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The Next Lamp Post – what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. My greatest challenge, a story of recovery and resilience

I’ve not blogged for a long time. Some of you may know I’ve been ill. Here’s my story of illness and recovery, this is longer than a typical blog, but I hope this inspires you to live a better life. Feel free to contact me if you want to talk:

“What’s it like to be dead?” he said over coffee. Maybe this was real after all and not a bad dream, I thought to myself. According to the British Heart Foundation there are more than 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK each year, with an overall survival rate of less than 1 in 10. I am one of the ten percent that survived.

I think there are times when we all take things for granted; not questioning how lucky we are, or not recognising how grateful we should be for the people around us and the life we have. What would it be like to be without the people and things that are precious to us? I had a very happy life which I expected to continue and didn’t questioned the future, except that it would continue. This was until one day when everything changed.

On 2nd March 2017, I went to a sports club, as I had for years, but that evening, towards the end of the class, my arms dropped to my side and I crumpled to the ground. My heart had stopped. Despite CPU, I had no heart beat for 20 minutes and my brain was starved of oxygen. Rushed to hospital, I was lucky that a senior cardiologist was on call and was able to identify blocked arteries and that I’d suffered a cardiac arrest. A stent was inserted into one artery to allow blood to my heart but the other arteries were blocked beyond repair.

I was in a coma and in intensive care for 17 days. The doctors told my wife that they were not sure if I would survive and even if I did, they could not say what condition I would be in. Because of 20 minutes without oxygen, I had suffered brain damage and may never walk, talk, or be able to live independently.

Several times my wife was told by doctors that “your husband is not responding”. One day, not willing to give up, my wife placed her phone on my pillow and played a video of a holiday in 2016 when my wife, daughter and I were playing together on the beach. As I heard the laughter, I slowly moved my head towards the sound. To prove that this was no coincidence, my wife moved the phone to the other side of my head and played the video again. Very slowly my head moved again towards the sound, and my wife said to the doctors “we have something to work with.”

Gradually I came out of the coma. The doctors said that my heart could be fixed with a triple heart bypass operation, but did not know how my brain would recover. It was like my mental capacity had been ‘reset’ to the age of two.  I didn’t know my wife and called her “that nice lady”, and I didn’t know I had daughter.  I had a learn everything again, and my wife and daughter became my physical therapists, never giving up. When I started to walk, I was like someone intoxicated, wobbling from side to side, not able to balance. Day after day my wife and daughter tirelessly worked with me so that I gradually learnt to walk again. My daughter played counting and shopping games with me and it was as if the roles had been reversed, she was now my teacher.

As I recovered, nurses would place food in front of me, but I would not eat and so they assumed I was not hungry and took the food away. When my wife visited, she explained to the nurses that I did not know what food was or how to eat. She put a fork in my hand, moved my hand and fork to the plate, picking up some food, and then into my mouth. To the astonishment of the nurses, I ate the food.

One day, my wife visited me in hospital and was pleased that I was sat up in a chair reading the Times newspaper. This was a clear sign that I was making a good recovery. The newspaper story was an article about Syrian refugees fleeing to safety with a photograph of a desperate Syrian woman queuing for food with her crying children. My wife asked what I was reading and I said “these people are queuing for the number 29 bus and its late, so they’re not very happy.” Although it looked like I was reading the article, I had no comprehension of the real story and I had invented my own simplistic interpretation of the photograph. Upset by this, my wife talked to the doctor and was told that this could be as good as it gets, and my mental ability may stay at this level forever.

As well as developing my physical abilities I also needed to rebuild my judgement. One day my wife ran a tap of hot water, and pointing to the steam, asked me what that was and what it indicated. I didn’t know the difference between hot and cold and couldn’t tell that the water was scalding hot and dangerous to touch. Over the next few days we went through a process of feeling the temperature of different cups of water and what to look out for so I learnt how to avoid being scalded.

It took time for my judgement to return, and at times my judgement was pretty poor, I would say that I was perfectly healthy and didn’t need to be in hospital with all these sick people! As the doctor told my wife, I was the sickest person on the ward. But as I was fairly determined that I should return home, my shoes, wallet and phone were taken away from me so I could not call a taxi and abscond.

My cognitive abilities gradually improved and with daily inputs from my wife and daughter, helping me undertake repetitive activities such as walking, counting, and making cups of tea, it was decided that I could return home until it was time for my bypass operation. In a fifteen-minute meeting, the doctor used the same word three times to describe the condition of my heart. He said my heart was “precarious” and would only allow me home with an understanding that I would not do anything except eat, rest and sleep.

I returned home 40 days after the cardiac arrest to wait for the bypass operation, but I was so weak that I needed a wheelchair to get about. Talking to the guy who delivered the wheelchair, I told him what had happened, and the operation I was about to have. He said “you’ll be a member of the zipper club” and undid his shirt to show me his bypass scar from 5 years ago. “You’ll be fine” he said.

In July 2017, I had the triple bypass operation. Veins were ‘harvested’ from my left thigh and grafted onto my heart to form three bypasses. I recovered for three days in intensive care, then high dependency, and then a normal ward before returning home. The operation went really well, but the three months recovering were slow and painful. The hospital physios had encouraged me to walk, so when at home, I went for daily walks. Lampposts became incredibly important. I would walk from my front door to the nearest lamppost and back again, probably 20 yards. This was incredibly tiring and painful. The next day, I would walk to the next lamppost. Each day I increased the distance by one lamppost, which became tangible symbols of my recovery.

I returned to work 3 months after the operation, with doctors and friends saying that my physical and cognitive recovery was miraculous. Reflecting on my illness and recovery, I truly believe the saying by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Although I am still recovering, I feel a stronger person, happier and less anxious, with more purpose and the feeling that anything is possible and there is a bright future.

Several people have said to me that I must be incredibly resilient to come through what I’ve experienced. I’ve never considered myself as a resilient person. Over the past few years, resilience has become a hot topic, and I’d been to a few presentations but struggled to connect with the subject. The speakers seemed to be either former SAS soldiers who had survived the terrible experiences of war, or people who had trekked unsupported across the artic. These ‘super humans’ were nothing like me, I could not do what they had done, and so I ignored the subject, believing that I was just a normal bloke from Birmingham.

But there is more to resilience, it seems to be a hidden ability, only evident when we are tested and it is called upon, and something that comes from the depths of our being. But does that mean that resilience can be developed, or do we have to wait and see if we have enough to get us through a crisis? Dr Martin Seligman, known as the father of resilience, concluded that after 15 years of study, that optimism was the key to resilience.

Now I can connect to optimism, I have always thought the future will be better than the past, and that set backs are temporary. While I was ill I experienced this in others. My friends at the sports club did not give up and continued with CPR even when I did not respond. The doctors and nurses did not give up. My wife and daughter always believed that I would get better and did not give up. And I didn’t give up, walking to the next lamppost each day.

I was reminded of Joseph Campbell and his work documenting the hero’s journey, with the stories of heroes being tested by mythological beasts, or the rites of passage as a child becomes an adult. These ‘journeys’ have common elements and Joseph Campbell identifies the role of the guide or helper in the hero’s journey. At different points on my journey, I had a number of helpers to guide me through my trials. John came to intensive care to play me my favourite music in the hope that it would stimulate me out of the coma. A friend that I had not seen for ten years drove for two hours to visit me in hospital. Other friends visited  every week while I was recovering at home and drove me out to get a cup of coffee. But most of all, my wife and daughter guided me through learning to walk, eat, count and learn how to become independent again.

All of my life, I’d valued independence and that I did not need to rely on other people. I was stubbornly independent, refusing help from others. However, when you can’t eat for yourself, stand, walk, or drive, you have no choice but to rely on others. In fact, without the help of others, particularly my wife and daughter, I would not have recovered so well or quickly. We all need helpers and guides along our journey.

On one of my daily walks, I can across an elderly lady pushing her husband in a wheelchair. She was struggling over cracks in the pavement and so I asked if she wanted help. She replied that she had to do it herself as it was only her and she had to get used to pushing her husband around. I admired her independence and determination, but she did not have to struggle alone, maybe like we all have done at different times in our lives.

These have been very dark times for my family, but together we never gave up, there was always hope that the next day would be better than today, and that I would walk to the next lamppost. When you or your coachees are facing dark moments, what else can be done, what is the next lamppost you can walk to, if you believed it were possible what would you do? What can be done to reconnect with your true purpose, and who are the guides and helpers that can help you in your journey?

If this inspires you, please donate to the British Heart Foundation 

I’m looking to write a book about recovery, 10 chapters with 10 stories of recovery from different contributors. If you have a  story or know someone else who would like to share a story, please contact me.

July 2019, photo of me climbing Mnt Snowdon, tallest mountain in England and Wales, 2 years after my triple heart bypass. Anything is possible…