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My Sri Lankan stroke: how a book festival turned into a horror story

Sitting at the dinner table, I suddenly couldn’t make any sense. And then the nightmare began

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

This time last year, it seemed that life couldn’t get much better for me: I had a new book out to appreciative reviews, had just returned from a literary festival in Mumbai and was en route to a few more, in Galle, Jaipur and Lahore.

The Galle festival is small and cosy — a little paradise of sun and sea and authors and books — and I loved my first event, with the lively Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey. Afterwards, signing books, I had a bad headache but I took a paracetamol and tried to ignore it. That night, there was a big dinner organised by Geoffrey Dobbs, the man who started the festival (and who owns several of Sri Lanka’s nicest hotels). Everyone was chatting around the long table and I said something to Christina Lamb, the chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times. But as the sentence left my lips I was aware that it was a meaningless string of words and made absolutely no sense. I tried saying ‘I’m so sorry I don’t know why I said that,’ but the same thing happened, and Christina said to AW (as I call my husband): ‘I think Brigid is having a stroke.’

Geoffrey Dobbs leapt into action and dispatched his hotel manager with AW and me, all squashed together in a two-seater tuk-tuk, to the hospital. They had more or less shut up for the night, but they took my blood pressure (extraordinarily high) and said come back tomorrow.

Next morning, two young lads turned up at the hotel with an ambulance to take me back. Over that day, lots of tests were done. The hospital — apparently a private one — was packed with patients; when they did an ultrasound scan of my neck arteries I was huddled on a bench surrounded by dozens of people waiting and watching. By the end of the day, I still had the headache but my speech was making sense again and at 11 p.m. the efficient English-speaking doctor came to tell us we could go home. Colm Tóibín and other writers were relaxing on the veranda of the hotel as we returned and they gave us a round of applause.

AW had cancelled the lunch I was due to speak at the next day, but we decided I should go ahead with my talk the day after. This went reasonably well and that night I slept like a log. But when I woke up the next morning, I found with horror that I couldn’t speak at all. I didn’t know how to communicate to AW that though only unintelligible noises were coming out of my mouth, my brain was clear, but somehow he knew.

The ambulance boys came back; this time they were supposed to drive us to the big hospital in Colombo for brain scans, but somehow we didn’t set off till about 6 p.m. Then, with the lights flashing, we covered the journey in one hour instead of two. I was so scared, I don’t know why I didn’t have another stroke there and then.

After seeing my scans, the doctor in Colombo explained that I had had a minor stroke on the right side of my brain and another, more significant, at the back, in an area dealing with speech and memory. Had I been in the UK, I realised sadly, I might not have had the second one, because the hospital would have taken action after the first.

Back in Galle, AW took me back to the local hospital and went to the hotel to pack our things as the festival ended the next day and we had to leave our room. I spent half that miserable night attempting to corner and kill a giant cockroach and to get warm under a nylon sheet in the air conditioning.

Next morning, a speech therapist arrived. ‘Madam, tell me, what is this?’ she asked, holding up my pillow. Somewhere in my brain I knew what it was but I had no idea how to turn the thought of a pillow into the word for it, so stood there with an idiotic smile on my face, all the time thinking that the whole situation was so comic that it would make a good Harry Enfield sketch.

The hospital told AW that I must not fly home for at least two weeks. Geoffrey Dobbs offered to put us up free in one of his hotels, for which we will never cease to be grateful. On our way there, AW stopped at a bookshop and bought a child’s vocabulary book full of pictures with captions. He has no idea what inspired him to do this, but this humble book gave me back my speech — and even my life.

Day after day at the hotel I sat and tried to read the words out loud to AW or to one of the gentle cleaning women. My first success was ‘rabbit’; it took about an hour for me to get the word out, with AW urging me on: ‘Ra? Ra? Brilliant! Go on.’ I couldn’t remember any names, not even my children’s, but AW wrote them out and I slowly copied them and tried to say them. I composed a reassuring sentence to repeat to my daughters in London over the phone; I practised it over and over before ringing, but it was slurred and made them feel worse.

In Sri Lanka, far from family, unable to speak and confused, I felt as if I were living in some terrifying Salvador Dalí world of melting clocks, and occasionally I would be overcome with despair. How did this happen to me? My whole life has revolved around words: I had been writing since I was 20, I talk too much, I was good at telling stories.   And I was terrified: I knew that if you have had a stroke, you can easily have another one. I couldn’t sleep for fear that another ‘event’ would come like a thief in the night.

The only thing that brought any comfort (aside from AW whom I clung to like a limpet) was sitting in the Catholic church in Galle. Except I couldn’t pray, because I couldn’t do anything in my head. I asked AW to write out the words of the Hail Mary; I had said it every day for more then 70 years but now I couldn’t remember a word. AW said, ‘You know I’m a Buddhist and I don’t know the Hail Mary, but I’ll Google it’, which made us both hysterical.

We flew home eventually and I saw a heart doctor and a neurologist, and though they put me on blood thinners it seemed Sri Lanka hadn’t done too badly. No one knew why I had the strokes. A speech therapist, Dr Renata Wurr, sent me lists of words and tongue twisters to do, and I am also supposed to read out loud as much as possible.

My grandchildren were overjoyed to find that I couldn’t say the alphabet or count to ten, and they still love it when I say something like Naked American Indian instead of Native, or tell AW that we are having baked shit for supper instead of fish, or talk about the cruelty of the gazpacho instead of the Gestapo.

I don’t feel comfortable in crowds these days. I can’t really tell stories successfully or remember the poems I learned when I was a child, or the lyrics of all the 1960s songs I knew by heart, but I can still write. And when I think of all the devastating might-have-beens, I consider myself the luckiest person in the world.

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