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My NHS Story: What made my case unusual was that I was a young, fit bloke

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My NHS Story: What made my case unusual was that I was a young, fit bloke

For our celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the NHS this year we asked our colleagues for a story of how this cherished service has touched their lives.

Adam Higgins, Director – Primary Care Sales at Teva UK, dreamed of becoming a professional footballer until one day, at age 18, he was struck down by a brain haemorrhage. Given just a 30% chance of survival, Adam owes his life to NHS staff who worked tirelessly to save him. Here, he tells his story.

Like most young people, at age 18 I felt like I had all of life’s opportunities ahead of me. I was a fit, strong, semi-professional footballer about to embark on a year of travelling before starting my next chapter at university. Little did I know, my plans were about to be put firmly on hold.

In March 1992, I was playing an evening football match in Wolverhampton when, out of the blue, I was struck by an extreme “thunderclap” headache. I felt like I’d been hit by a baseball bat and it completely stopped me in my tracks. The pain dissipated so I carried on playing, but two minutes later it happened again and I had to come off the pitch.

Luckily, a stranger in the crowd – to whom I’m eternally grateful – phoned an ambulance. The crew gave me oxygen and blue lighted me to Wolverhampton hospital. The pain had become absolutely unbearable by this point – it felt like something was trying to hammer its way out of my skull.

The hospital staff administered an opiate injection and gave me the choice of either going home or staying in hospital. The pain was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, so I made the decision to stay. The hospital was incredibly busy because there had been a serious accident earlier on, so I was transferred to their sister hospital, who carried out a CAT scan.

Getting the diagnosis

It was at this stage that the seriousness of my condition became apparent. The scan showed I had a brain aneurysm, which is a bulge in a blood vessel. Mine had ruptured causing what’s known as a “subarachnoid haemorrhage”. This is an incredibly dangerous and life-threatening condition. According to the NHS, about three in five people who have a subarachnoid haemorrhage die within two weeks, and half of those who survive are left with severe brain damage and disability.

What made my case really unusual was that I was a young, fit bloke. Brain aneurysms are most common in people over the age of 40, particularly those who have high blood pressure or smoke. In some cases, however, brain aneurysms are caused by weaknesses in the blood vessels present from birth. Unbeknown to me, I’d be living with a brain aneurysm my entire life.

Thanks to the quick-thinking medical staff, I was rushed over to the specialist neurological unit at Smethwick hospital (which has now closed). They carried out what’s called an angiogram – they inserted a tube into an artery near my groin and injected a special dye through my blood vessels.

When the dye showed up on the x-ray, it revealed that blood had seeped out all over the front of my brain, making it impossible to determine where the rupture had taken place. In order for the blood to disperse throughout my body, I was told I had to lie in bed for 10 days – for a sporty, young man that felt pretty strange.

Staying strong

My vision was really blurred but I could hear everything that was going on. The hardest part was hearing the doctors tell my parents I had only a 30% chance of survival. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. We couldn’t have got through it without the amazing support we had from the hospital staff. Once the pain had subsided, I was able to build up a great rapport with the staff. We had a lot of banter and that really kept my spirits up.

After 10 days I was given another angiogram and it was recommended I have an operation. The doctor said that without surgery I might live to 104, but on the other hand I could have another haemorrhage in a year’s time – and it would probably kill me. My immediate reaction was, “where do I sign?”

The operation took place four days later. The doctors shaved my head and reduced my heart rate to as low as possible. I was in surgery for four-and-a-half hours. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the operation effectively involved wrapping a piece of tissue from my hip around the site of the bleed.

As I was waking up my dad kept grabbing my feet and hands to make sure I hadn’t lost any feeling in them, as that’s a common side-effect of the operation. Thankfully, I was really lucky – to this day all I’ve lost is movement in my right eyebrow. I can do a pretty good Sean Connery impersonation!

A second chance at life

I had my stitches removed on my 19th birthday – that was a fantastic day for myself and my family. I was told I would be prone to epilepsy and not to play contact sports ever again, but I’d survived an incredibly dangerous and traumatic episode. What’s more, I recovered more quickly than the doctors expected and was soon able to play football again.

The event changed my life forever, but in an entirely positive way. I’d set my heart on becoming a professional footballer, but with that channel closed I became focused on bettering my education. It led to me having a great career and travelling the globe – I’ll never take those for granted.

The NHS saved my life and was there when I most needed it. Without them, I would most likely have died, or at the very least lived with severe disabilities. My family and I will be forever grateful to the NHS for giving me a second chance at living.