Beware the Ides of March

My dad, through the years until shortly after his illness in 1983

Last week, I realised that it was exactly 38 years since my father had his first of three subarachnoid brain haemorrhages. He was 38 years old.

This has been the first anniversary of Dad’s first haemorrhage without Mum which is maybe why I’m writing about it now. I’ve also been scanning a lot of photos from my Mum’s collection which is helping piece together some of the puzzle.

The soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar warned the Roman emperor about the 15th of March, “Beware the Ides of March”. It’s a phrase that took on a very real meaning for our family.

On Tuesday 15 March 1983, my father Keith Saunders was in his birthplace of Nottingham to deliver the 1982/83 IEE Faraday lecture The Photon Connection about how fibre optics (light) would revolutionise communications. Shortly after he had stepped off the stage in Nottingham (I think it was at the Royal Concert Hall) he was giving an interview to the BBC about the lecture tour when he suddenly felt very ill. He turned, vomited and collapsed onto the floor. (I’ve often thought, somewhere, at some point, the BBC had footage of my dad vomiting!)

It had begun as an ordinary Tuesday in March but one that changed all of our lives forever.

Dad was rushed by ambulance to Nottingham City hospital and diagnosed with having suffered a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage.

According to the NHS website, “A subarachnoid haemorrhage is an uncommon type of stroke caused by bleeding on the surface of the brain. It’s a very serious condition and can be fatal.”

One positive: from the age of eleven, I was able to spell the word ‘haemorrhage’ correctly.

I remember someone coming to my primary 7 classroom door and speaking in hushed tones with my teacher. I was called out into the corridor. My mum was in Mr Bruce’s office, the headmaster. I needed to go and see her right away. When I got there, my brother and sister were also there. I don’t remember much about what was said, just that Dad had been taken seriously ill in Nottingham and Mum needed to go down there to be with him. Mum’s brother and his wife would look after us in our house while she was away. She would be leaving immediately. I returned to my classroom feeling quite unsettled.

That event changed me. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realised just how much. I had felt quite unprepared for that news. How could I be?! But looking back I now see how, from that moment on, I became a sponge for information. I wanted to know how everything worked. I wanted to be prepared for any eventuality. Even to this day, if you were to examine the contents of my rucksack it contains just about everything that I might need in an emergency or things that I (or others around me) have needed in an emergency in the past (first aid kit, penknife, tape measure, torch, a bunch of techie kit and cables, even a card game!). My anxiety levels, deep down, were sky high. But it wasn’t until my thirties that I realised this and relaxed a bit—I didn’t need to know everything: I now had the life skills to fill in the gaps as and when I needed to.

There was a problem with the machine they used in Nottingham to do brain scans. Dad would need to be moved to Derby Royal Infirmary (now London Road Community Hospital), 20 miles away. Another ambulance journey, more sirens, more flashing lights (not good for someone who’s just “blown their head gasket“, as Dad used to joke.

The main symptoms of a subarachnoid haemorrhage include:

  • a sudden severe headache unlike anything you’ve experienced before
  • a stiff neck
  • feeling and being sick
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • blurred or double vision
  • stroke-like symptoms – such as slurred speech and weakness on one side of the body
  • loss of consciousness or convulsions (uncontrollable shaking)

Over the next couple of weeks, Dad was in a critical condition. He overheard a couple of doctors in his room (who believed that they were out of earshot) say that they thought he had a 10 or 15% chance of living.

“I’ll show them,” he thought to himself. And he prayed that if God was to spare him then he’d work his hardest to witness to Jesus back home; and if not, then Rosalie (my mum) and his children would be looked after.

Dad had two more haemorrhages during this time in Derby. Mum spent as much time as she could with him and I think it was her medical knowledge in a large part is what kept him alive.

Dad had been moved to a room above the A&E department with the constant “nee-naw” of ambulances coming and going, and in direct sunlight with no curtains. Mum used to speak of a kind Chinese nurse helping her tape black rubbish bags to the windows to block the light, to ease Dad’s eyes. She told us about another nurse who walked into Dad’s room to change his drip, turn to my mum and laugh, “Do you know how to change this thing? I don’t.” What kind of confidence does that give the relatives of a desperately ill man?! Thankfully, Mum did—she was a very experienced nursing sister. She told us about how Dad was roughly wheeled into a lift to go for a brain scan and when the staff clattered Dad’s bed off the lift door he immediately had another haemorrhage.

One morning, Mum was sitting at Dad’s bedside in the hospital and was appalled when she watched a nurse using the same facecloth to wash his bum and then wash his face. Not for the first time, it appears. Mum went into level ten nursing sister mode and took the nurse to task about that breach of basic hygiene. But it was too late. Dad had a head wound from where they had operated on him and, inevitably, he got an infection.

When Dad was well enough to be moved, Mum requested that he be transferred back to Scotland. As I recall, she was told that he would need to be accompanied on the train by a nurse and there was some hesitation so Mum said, “I’m a nurse, I will accompany him”. And she did.

Dad was seen by the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh and the level of treatment was excellent.

Unfortunately, the infection in his wound had gotten worse. The infection went into his bone, into his skull, and was so bad that he had to have a portion of his skull removed above his right eye.

If you look closely, you can see the indentation caused by the removal of a portion of skull

There was now an indentation and all that separated his brain from the outside world was a flap of skin and a plastic patch on elastic which he wore over the dent—a bit like a pirate’s patch but larger and higher up.

The doctors told him that he’d need to live like that for about two years to allow the infection to completely clear. We counted down the months, and eventually Dad was taken back into the Western to have a custom-made plate fitted to fill the dent, wired in, I believe, with titanium.

Over time as things settled, there was a very distinct ridge around the wound site giving Dad’s forehead the look of an aerial archaeology find. But by that point his mental capacity was declining. There was too much scar tissue, too much physical brain damage. Dad began to develop dementia which slowly robbed him of his ability to live more independently.

It’s strange looking back at all of this now. I am now 11 years older than he was when he took ill; I was 11 years old at the time. I can see the events now through the eyes of an adult and can understand the concerns and worries and all the practicalities of Mum needing to race down to Derby to be at his bedside, find some semi-permanent accommodation while he was there, find a church community to support her, worry about her own job, and ensure that her three children were looked after. At the time, I was just worried about Dad and when would Mum be back home and I couldn’t even begin to consider anything more.

I look back at the 15 years we had once Dad returned home until his death in 1998. It wasn’t easy. But the one thing that I always come back to was that I loved my Dad and he loved me. I am thankful for those extra 15 years. I learned a lot about compassion, understanding, patience, resilience, perseverance, hope.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 49 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master. Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and former warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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