I first discovered I’d had a stroke when I suddenly couldn’t play the piano.
My regular listeners would ask how I could tell. I am a lounge pianist who has made thousands of people head for another lounge. Seriously, I am not that bad — after 60 years with the aid of fake books I know how to pick out a good repertoire of popular melodies. Now, when I looked at the familiar album of easy favourites from the 1930s open on the stand, my hands refused to play any of the chords. Instead of being Over the Rainbow I was Dancing in the Dark.
A few other things seemed a bit off that day. Tasks that were normally routine, like grocery shopping, seemed to need extra thought and effort. So was keeping up my end of a conversation. But no one else noticed anything wrong, so I went ahead with a speaking engagement at the Stuckeridge Literary Festival in Devon. I felt unsteady, even lurching, when I walked anywhere and had to think carefully on a long flight of stairs. My two talks went well, even though I thought I had been slurred and rambling. Cautiously, I asked people (most of them perfect strangers) if I had seemed abnormal in any way. Not at all. Hmm. Maybe they think I am permanently drunk.
On my return home things seemed much worse. I went online and checked out symptoms. Slurred speech… tongue feels too big … walking with difficulty … all limbs feel floppy … sudden memory lapses. Yes, they all suggested a stroke.
Ridiculous. Strokes don’t happen to people like me. All right, I’m over 65. But I gave up smoking when I left school. I drink only moderately even when someone else is paying. I have scarcely touched recreational drugs. I eat carefully. I have played cricket almost every week of the year, outdoors or in, for 60 years, and take a lot of other exercise. My body may not be a temple but it is a respectable chapel in regular use. Yes, I suffer sometimes from stress. I have been advised to relax. But, hell, everybody sometimes suffers from stress. I am certainly not over-stressed, and I’ll fight anyone who says so. I was not a candidate for a stroke. But I did feel odd enough to call for an ambulance.
They whizzed me to hospital where they immediately scanned my brain. They found one. They told me that they had seen no sign of a stroke. They must have seen me bat for the last 60 years. They thought it might be a mystery virus, which has become code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’. They did an echo cardiogram, twice. They said I had the heart of a 21-year-old man. I said: ‘I know, and he wants it back.’ I think they had heard it before.
They shuttled me from bed to bed. The initial treatment for a stroke seemed to consist of waking me up repeatedly and asking if I knew who and where I was. Richard Heller, in hospital, turned out to be the right answer every time. Shame: I hoped they had discovered that I was the rightful emperor of Brazil and restored me to the throne.
Then they did another scan and looked at all their findings more closely. They told me I had had a stroke after all. It was a very minor one, more a push to midwicket than a straight drive to the boundary. But it was a genuine stroke, affecting the hemipons, an area at the back of the brain which they explained as a sort of junction box for some key nerves, particularly those affecting speech and balance.
However, they could not find a cause. They got excited when they found a clot inside the carotid artery in the neck. But then they looked deeper and decided there was no clot after all, ‘just a layer of fur’. (Which sounds like a fashion statement rather than a diagnosis — ‘arteries will be worn this year with a layer of fur’.)
They gave me aspirin to thin the blood (something called clopidogrel took over this role after 12 days) but there was no further medication and no surgical intervention. Treatment still consisted of asking for my name, but they added a new challenge: pilot my forefinger to my nose. Fortunately, I have a big landing area. A physiotherapist inspected my walking. It still felt wobbly, but now only mildly drunk instead of 3am on a Saturday. A speech therapist gave me some familiar tongue-twisters. I managed ‘Five frantic frogs fleeing from a flotilla’ but ‘Seventy shivering sailors stood silently’ was beyond me: they would have died of hypothermia by the time I finished that sentence. So words with ‘s’ are out until further notice. I’ll be fine if I just keep off the plurals.
Writing was a worry. My handwriting had become painfully slow and seriously dreadful. At first, I could not sign my name. I thought this might actually be useful in dealing with creditors, but the occupational therapist made me follow letters and shapes with a pen. I hadn’t done this since nursery school. Keyboard speeds were slow too. She set me sentences I remembered from typing school. Quick brown foxes jumped again and again over the lazy dog, but so far to little effect. It still takes an age to type anything substantial. Maybe instead of writing articles I’ll have to write jokes for Christmas crackers instead.
After a few days of this they decided I could go home, although there are further tests and therapies to come as an outpatient. They still want to find a cause. They said I would be able eventually to do everything exactly as I did before. They really know how to depress a guy. Apart from keeping up the medication they recommended diet and lifestyle changes, principally not drinking alcohol. For how long? ‘Only the rest of your life.’ It’s enough to drive anyone to drink. A repeat becomes more likely with any stroke, so the key objective is to avoid having another stroke, and then another one after that. It reminded me of the Speaking Clock: ‘At the third stroke, your time will be … up.’
I went home. Since then, my life is all about discovering which faculties have stayed or gone or might be coming back. I rushed back to the piano. The same album of 1930s favourites was mockingly open. I found I could struggle through a few numbers, but painfully slowly. Pick Yourself Up sounded more like Pack Yourself Up, a funeral pavane, not Jerome Kern’s polka for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But my ironing skills were intact. So were my washing up skills, my vacuuming skills and my digging skills in the garden. Couldn’t I have lost them (‘It’s terrible, doctor, he’ll never manage a dustpan again’) instead of the piano?
They advised me at hospital to keep a diary of daily progress. I did for one day but now I’ve forgotten where it is. I am walking better but all movements are very slow. Billy Connolly has a wonderful line about turning 60: ‘You bend down to tie up your shoelace, and you think “Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?’” I have had a lot of Billy Connolly moments. I make lists of things to pick up before I hit the floor. It’s amazing what you can find under the bed when you decide to give some proper time to the job. Not just the usual cough sweets and tissues and foreign coins and homeless socks but old board games and an old movie script I could not remember writing. It was pretty good. Then I discovered I didn’t write it. I couldn’t remember the actual writer at all. When did he send it to me? Did he still expect comments?
Things looked up over Easter weekend. I got through Easter Bunny duty with two grandsons (two and four), laying quite a long trail and then actually remembering where I had hidden their eggs. I am glad I didn’t have to do Santa Claus: I’m not quite ready for all that ho ho ho-ing. I trapped a stray football and sent it quite a long way back to its owner. I conducted a conversation with a stranger and negotiated a lot of plurals. It was a case of my s is as good as yours.
And I went back to the piano. I negotiated Jerome Kern’s four tricky opening chords. Then the fiendish key change for the verse. ‘My two feet haven’t met yet…’ How appropriate. Then at maybe two-thirds speed into the melody. My daughter-in-law paused to listen. Without looking at the music, she said: ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.’ Most gratifying.
Richard Heller’s White On Green: Celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, co-written with Peter Oborne, is to be published by Simon & Schuster on June 30.
The Stroke Association offers excellent advice at Stroke.org.uk