Andrew Marr, after the stroke: ‘I’m going to be sweeter all round’
The Observer, by Robert McCrum
Andrew Marr has always had the air of a man in a hurry, urgent with purpose and a sense of destination. On Twelfth Night, 6 January this year, however, the wheels came off the Andy Marr roadshow. Here, in his own words, is what happened. "It had been a not particularly busy day. I came home at six, cooked the family meal, and went out to the garden shed."
When his ageing knees gave up on him, Marr, an avid runner, had installed a rowing machine. "I was pushing myself to do something like 5km in 20 minutes, which is a challenge even for a professional oarsman let alone a sedentary journalist," he recalls, reliving his crisis. "I was really pleased with myself but at the same moment I felt I’d done something stupid. It wasn’t painful but I knew something had gone wrong."
Marr returned to the house to serve the family meal. "Now I felt sick," he continues, "and I had this blinding headache. Flashes and a cascade of brilliantly coloured lights. I thought it was a migraine. Really, I had no idea. My grandmother, an indomitable woman, had suffered a stroke, which I associated with something that happened to older people. "
Jackie, his wife, seeing that he was unwell, tried to get him to go to casualty but Marr refused. "We all sat and watched a silly film [The American starring George Clooney]. Then I went to bed, took some painkillers and fell asleep. The next thing I remember is waking up in the morning lying on the floor, having fallen out of bed. I remember thinking, This is a really stupid thing to have happened – just an intense feeling of irritation – such a bad way to start the day. I still had no idea what was going on. Eventually I did struggle to my feet but I could not lift my leg to get into the shower. When I looked in the mirror and saw the downward droop of my mouth I realised I’d had a stroke."
The word sounds so inoffensive, a synonym for "brush" or "caress". You "stroke" a baby or a lover, but its old English origin connotes "a blow" and "a calamity". Make no mistake, stroke is deadly. Next to cardiac disease and cancer it’s the most common cause of death in the western world. Approximately one third of those who suffer a stroke will die, often from a second subsequent assault on the brain. Of those who survive, about half will be left with permanent and severe disability. The physical consequence of stroke is a horrifying catalogue of damage that includes personality changes, impaired sensation, paralysis, incontinence, visual or language problems, deafness, blindness and seizures.
In Britain about 150,000 people a year will have some kind of stroke. That’s one every five minutes. On this January morning, with Marr’s fate poised on a knife edge, the family had telephoned for an ambulance. All Jackie could do was wait. "I was terrified," she remembers, joining our conversation with a solicitous air. "I thought he was going to die."
Andrew Marr has just turned 54, which is young to have a stroke but not exceptional. Although stroke is associated with old age, about 20% occur under the age of 40, sometimes to teenagers and, more horrifyingly, to young mothers. As a stroke sufferer, Marr had crossed from what Susan Sontag (in Illness As Metaphor) calls "the kingdom of the well" to "the kingdom of the sick". He did not yet know this new country. Soon, however, it would be dawning on him that he was no longer the person he’d been on New Year’s Eve. Willy nilly, he would have to acknowledge his forced emigration from good health.
I know all this because, 18 years ago, I too suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage, and survived. I wrote a book about it, My Year Off, and ever since have been invited to counsel some well-known stroke sufferers, from the avant-garde theatre director Max Stafford-Clark, to the Tory grandee Douglas Hurd, and the film star Kirk Douglas. When Marr, whom I know slightly from his time on the Observer, was struck down, I wrote offering support. His wife, Jackie Ashley, is a columnist on our sister paper the Guardian. I knew from experience that the burden of convalescence falls on partners and children, placing a strain on even the most happy families.
So, not long after, I found myself one cold winter’s night being shown into Marr’s private room on the sixth floor of the Charing Cross hospital. Like all visitors to a new patient’s bedside, I did not know quite what to expect. What kind of stroke had he suffered? The crucial question was: on which side of Marr’s brain had the stroke occurred, left or right? The two halves of the brain have different functions. The right brain specialises in some aspects of emotional processing and musical perception. The left side deals with reading, writing, numeracy and language. If you must have a stroke, thank your stars it’s right side not left. As a broadcaster, Marr was lucky, with a right side haemorrhage: he would retain his language and memory.
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