The survival statistics after suffering a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage are not good. Many die on the spot when they happen, many are crippled for life, and an exceptionally lucky few recover. Simon Shrouder is one of the lucky few.
In the week that parkruns across the country prepare to celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS, Simon thanks the medical professionals who saved his life, and then suggested he incorporate Southport parkrun into his rehabilitation.
All of us doing the parkrun have a back story – a reason why we get out of bed on a Saturday morning and get down to join our fellow parkrunners. For some it’s a chance to kick off the weekend with a healthy dose of endorphins, for others it might be just to keep those joints moving – or to try to lose a few pounds. It might also be for the sheer fun of it, the camaraderie – the joy of being close to nature, running through trees or by water, facing whatever the elements may have to throw at us.
Or there might be a deeper reason: recovery from a crippling illness, a heart attack, a stroke – or an ongoing battle against the threat of an illness. It might even be a defiant statement against a disability – go to parkrun and you see it all. It may not emblazoned on the t-shirt or running vest – but it is all there.
This week I want to share my story – and say thank you. Thank you to the volunteers who make parkrun possible – who organise the day, who marshal key points of the course, who lift our spirits when we stumble, who set out the course and clear it up when we’re long gone. At Southport parkrun, where I call home, thank you to the irrepressible Bob – the man who never fails to give you that boost just when you think you’re on your own and can go no further. Thank you to the other park users who accommodate hundreds of sweaty people with, for the most part, good grace.
I’m 62 now. In my dad’s day I would be an old man to many – all but written off. I would probably not have long to live. In his day many scrambled through to retirement and then just dropped dead. How times have changed.
Five years ago I nearly was written off. A lifetime behind a desk as a journalist and PR man – fighting against deadlines, grabbing fast food, bottling up pressure. Something had to give – and it did. In 2010, after doing a series of 5k and 10k runs, I thought I was doing ok. I knew I had high blood pressure, I knew I was carrying excess weight, but I had been using the gym, I had been jogging when I could and I felt in control. So… I decided to enter The Great North Run. Mark Knopfler, the Red Arrows, the spirit of the North East – what more inspiration could a man of my generation want?
It’s a gruelling course and seems to have a long finish, but I gave it my all and finished the run, drove home on my own with my folding camper and thought no more about it. I knew I’d pushed myself a bit harder than perhaps I should have, but I had no idea that I had done some damage I wasn’t aware of.
In the gym on the treadmill in the morning, I’d be jogging along and every six or seventh stride my left leg would just go from under me – it was as if the running instruction to the leg simply wasn’t getting through. A bit strange I thought, so I went to see the company doctor. He could see nothing wrong and suggested some better running shoes. I thought no more about it.
Then one evening in February 2011 when my wife and her friend were due to go out to see the film Black Swan, I was on the loo when the phone rang and I got stressed trying to see to both jobs – answer the phone and finish the loo. Within seconds I had a blinding pain in my head, tingling lips and a stiff neck.
I knew something was wrong but had no idea what. I was taken to the hospital and I found myself lying in a cubicle with a feeling in my head like a computer on total meltdown – a brain crash, a hot lurid all-consuming brain crash. Life most certainly felt like it was about to end.
It was a Friday night in Southport. I was triaged and assessed and, incredibly, sent home later that evening. I suspect they thought I was a hypochondriac with a mild migraine. In the early hours of the following morning and the headache still incredibly painful, my wife took me into hospital again. It was the same story. I got assessed and was sent home later that morning – they could see nothing wrong and did not seem overly concerned.
And so I carried on – and even went to work on the Monday morning. It was only when I nearly fell over while walking to the photocopier that I realised that, whatever had gone wrong, was still not right. Stupidly I drove myself home and went to the doctor. She recognised the symptoms immediately and insisted I be driven straight back to hospital – if not in an ambulance then with a relative in a car without delay.
It was my late father-in-law who kindly took me back to Southport Hospital. This time I was admitted, but the hospital was incredibly busy and I had to wait until the early hours of Tuesday morning for a bed. In the morning they gave me an MRI scan. And then everything changed.
“We think you might have had a bleed on the brain, Mr Shrouder. We’re going to transfer you to the Walton Neurological Centre where they can assess and treat you.” The next minute I was in an ambulance and on my way to Liverpool.
It turns out that the reason my left leg had become unreliable when jogging in the gym was that an expanding berry aneurysm was interfering with the signals from my brain – and on the night of the girls’ Black Swan trip, under a moment of stress, the aneurysm had popped in a place in the brain they call the Circle of Willis – a place that, as I understand it, until the early 2000s they would have struggled to reach safely when performing life-saving surgery.
The survival statistics around a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage are not good. Many die on the spot when they happen, many are crippled for life – and an exceptionally lucky few largely get away with it.
Brilliant neurosurgeons in Walton Hospital inserted a platinum coil up through my groin, past my heart and up into my brain to that romantic location called the Circle of Willis – there using precision guidance and a lot of bottle – they put enough current into the wire to burn it out like a fuse at its weakest point releasing the coil into the burst aneurysm and blocking the hole – how brilliant is that!
I’d written a mini-will before the operation on the advice of a worldly wise and very funny nurse. I didn’t realise it, but the recovery period from this sort of operation is the really dangerous time as there can often by fatal or debilitating complications unless the bodies systems are kept in perfect equilibrium – especially sodium levels.
So I just lay in bed, surrounded by other people worse off than me, who all found the time to smile in that very caring environment where all that could be felt was love, positivity and incredible expert care. I owe my life to Walton Hospital and to Dr McCormick and I will never be able to thank them enough.
When you’ve had a brain haemorrhage and are in recovery the brain goes into a strange state. For me, it was as if the world was going far too quickly – I simply could not cope with all the information my eyes and ears were feeding through to me. For a week or two after leaving hospital I had to stay in a darkened bedroom – and later through the love of caring friends I was coaxed into learning to cross the road again – an experience which, to begin with, was extremely stressful.
As we all know though, the human body is an amazing machine – and within six months I was back at work – albeit a bit of a basket case – but back at work surrounded by colleagues who again showed the sort of love that simply lifts the spirits.
A year after suffering the brain haemorrhage I was offered a job as global head of media relations based in Europe. Amazing. As big a testament to the skills and dedication of the NHS as any I think. But, for understandable reasons I was still scared of running. If you’ve had one burst pipe in your head you certainly don’t want another!
But then I put on weight, my blood pressure rocketed and I quickly realised I was going to be in trouble again. The doctor put me on a Living Well Taking Control NHS course for those who are borderline diabetic, and my wife dragged me down to parkrun where it was time to get back running and confront my fears.
Those first runs, trundling round the park weighing in at 106.8 kilograms were humbling experiences. But, once again, I found myself surrounded by friendly faces and not being judged – instead simply being allowed to make my own progress in my own time for my own reasons. That is one of the wonderful things about parkrun. They just make you feel good about yourself and your fellow man.
When I started those runs I had a blood sugar level of 42, which while it might be the answer to life, the universe and everything in Douglas Adams’s book, is not actually particularly healthy. Now it is down to 35 – which, I am told, is bang in the middle of normal.
And my weight? Now 97.2 kilograms and still going down. Yes, I have given up beer, yes, I have given up bread (I have found out I’m allergic to wheat) – but more importantly thanks to the Living Well Taking Control course, I have learned how to quickly read food labels and how to be much more sensible when it comes to portion size.
Now you may say, well it’s all common sense – and anyone can do that. What I say to that is that often the culture, stresses and opportunities in life (including marketing pressures) steer us in a different direction. Have that McDonalds, take comfort from that curry and chips – why not snack on that big bag of liquorice allsorts that sit so temptingly in the pocket of the car. It’s hard to walk away from all of that – but once you’ve had the sort of support I’ve had, it becomes much easier.
So a huge thank you from me to the NHS on its 70th Birthday – a huge thank you to Dr McCormick and the Team at Walton Neurological Centre – and a huge thank you to Casper at the NHS’s Living Well Taking Control – I love you all more than words can say.
Oh yes, one more thing. Last week I entered the Great North Run again – this time I’m doing it for the Stroke Association. Time to get back on the bike!
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