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Comedy legend Gene Fitzpatrick is laughing again after a life-changing stroke

11 Jan 2024
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‘Blue Monday’ (15th January) is thought to be the most depressing day of the year but someone who could chase away the post-Christmas blues is legendary local comedian Gene Fitzpatrick. Gene has been making the public laugh for more than four decades and with his upbeat persona may seem an unlikely candidate for experiencing ill health. Gene had an unexpected, life-changing stroke in June 2021 however. It has been a long, hard road to recovery for Gene, but he is sharing his story to raise awareness of stroke and to encourage other stroke survivors to keep pushing on their recovery journeys and see there is still hope after a stroke.

Gene recalls; “It was 17th June 2021. I was getting ready to go and get my hair cut. I was about to head out the front door but started to feel unwell. I went back into the kitchen, made a coffee and when I started to try and talk, it sounded all wrong. I said to my wife, ‘I’m talking funny’, and she said, ‘so you should be, you're supposed to be a comedian’ but we knew something really wasn’t right and phoned an ambulance.”

“I had no outward signs of a stroke- no fallen mouth, no drooped eye, nothing like that, so when the paramedics arrived they spent about 20 minutes trying to work out what was wrong. They took me to Craigavon Area Hospital and after tests the doctor told me I should have been on blood thinners to prevent blood clots. He then informed me that I had had a stroke. That was a huge shock.”

“Up until that point I had been feeling grand, except for the impact on my speech. Then one of the nurses gave me a drink of water and I coughed and spluttered, and they told me my swallow had gone. The following day I was ten times worse than the day I had the stroke. I lost my voice as well as my swallow and the power on my left-hand side had gone. Due to the issues with my swallow I was Nil by Mouth. That was really tough because I wasn't even allowed to sip water off a spoon, I was tube fed through my nose. It was very frustrating.”

Despite the severity of the impact of his stroke Gene started on his recovery journey almost immediately. He explains; “A couple of days after my stroke I started doing walking exercises on a machine. It was just 10 or 15 steps and then I was back in bed, but it was a start. After a while I was transferred to Lurgan Hospital for more rehab. I was really fed up with being tube fed through my nose at that stage and asked if there was anything that could be done about that. Thankfully the medical team were able to insert a PEG feeding tube into my stomach which was a lot easier for me to handle.”

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“I ended up staying in hospital for three months which was hard- for me and my family. After I was discharged from hospital the Community Stroke Team started coming out to me, so I could continue my rehab at home. That lasted for 12 weeks and at that stage I had to have a hospital bed downstairs as I wasn’t allowed to go upstairs or do much really. I made a promise to myself when my home rehab ended however that by Christmas time I would be upstairs in my own bed. And I was. I had to get an aid to help me get out of bed, but I did it. I also started trying to have some food. I started with things like an ice lolly or foods that had been thoroughly blended and slowly but surely, I made progress. Now I can eat 99% of things which is great.”

Gene credits a lot of his progress to the support he received from local health charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS). He explains; “Lynne from NICHS phoned me after I had been discharged from hospital and she then came out to see me. She told me about the charity’s Post Rehab Exercise Programme (PREP) as well as their Surviving Stroke Wellness Sessions. PREP sounded brilliant, but I couldn’t go at that time because I wasn't able to drive. So, I used to practice around Tesco's car park on a Sunday morning when it was empty with my son. He used to call it ‘dad’s white-knuckle ride’! It was like learning to drive all over again, but I followed all the DVLA guidance and got back to driving.”

“I started going to PREP and I have to say, for anybody that has had a stroke, PREP is the best thing ever. It’s absolutely brilliant. It involves a combination of education and physio-developed exercises and the physios and NICHS staff that lead the sessions are great. I still do the exercises I learnt at PREP every day. I start every morning with a cup of tea and then do about 20 minutes of PREP exercises. Recently I have also started to go to the gym later on in the mornings. I do about 45 minutes of cycling, walking and weights and honestly, I feel brilliant.”

Gene continues; “Another great thing about PREP was seeing other people’s progress. You might have someone who is exclusively using a wheelchair when they start PREP but over time they start weightbearing or taking a few steps. It means so much. There is great friendship and comradery at the PREP groups. Everyone understands what it’s like to have had a stroke and that is very important.”

“I still go to NICHS’s Newry and Craigavon Wellness Sessions and I really enjoy them. I’ve made so many friends and I’ve been able to help and encourage others which is really what it’s all about. I hope to be able to volunteer for the charity in the next year or so as I want to help others in a similar situation. The support and advice I got from NICHS was invaluable. They are unbelievable, they gave me so much hope.”

It was not just the physical impact of his stroke that the team at NICHS were able to support Gene with however, as he explains; “I decided I wanted to get back to doing some comedy. I didn’t want to go back to full-time showbusiness, but I wanted to do some small shows for charities. I told Lynne about this and we decided I would try and do 10-15 minutes of comedy at one of the charity’s Wellness Sessions. This really helped me get my communications skills going again and get some of my confidence back.”

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“Since then I’ve done about 8 fundraising shows for a number of charities. I performed at a recent NICHS Christmas event for other stroke survivors and their families and carers. I also did a bit at Emma from charity’s recent wedding which was just lovely. This has really helped me get my confidence back- the performances were by no means perfect, but I’ve come a long, long way since 17th June 2021. People ask me ‘why are you back telling jokes?’ but it's not about wanting to be funny, it’s about practice and getting my communication skills back. I am still my own worst critic though!”

Having come so far, what would Gene’s advice be to anyone who is unfortunately affected by stroke? “I would tell anybody that has had a stroke the most important thing you can do is movement, movement and movement. Whatever you can do, do it and keep doing it. And get in touch with NICHS!”

“I started off slowly and tried to keep building on and pushing what I could do and it’s getting better and easier all the time. When I first joined my gym, the staff had to help me on and off the machines. I could hardly stand for long, I was wrecked after 5 minutes on the walking machine. Now I can exercise for nearly an hour.”

“What I am doing now with exercise etc might not necessarily stop me from having another stroke or make me live longer, I know that, but it certainly helps me live better. I eat and sleep well. I even have friends who haven’t been affected by ill health say I’ve given them the inspiration to get exercising. That’s a big plus for me.”

Gene concludes; “I came across a quote from Socrates which says the best way to change is not to focus on the past but put all your focus on making a new you. A new life. That’s what I am doing. I am not worrying about what happened in June 2021, I’m thinking about what’s going to happen in June 2024. I keep looking ahead and I am very thankful. I’m a great believer that if you adopt an attitude of gratitude your life will change. I’ve got an attitude of gratitude and my life is changing.”

Ursula Ferguson, Director of Care Services at Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke comments; “We are so thankful to Gene for sharing his story and raising awareness of stroke. Having a stroke is a life-changing reality for thousands of people in our local community every year. As well as the negative impact on physical wellbeing, stroke can reduce independence, confidence, and happiness. Stroke can also affect relationships, take away jobs and careers and render some families isolated within their own homes- but NICHS is here to help with expert care and support.”

“The help available from our Care Services team is extensive and, alongside PREP and our Wellness Sessions, includes family support, health education programmes, Young Stroke groups, a Return to Work programme and emotional support.”

“Our team works across Northern Ireland with people of all ages affected by stroke, alongside their families and carers. They are dedicated to supporting people in adjusting to life with a stroke condition, helping them to enjoy life to the full, re-engage with hobbies, and improve their confidence, independence, and overall quality of life.”

If you have been affected by stroke and need support visit for further information about NICHS’s stroke support services.