How Secret Helpers reached out to Norfolk stroke survivor Dan on his wedding day
- Credit: Benjamin Mathers
Dan Needham from North Norfolk had two strokes in the space of a week and has navigated a difficult path to recovery. He's the stand-out star in an episode of BBC2's The Secret Helpers where he enlists the support of strangers to help him cope with his wedding day to sweetheart Suzanne.
It's been more than two years since Dan Needham's live was turned upside-down by two strokes in quick succession.
Fit, healthy, recently-engaged and building his first family home in North Norfolk, life was good for Dan, who was in his mid-30s when he sneezed while driving to work and immediately realised that something was very wrong. Partially blinded and weak on his left-hand side, Dan didn't realise what had happened.
'I was lucky because I had a hands-free phone in the car and had been able to pull over. I was on a side road in Antingham and was able to call my fiancée Suzanne, who is a physiotherapist, and she was able to find me and get me to hospital where they told me I'd had a minor stroke.' said Dan, who is a sales engineer for ATB Laurence Scott.
'Until it happened to me, I thought strokes were something that happened to people over the age of 55 who hadn't looked after their diet or who had drunk or smoked too much. Now I know they can happen to anyone at any time – there's no age limit.'
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In the weeks prior to his first stroke, Dan and his fiancee had been decorating their new house and he had been away with his work. He'd also taken a tumble from his beloved motorbike which may have contributed to the clot which was dislodged by the sneeze.
Treated with aspirin and anti-coagulants and discharged after four days, Dan was just getting to grips with what had happened when he sneezed again and had another, far bigger, stroke: this time, he knew exactly what had happened. At his father's house while building work was going on, he was rushed to hospital.
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'My eyesight had completely gone and my left-hand side had completely been paralysed. The right side of my face had slipped. A clot the size of a pea had caused all these major effects – my life changed in a moment.'
At the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital on Heydon Ward, Dan slipped in and out of consciousness for several days.
'I then started to wake up more and I realised that I was in a lot of trouble. I was consumed by sheer despair. I'd found the love of my life, I was getting married, I loved my job, I was having my first family home built – that was what was so brutal about what happened. Life was good. I felt like I was a passenger in my life and no longer in the driving seat,' he said.
Grief-stricken, Dan found himself chatting to one of the hospital chaplains, Rev Jane Nursey.
'I was feeling desperate. I asked 'why me?' 'where's my miracle moment?' Then we talked it through and she helped me change my perspective – she said I should try and pull a positive from a negative and that I had everything I needed for my recovery already: the people on the ward and the people who loved me.
'It was like a lightbulb had come on. After coming back from the chapel, the idea of a Facebook page for stroke survivors and their families (www.facebook.com/4stroke4life/) came about. I still couldn't see or walk and even getting in and out of the wheelchair required a lot of assistance and was very painful but I had a purpose. I had no idea what the response would be.'
Hundreds of thousands of people in similar situations reached out to Dan to offer love, advice and support. It was, he said, mind-blowing.
Months of tough physiotherapy followed – Dan, of course, had an in-house physiotherapist in Suzanne – and slowly, he learnt how to walk again and after six difficult months, his sight returned ('I could have lived with any of the other symptoms, but not that,' he said) to pre-stroke sharpness.
'I think if you look for a positive in what happened, it's that it's given me a lot more empathy and compassion for people. These days, my stroke is hidden but it doesn't mean that life isn't a challenge – you never know what people are going through, so never judge a book by its cover,' he said.
'It's also made me realise just how kind so many people are. The nurses under enormous pressure who make time to ensure that you have a better day than yesterday, the strangers who reach out to you online, your family who are hit just as hard by a stroke as you are. A lot of us spend a lot of time looking down at the ground in our own bubble, don't let it take something bad happening before you realise what you're missing.'
It seems, I tell him, as if Dan – an ambassador for the Stroke Association - can offer us all a wealth of insight and expertise into the human condition, making it seem somewhat strange that his appearance in a new TV show called The Secret Helper - in which a range of people with different life experiences offer their advice to people facing a testing time - is as the helped rather than the helper.
'I didn't realise how much I needed the help until I started to get it!' laughed Dan, who is offered the support and advice of worldly-wise strangers from around the globe through a secret in-ear device in the run-up to his September 2016 wedding to Suzanne. The helpers offer a sympathetic ear to Dan who worries that he won't be able to give his bride-to-be the support she needs on their big day.
'Although I look well, I can still be struck by fatigue at any time and have what I call an 'energy budget'. If I push myself too hard I get migraines and I can't walk. I still have post-stroke nerve pain which can be crippling. And when this is happening, I start questioning my ability to do things,' he said.
'Managing these symptoms is now part of my life. Accepting help is something I'd never have done before the stroke but is something I need to do now, and that can be hard. I thought that if someone could see me on TV getting on with life after a stroke and they were in the same position, if it helped just one of them, it'd be worth it.
'When this happened to me, I wanted my old life back. Everything that my stroke had taken away from me, I wanted it back. But two years on, I realise that my life will never be quite what it was before this happened and sometimes I still have a problem accepting that but mostly I try to get on with things and have a positive attitude.'
Worried that if he pushed himself too hard he wouldn't make it to the altar, Dan said that the helpers - Gwen and Elisa from South Africa, Italian mamas Chiara and Agata, NYPD cops Mark and Joe, Sister Una from Ireland and health guru Lillian from Norway – were invaluable.
'You wouldn't think that total strangers would have such a huge effect on your life, but they did,' he said, 'my biggest concern was letting Suzy down on the day. I didn't even want to walk like I'd had a stroke – I wanted her to be marrying me, not marrying a man who'd had a stroke. I wanted one day to be about us as a couple and nothing else.
'Those guys (the helpers) really did their bit in making sure that the stroke didn't show itself that day. Their care, compassion and advice helped me so much. In their own way, each of them were fantastic and I looked forward to hearing from them all.
'I think Mark and Joe gave me the piece of advice which helped me most. I talked to them about my wedding day speech and how nervous I was about what the pressure and the stress would do to me. They told me to remember that everyone in the room I was talking to would be on my side and not laughing at me or judging me and that they were there for me. It felt like a barrier was being lifted. They told me 'put your jacket on' because in my job, when I put my suit on it makes me feel professional and proud of myself.
'I took it all on board. It was priceless.'
Since the wedding, Dan and Suzanne have taken on a new challenge together: parenthood. Four-month-old Henry has proven to be such a delightful distraction that Dan barely had time to worry about his own health: 'He is amazing – he wakes up smiling and goes to sleep smiling, we are so lucky.'
Henry's arrival has also prompted petrolhead Dan to make a difficult decision about his other great love – his motorcycle or, as he calls it, 'the devil in my garage'.
'Before my stroke there was very little I liked more than riding my bike but after the stroke I realised that I'm not in a position to ride it where I wouldn't be putting myself at danger and others at danger, not yet, anyway. So I took the decision to sell the bike. It was anchoring me to a life I don't have now, but do you know what? I realised I don't need it after all. I have my amazing wife, my lovely son, my family and friends, a job I love – I'm a lucky man.'
• A longer version of this interview can be found at www.edp24.co.uk/going-out/tv. The Secret Helpers is on BBC2 on March 21 at 8pm (and afterwards on iPlayer) and Dan will be interviewed beforehand on The One Show on BBC1 at 7pm.
• Find out more about strokes and the help and advice on offer to survivors of strokes and their families at www.stroke.org.uk