Neal was born with a congenital heart defect and had two heart valve replacements in 2001 and 2003. However, not long after the second operation he began losing his balance. Brain scans showed he had two aneurysms, which people with Neal’s heart condition are more prone to. He had a lengthy operation to remove them but 4 days later, he suffered a stroke. He was paralysed down his left hand side, and lost the ability to walk or speak.
“Over the next 2 years, Neal fought hard to regain his mobility and speech. He was naturally left handed so had to learn to write with his right hand, practising each day. He began walking a few yards from the house and back, gradually building up the distance. He learnt to drive again using an automatic car. His determination was incredible and he was also able to see the silver lining in the situation – that he was able to spend more time with our four children. By February 2005, Neal was able to return to work as a vet, beginning with an hour a day.”
During those two years of recovery, Neal had been in contact with Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke. Their Stroke Family Co-ordinator had spent time with him, listening and talking to him when he felt down. She had also arranged for him to go on a computer course, which helped when he found it difficult to write. So Neal decided to organise a sponsored walk to raise money for NI Chest Heart & Stroke and also Heartbeat. On the 28th May 2005, he and some friends walked 20 miles along the canal towpath from Newry to Portadown. The walk was a great achievement for a man who two years before had been paralysed down one side. However, sadly he passed away just one month later.
Maria continues the story, “By the time of his death, Neal was working 5 hours a day. On the day he died, 30th June 2005, he had been to work, walked the dogs twice and cut the half acre of grass round our house. He came back from the second dog walk after 8pm. The children were playing in the garden. Neal and I were chatting outside, about tyre pressures of all things. I remember it all so clearly. Suddenly he felt dizzy and crumpled to the ground. Myself and a neighbour called 999.
“As he lay on the ground, I took his hand and asked him to squeeze it if he could hear me. There was no response but then I realised I had taken his left hand, which he couldn’t use. So I took his right hand and repeated myself, but there was still no response. The ambulance crew and our local GP, a family friend, worked very hard to save him. But despite their best efforts, Neal was pronounced dead at 9.20pm on 30th June 2005.”
Pausing for a moment, the pain of reliving that day evident on her face, Maria quietly added, “Then I had to tell the kids.”
As the 10th anniversary of his death approached, Neal’s 3rd child, Katie, started to think about how to mark it. On a family visit to Neal’s sisters in Scotland, she mentioned the idea of revisiting his sponsored walk. Katie explains, “I wanted to find a way to remember my dad that would remind everyone of how amazing and determined he was but at the same time raise money for NICHS. I decided to literally follow in his footsteps with a 20 mile sponsored walk along the same route as 10 years ago, followed by BBQ.”
The event took place on Saturday 27th June 2015, just 3 days before his anniversary. Maria says that planning the event gave them a positive focus. Rather than just thinking about day he died they were planning and training for the walk. In the end about 40 people took part – 20 did the whole 20 miles and the others joined for part of it. Neal’s sisters, Frances and Hilary, and his niece, Rachel, came from Scotland to take part.
Katie continued, “I would like to thank everyone who helped me organise this, especially my mum and my aunts, and all the people who took part and donated money. There are so many aspects of NICHS’s work that relate to my dad’s life. Not only did he benefit from their work during his lifetime, I really believe he would be a supporter of the other work they do, such as funding research into congenital heart defects and campaigning to make people aware of health issues. But most of all, my dad taught us that no matter what life throws at you, you should take time to help others. This is our tribute to him – raising money in his memory to help others.”
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.