down and overtook the ambulance to arrive at the hospital a good five minutes before I did.

A nurse is attaching cables to my chest. A blood pressure sleeve is connected and the rhythmical beeping of the monitoring equipment is reassuring.

Whoa. Another lapse into semi-consciousness.

Then, just as quickly, I’m back.

Now then, this abdication of King Juan Carlos of Spain, Ryan. I think we need to have a detailed debate about it right now. I converse lucidly (according to Ryan) for a good fifteen minutes, carefully analysing the pros and cons for the Spanish Royalty. (The King had stepped down a few days earlier, so it must have been a news item that triggered this conversation. In truth, I recall nothing of this exchange of views).

For the next hour, I am either 100% in the moment, or completely out of it. I did hear the word “stroke” mentioned, but even then I still had no sense of anything being “wrong” with me.

A doctor attends to me a couple of times, a few nurses and some plain clothes medical staff (no idea what role they held) take turns in looking at the digital display which is summarising what’s going on inside me.

By midnight, everything seems stable.

I’ve been alert for about an hour, and a decision is made to transfer me to a ward. I’m wheeled on the trolley for what seems an age, before I’m lifted into a bed. There are five other men in the ward, all asleep at this time of night.

Eileen and Ryan have followed me to the ward. Rosemary (Eileen’s sister) and her husband Alan (who I have known since Primary School days) are at the hospital too, but I don’t know that. Eileen’s brother, Raymond and his wife, Dawn, arrive soon after. They have all waited patiently in the reception area, with Ryan shuttling between them and me to let them know what’s happening.

Around 1am, I’m told that I’m “stable”, and that the best thing is for me to get some sleep. I feel great. No concerns, no fear, no panic.

I convince Ryan to go home, but can’t do the same to Eileen. She gets as comfortable as she can in the leatherette seat beside my bed, is offered a blanket and holds my hand as I drift off to sleep.

Wheresmytrousers Overdoses on Orange Squash

I awake at 7:00am. Feels like best night’s sleep ever.

I know straight away that I’m in hospital. Not worried, as I feel terrific. As I stir, Eileen wakes too. Her big smile warms my heart.

Yes, I’m fine. Honest.

I prop myself up a bit and take in the surroundings. I’m in a six bed ward, occupying the first bed on the left as you enter from the corridor. It’s furthest from the two windows, but the whole room is well lit.

The five other men are asleep, or if not they are at least quiet and still.

A nurse pops in and offers us both some tea and toast. Simple, but feels like a five star meal.

This is the first of many acts of kindness from the medical team (with one notable exception that I’ll cover later).

Gradually, my bed-comrades awaken – well most of them.

I won’t use their names, mainly because I can’t remember!

Opposite me is Mr. Angry. He must be in his seventies, but he has bouts of shouting and physical outbursts against the army of folk who are there to look after him. He can’t really help himself – he is hallucinating and looks terrified at times. The staff are fantastic with him.

To Mr. Angry’s right, is Mr Wheresmytrousers. Again he looks in his seventies. I find out that he is a classically trained guitarist who has travelled the world, but has been admitted from a Nursing home. He’s a real well-spoken gentleman, but he regularly presses the button beside his bed to bring a nurse to him. It’s the same conversation every time. He’s convinced one of the nurses has stolen his trousers, and he wants them back. The patience and care with which he is treated is admiral.

In the far corner is the eldest man in the ward. In my entire time here, the only movement he makes is when the nursing staff adjust his position, I assume to prevent bed sores. He has an oxygen mask permanently on, and is constantly asleep/unconscious. He seems content, and is regularly visited by family. I won’t give him a name as I have no engagement with him at all.

Opposite him, back on my side of the room, is another septuagenarian. He, too, is never fully conscious, but with regular monotony gives out a deep sigh/moan and then settles down again. He has no visitors, which seems a bit sad. Even more anonymous.

Finally, to my left is a man about fifteen years older than me. He’s a big, strong bloke – Mr. Builtlikeabull. He gives out much louder moans than his neighbour, and with greater frequency. He’s quite agitated and determined to remove is blankets and pyjama trousers at every opportunity. This lets me see that he’s wearing a huge disposable nappy. Obviously that’s to prevent accidents, but I can’t help think it’s undignified. His speech is slurred. Looks very like a stroke, in my non-medical opinion. Again, the nursing experts are great with his. He’s a real handful, being built like a bull, but they are so courteous and kind to him – he doesn’t always reciprocate, more through frustration than anything, I propose. I get the impression he is able to understand what’s happening around him, but unable to communicate back.

These will be my companions for the next five days.

I’m told that due to my late night admittance I am not on the breakfast list. Doesn’t stop one of the Nursing Assistants tracking down some porridge. To make sure I got fed later, I fill in my selection from the lunch and dinner menus.

Blood samples are taken, and readings recorded from the monitor to which I am still attached.

Mr. Angry refuses to touch his first meal of the day, and can’t be encouraged to eat. Mr. Wheresmytrousers tucks into his cereal with gusto. He has time to give me a cheery wave and smile. The two window-dwellers remain prone and do not eat. Mr. Builtlikeabull needs fed by one of the Nursing Assistants. She takes time to make sure he can digest each mouthful.

Mid-morning, a Porter arrives with a wheelchair. I’m off for a series of scans at the other end of the hospital. I get out of bed and offer to walk – I feel great. The Porter nearly has kittens! I HAVE to go in the chair. Not quite as embarrassing as being wheeled out of my house the previous evening, though.

I chat with the Porter as we sail along at a fair old rate. He hears about when I took unwell, and explains that I missed a fantastic second half of the football match. France had gone 5-0 up before the Swiss pulled back two late goals. The Porter was disappointed, though, as he had stuck a few quid on France to win by at least four goals.

Still, I reckon my Friday night had been worse.

I’m back in the ward by lunchtime.

Hospital food is the butt of many jokes, but I had absolutely no complaints about the grub. The meal was also a way to signal to people who knew me that I was out of action. A photo of said lunch was posted on my Facebook page. Didn’t take long to family and friends to put two and two together.

I enjoy the chicken casserole, as does Mr. Wheresmytrousers. Mr. Angry still won’t eat. The Nursing staff try to reason with him, but he lashes out. I’m sure he makes contact, but there is no sense of anything but calm.

How do they cope with this sort of behaviour?

My brother, Roy, isn’t on Facebook, so I thought he deserved a phone call. He lives in England, and there is no need to worry him. I start the phone call with “Don’t worry, but I’m ringing from Hospital…” This obviously leads to immediate worry. I convince him I’m fine.

The first visitors arrive. Ryan, looking relieved to see me, I think. Rosemary, Alan and their kids Adam and Heather are there too. Hugs and kisses all round. Cheers me up no end, but what’s the fuss? I’m fine. Honestly.

Not one to hog the limelight, I feel uncomfortable with all this attention, but it is so well intended I can’t help enjoying it too, in my own way. It exhausts me, though, so I have to ask my sister, Allison, not to call up until tomorrow.

She, plus her hubby Colin and two grown up children Sarah-Jane and Jonathan, duly arrive the next day, as do a series of other family & friends. I’m never lonely during visiting hours.

Hup, Holland, Hup

Late evening on my first full day in, Eileen eventually accepts that she should go home. The Consultant has been round and is confident that I have had a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke”. He tells me I’m still at risk of a full stroke or heart attack (that scares me slightly), but I am not in any immediate danger.

The next two days follow that routine. Breakfast, tests, lunch, visitors, tests, dinner, visitors, tests, sleep.

There is no television in the ward, so when I mention that I’m a bit bored in the evening after the visitors leave, Adam brings me in his CD player with inbuilt radio. Eileen brings my ‘Music from Star Wars’ CD. As I listen to that in the evening, when all the visitors have gone, I close my eyes and can visualise the film I have seen countless times through the music – quite magical in its own way.

Monday comes. I ask Eileen to phone my boss in work to explain that I might be off for a couple of days. I’m feeling great, and think I may be able to return to work later in the week. This, it turns out, is a ridiculous suggestion, but I don’t know that just yet.

I’m making good progress. All the results from the scans and blood tests are in, and I’m told it is very likely that I will be discharged tomorrow. Mr. Wheresmytrousers is also on the mend. He’s due out tomorrow morning. His evening visitors are told this, and his Nursing Home is making preparations for his return. His visitors leave him a litre bottle of Robinson’s Squash.

By now, the Nurses realise I’m a football fanatic. I follow as many games as I can on Adam’s radio, and read up on the games in the following day’s newspapers. Holland are playing Chile in the final Group B match. As my late mum was Dutch, and Northern Ireland have not qualified, this is “my” team for the tournament.

Ten minutes before this match is due to kick-off, I’m resigned to another couple of hours wearing headphones, once Eileen leaves.

Out of the blue, I’m asked to leave the room by one of the Nurses and follow her down the corridor. Eileen is right behind me. Surely, no tests at this time?

We’re led into a small store room. In the corner is a portable TV. In front of that a two-seater chair. Without my knowledge, Eileen had asked if there was a communal TV room I could go to. There wasn’t, but yet again the Nurses went above and beyond and created this mini-cinema for me. Eileen and I sat together as Holland qualified for the knock out stage thanks to a 2-0 win.

With the match over, I feel up to walking with Eileen to the Hospital exit. Goodnight kisses are exchanged and I return to the ward.

I’m not long back in bed when I glance over to Mr. Wheresmytrousers and see him finishing off the litre of undiluted squash, direct from the bottle. I call a nurse, and tell her what’s happened. He’s in for a rough night as the over-sweet juice races through his digestive system. By morning, he has had the runs for so long, he’s not well enough to be released. He’s kept in for another night.

Tuesday will be both Mr. Wheresmytrousers and my last full day in the Hospital.
The day flies in as I anticipate getting home.

One more sleep…..

Florence Nightingale Would Turn in Her Grave

The excitement of returning home prevents me from getting to sleep. I’m still barely dozing when, at around 1am, the night shift Nurses enter the ward. I don’t think I’ve seen this pair before. One in her fifties, and a much younger girl in tow.

They’re anything but quiet as they burst through the door.


“Smell, that?” The older one says firmly, and loudly. “That’s shite, that is. Someone’s shit himself.”


This is not the way every other professional has behaved in my time here.

The younger one does not speak, but follows her elder (but not better) like a lapdog.

I pretend to be asleep.

“It’s him,” as they move towards Mr. Builtlikeabull.

He’s managed to remove his trousers and giant nappy, and has indeed had an accident.

“Christ, that would make you sick. We’re going to have to change the whole fucking bed”

Mr. Builtlikeabull is roughly rolled from one side to the other as sheets are removed and he is washed. The colourful language continues as he is re-dressed and the bed re-made.

The heartless pair tell Mr. Builtlikeabull not to “shite yourself again, cos we won’t clean this crap up next time.”

He may find communicating difficult due to his stroke, but he is fully aware of what is being said and done.

To my eternal shame, I say nothing.

I am stunned, to be honest, though that is no excuse.

The pair finally leave. I don’t know what to do. I cry for five minutes, but that act seems to take it out of me and I fall into a deep sleep.

As soon as I awake the following morning, the memory of the previous night overwhelms me.

I must say something.

But, I don’t.

I can’t rationalise what I want to say. I’m not sure how such a message would be received. Would I be believed? None of the other fellas in the ward are in a position to back me up.

My confidence has taken a real battering.

I mull over what I should do, but can’t make a plan. Why?

I’m not thinking straight and have noticed that I sometimes can’t say the words that are in my head.

I sit quietly as Mr. Wheresmytrousers finally gets to go home. I get a wave and smile as he leaves.

I am given a supply of tablets from the pharmacist and discharge papers are prepared.

I’ll mention what happened last night when I’m on my way out.

I say my goodbyes to the fabulous day staff, stride up to the Ward Sister and say……….

“Goodbye, and thanks for everything.”

That’s it. I want to say more, but I don’t.


I’m quiet as Rosemary drives me and Eileen back from the Hospital.

I resolve to phone the Hospital tomorrow.

I don’t, and neither do I write a letter that I promise instead of the phone call. I still don’t understand why I bottled it. I use the residual effects of my TIA as an excuse, but that is of no comfort.

Each day that passes lessens the likelihood that any complaint will be effective, or at least that’s what I try to convince myself. Years later and that cowardice still haunts me. How could I let such deplorable behaviour go unchallenged?

This pair tarnish the reputation of their noble profession. I have allow that to be inflicted on others.

No More Buffalo

I’m back home just after lunchtime.

I sit in my chair, which prompts a rush of memories from Friday night.

The rest of the day is filled by well-wishers visiting, or calling me on the phone.

I feel as fit as a fiddle, and am a bit embarrassed with the attention – it’s not as if I’m sick or about to die. Even my dog, Maxx, is giving me the sympathetic treatment. He’s normally a hyperactive terrier, but he sits quietly at my feet, moving only when the doorbell rings or he needs to go out for toileting.

By late evening, the last of the visitors have left and the phone has stopped ringing.

My mind is no longer occupied, so I start to consider the events of the last few days. I can recall bits of what happened, but now I want to know why, though I can probably guess most of that.

I’m carrying far too much weight, don’t get enough exercise, on two tablets to control my hypertension and my diet isn’t exactly healthy.

I begin to browse on the Internet, being careful (sensible) and sticking to official NHS and charity sites. My guessing was not far from the mark.

“There are a number of ways you can lower your risk of having a TIA or stroke in the future. These include:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • eating healthily
  • taking regular exercise
  • limiting your alcohol consumption
  • not smoking”

The only saving grace is that I don’t smoke or have more than the very occasional beer, otherwise I don’t think “mini” would have been the type of stroke I had.
The websites also have some sobering messages.

“A TIA is a warning that you may be at risk of having a full stroke in the near future. The highest risk is in the days and weeks following the attack.”

I think about what I can do, and make my first positive decision this very evening. Potato crisps are banned. Sounds like a very small concession, but I admit that Tayto Cheese & Onion and Hunky Dory’s Buffalo crisps were a staple part of my diet. Rather than take a proper lunch at work, I often worked through the break munching easily through a family bag. From today, I will never eat a single crisp – that eliminates a significant amount of calories, fat and salt.

Tomorrow, is the start of a new me.

I HAVE to change.

Home, but not Alone

My first visit to my GP, who I only tend to see once a year as part of my hypertension management, is a very positive one. No sense of being rushed, even though I appreciate how busy the Doctor is. He takes me through the care plan he wants to put in place, takes a series of blood pressure tests, writes a prescription for a range of tablets and prepares to write me a sick line for work. He mentions 4 weeks, initially.

Don’t be daft. I can self-certificate myself for a week. That will be more than enough, as I feel so much better.

With a bit of bargaining (what was I thinking?), we agreed that I would accept a 2-week line.

While here, I want to know what my position is in relation to driving. The internet searches did say I would have to declare my TIA to the authorities. The GP confirms this. Bugger! I drive as much for enjoyment as I do for practicality.

Well, hopefully it will be just for a couple of weeks.

I duly notify the DVLA of my condition and voluntarily surrender my driving licence. Apparently, this is a better option that having it taken off me. Car Insurance folk also told, and the policy is changed to at least cover the car against theft as it sits immobile outside my house. The stationary car acts as further motivation to do something to improve my health.

I have my first telephone conversation with my boss, Martin, about being off work for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure what to say. I feel great, if I’m honest. I could be back in work tomorrow if it was down to me, but those pesky medical experts won’t let me.

I apologise for letting him down. We have been a few staff short for a few months and he’s covering two jobs himself. Remarkably, between Eileen phoning him on Monday and now (just two days later), the vacant posts have been given a priority rating that will see them filled within the next few weeks, and Martin will be able to devote his time to his main job from now on. What a coincidence.

In the meantime, I am to forget about work and concentrate on getting better. No rush.

Eileen and Ryan, however, will be returning to work. Their respective employers have allowed them a few days off for compassionate reasons, but now they need to return.

Ryan is an early starter and is away before I get down on Thursday morning. Eileen starts a bit later in the morning. Just as she prepares to leave the house, Rosemary arrives with Alan. They have decided to give Eileen a lift to work, as they were “just passing.”

Alan suggests staying with me for a while, as he could do with the company.
We chat about any old nonsense, both avoiding mentioning IT. Alan makes me tea and toast, politely refusing to let me be the host in my own house. We put the morning in rightly before Eileen returns at lunchtime (she works part-time).

Alan thanks me for my company (!) and leaves for his own home.

On Friday, Eileen works an afternoon shift instead of morning. At lunchtime, Rosemary and Alan appear, again just “passing by.” Same routine: Rosemary takes Eileen to work and Alan stays with me. (I haven’t quite worked this out yet, but Eileen and her sister have planned these “coincidental” visits to ensure I’m not left on my own).

Other family and friends visit in the evenings, and I’m so pleased to see each and every one of them.

I reach my first milestone. A week after my TIA and I haven’t had any sign of another.

Coffee on Chips?

The World Cup coverage on television is a welcome distraction. Holland reach the Quarter-Finals with a 2-1 win over Mexico on the Sunday.

I still attend to see my GP very regularly, and the conversation routinely comes round to my return to work. I’m convinced that I am fine. It try to convince my GP likewise. He plays along for the first few visits, but by the third consultation he’s heard enough. A tough conversation sets out exactly what happened to me. I have either been unaware of, or deliberately ignored the high risk of me having a stroke or heart attack. I’m am told in no uncertain terms that I will be off work for a number of weeks.

It’s probably the most important talk I had with my GP.

I’ve not had a day off sick for six years. Why should I be off now when I feel fine?

Now I understand better. The impact the TIA has had on me is invisible from the outside. Over the next few months (and years), I begin to find out that I have changed. Or more to the point, others begin to notice.

Three weeks after my TIA, I’ve invited Alan, Rosemary, Adam and Heather round for dinner. Chinese – a real treat. Not long after starting, I ask Adam if he wants some more curry for his chips. I am aware that all eyes are on me. What have I missed? A moment’s pause is followed with Eileen saying “I think you mean ‘curry’. But that’s what I said.

Actually, I had asked Adam if he wanted coffee on his chips. I was the only person around the table who had heard ‘curry’. This was the first time I realised that word formation was a bit of an issue. To this day, I frequently (and I mean over 5 times a day) I incorrectly use a word that starts similar to the word I intend to say.

In tandem with the word mix-up, I began to struggle to find the right word to say (or write). A complete block. I could see the word in my mind’s eye, I could hear it in my head, but I just could not get it out. In the early days, Eileen helped by spotting the pause and suggesting the word most likely needed to complete the sentence. I think this was to try and reduce my embarrassment. As time went on, I asked her to bite her tongue and let me struggle on – force me to find that word. I soon overcame the embarrassment – it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I tried word puzzles, but failed miserably to complete most of them so gave up.
I thought I would take up reading, but my concentration span and short term memory was so poor that I couldn’t hold onto the thread of the stories.

So, back working on ‘Kings of the Castle’.

In the summer of 2013, I had started co-writing a book (titled ‘Kings of the Castle’) on the history of Carrick Rangers, a team I had supported since 1983. November 2014 was to be the club’s 75th Anniversary, and this book was to coincide with that. I was about half-way through when I ended up in hospital. The other co-writers took up the slack to some extent, but I wanted to do more. This was the push I needed.

I spent hours upon hours in the local Library, where Eileen worked by coincidence, trawling through old newspapers. Although operating at a much slower pace than before, I found this work very therapeutic. Proving to myself that I could research, think, write – get back some of the confidence that had slipped away. However, progress was slow.

On the Road to Recovery?

The work on ‘Kings of the Castle’ gave me a sense of purpose. I was creating something: it felt like work.

I often struggled to find the right words, and when I re-read the sections I created during this period I can spot the flaws (though other readers probably don’t). The fluency was just not there – or at least not up to my expectations.

Day to day activities had to be more thought-through as well.

Taking Maxx for a walk was a real treat. Fresh air, exercise and a bit of ‘me’ time. Seems idyllic, but at the time it was anything but. Despite my outward bravado about leaving the house for an hour, inside I was ever so anxious. I had a series of ‘what ifs’ to overcome.

What if I have another TIA?

What if it happens where nobody can see me?

What if it happens when I’m crossing the road?

What if Maxx runs off if I have it?

What if I haven’t thought about all the other ‘what ifs’?

The biggest ‘what if’, however, had nothing to do with Maxx.

What if I can’t return to work, or if I do what if I can’t do the work I previously did.

My job relied entirely on being able to communicate clearly verbally and in writing. I had to make decisions quickly, based on absorbing lots of information. Decision-making is all about examining the ‘what ifs’.

What if I couldn’t work through ‘what ifs’?

Having, in my opinion anyway, recovered well physically (my test results were all positive by now), I was now more aware than before of the other effects of the TIA – internal ones.

Around six weeks after my TIA, on one of my walks with Maxx, I bumped into a previous work colleague who I hadn’t seen for a few years. She was unaware that I was off sick. It was a bright sunny day, and we commented on that, as is the way I suppose. “You’re looking well”, she said.

Normally, I would have taken that as the compliment it was intended to be. Now, it was a hammer-blow. Am I a fraud? Off work ‘sick’, and here I am on a sunny day, walking the dog and ‘looking well’. Jeez, I’m even writing a book. Time to have a serious talk with myself, I think.

By coincidence, when I got home from that walk, there was a letter waiting for me. A referral to the Occupational Health Service. Ah, this will be the point at which I will be pushed back to work quickly by my employer. Just the ticket. This will confirm that I’m fit and ready to return to the normality of employment.

The appointment was for the following week, and Ryan drove me up. I was prepared for the ‘all clear’ chat. Ah, but it didn’t quite go to plan. This was not a ‘push’ meeting. A real gentleman of a consultant, who it turned out had suffered a stroke himself a few years previous, went through the physical impact of my TIA, but spent more time discussing the ;other’ stuff: the emotional response, the cognitive impairment (which he assured me would improve with time) and the confidence-knock.

This out-loud acknowledgement was like a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders. Overall assessment was that I was doing as well, if not better, than expected, but that I needed another few weeks to prepare for a return to work. Not a fraud after all!

The work on ‘Kings of the Castle’ continued, and in hindsight played a big part in my recovery. Word blockages were still there frequently enough, but I was coping better with them. I found it easier to pause, relax and not get anxious. This is a common reaction to the internal issues I still have today. I encounter temporary bouts of self-doubt, lack of concentration and short-term memory lapses. Taking those three steps makes it easier (though not easy!) to come out the other side.

Hey Ho, Hey Ho!

Returning to work, thirteen weeks after my TIA, was the biggest stepping stone on my journey.

My Line Manager and colleagues had been excellent during my absence. Kept in touch, but not overly so. Genuine concern about me. ‘Work’ seldom mentioned, other than when I raised it! Coming back to work was going to be a doddle.

Well, maybe not.

At the insistence of the OHS Consultant and my GP, but against my wishes, I was to return to work on a phased basis. Mornings only for a few weeks. I objected quite forcibly, as I felt great and didn’t want to be considered a burden. My objections were rejected.

I commute into work by train, the most stress-free way of getting from Carrickfergus to Belfast. Not this day, my first back to work. The ‘what ifs’ resurfaced.

What if I have a stroke between stations?

What if the ambulance can’t get to me in time?

What if I can’t do my job?

Once concession I made to myself was to not take my usual express train. The All-Stops takes longer to get into Belfast, but with six more stops along the way, if I took unwell I would not be more than a few minutes away from the next station.

I made it into work with no dramas.

First two ‘what ifs’ chalked off.

I have to admit I had a bout of nerves as I entered the lift that took me to the floor I worked on. Not anxious about the lift itself, but about re-joining my colleagues. It felt like my very first day in a new job.

Minutes after my arrival those fears had dissipated. Warm welcome back, drip fed back into the old routine, no pressure. To be fair, I did nothing that could count as ‘work’ for the first week – more about catching up on what had happened while I was off, background reading, that sort of stuff.

Even so, I now began to understand why the phased return had been insisted on. I was exhausted by lunchtime each day. Not physically, but mentally. In my world, things gradually slowed down in my head as the hours passed by – like slow motion.

The word blockages were more prevalent, probably because of the more complex language used in the working environment compared to home. Without the phased return, I believe in hindsight that I would have struggled big time to get back into work. The experts were right!

It was during this week that I encountered a new problem: remembering names.

At home, I had a small circle of visitors. Not hard to keep on top of their names, though I do recall getting ‘Adam’ and ‘Alan’ mixed up now and again (both starting with ‘A’).

Now I had a dozen colleagues in the Branch, plus people from other Branches that we worked closely with. With monotonous regularity, I struggled to keep up with their names, even though I had known most of them for quite a few years. This is another side-effect that I have not yet overcome.

Not. A. Single. One.

Rather than go into great detail about each step of the journey from that first week back in work until today, I think it best just to highlight some key points.

Holland reached the semi-final of the World Cup, losing on penalties to Argentina.

‘Kings of the Castle’ went to print, and was launched on the exact date we had planned – 11 November 2014, seventy five years to the day since Carrick Rangers played their first ever game. We sold over 300 copies, way above my expectations. There will be an updated version in 2019 for the 80th Anniversary.

I’m still in work, in a new role following Departmental restructuring. The job requires more writing and decision making than before. I manage well, I think, but still have the odd ‘moment’ – work blockages (which I’ve recently found out has its own word – aphasia), and forgetting names (which I find embarrassing), short-term memory issues (which I try to mitigate against by extensive use of reminders on my phone).

Dog walking has gone to a new level. I used to think a mile or two was a decent walk. Now it’s more like four or five. Maxx is better for it, and so am I.

I finally grasped the nettle of my obesity. Rosemary wanted to lose a few pounds, but was nervous about approaching the local Slimming World. Eileen suggested we go as a double act, as this would make that initial visit easier.

And so it proved. Over twelve months I lost fifty pounds (in old money – no interest in kilograms). I’ve put a few back on, as seems to be the way when you hit target, but I’m adamant I’ll get back on that wagon sooner rather than later.

Cognitive ability is harder to quantify. When I’m ‘in the zone’ at work, I can operate with real clarity. However, my grammar is noticeably deteriorated. I was a bit of a grammar pedant, drummed into me since Primary School days.

Now, even the simplest of stuff can be challenging. “Your”, and “you’re” need careful consideration when I use either of these (I check and re-check every time, and to be honest it’s as often wrong as right). Without spellcheck, I think I may have been sacked by now for producing sub-standard work!

Simple mental arithmetic has gone to the dogs. It’s not too bad if I concentrate, but if it’s a casual calculation, I’m stuffed. Even the offers in Tescos need a double-check, to make sure I’m getting the bargain I think I am.

With all that going on, it may be hard to believe but I haven’t been happier. My perspective on live has changed. Work, although still very important to me, has dropped down the priority list. I value every second I spend in the company of family and friends (sounds corny, but it’s true). I appreciate so much more the things that I may have previously taken for granted, particularly Eileen!

Oh, one final thing. I have not eaten a single crisp, even on the occasion it was presented as a side to a salad when in a café.