On 29th November, Richard Barrett suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage caused by an aneurysm while he was in the garden of his home. Richard’s wife Lucy kindly shares an in-depth account of what happened, how people around her showed kindness and the support she received throughout...

It was a cold Sunday morning and I got up early to answer some emails and do some chores around the house. Richard came downstairs late; after having his breakfast, he put on his gardening coat and went out to clean and then close-up the swimming pool.

A little before 1.00pm, I went to the kitchen door to call him for lunch and saw the most extraordinary sight. Richard was lying on his back, half in and half out of the shed door, stretched out like a recumbent tomb effigy, only with his arms by his sides and not palms pressed together in prayer. I rushed and knelt by his still body, where a small trickle of blood was forming on the stone slab underneath his head. I slipped the palm of my hand underneath and felt a small egg which had already formed. His face was blue and he wasn’t breathing.

Then time did a weird thing, it slowed and sped up simultaneously. The ordinary became extraordinary and even writing this is difficult, because it’s in the past, but so very present, even viewed from here in a safer future. I rushed inside and called 999 for an ambulance.

After giving my postcode to the call handler, a calm voice told me to start chest compressions, “push! push! push!”, but they seemed much faster than the slower rhythm of Staying Alive, which I’d always heard was the beat. I wondered vaguely if this was right, but their steadiness and insistence were magnetic, so I just obeyed.

I had no idea what else to do. Every now and then I cried out to Richard, “stay with me darling”, all the while trying to keep the phone in place. Finally, I couldn’t manage everything together, so I put the phone down, but I could still hear the instructions being given over the phone. The call handler asked if there was a defibrillator nearby and although I thought that one had been recently installed by the Village Hall, I couldn’t be sure and it was at the other end of the village; there was no way that I was going to leave Richard to run down and check.

Every now and then between chest compressions, I yelled for help. Richard wasn’t breathing and there was foam coming from his mouth; I couldn’t put my finger inside to clear his mouth, as his teeth were clenched tight. I continued with the chest compressions and finally, after what seemed so long (but was only 20 minutes), the paramedics arrived, so I stepped back and they took over. Two, maybe three paramedics were suddenly everywhere, busy opening bags, peeling back plastic wrappers, moving quickly and talking quietly. They started cutting off Richard’s clothes and turned him on his side. I’m unsure who suggested getting a blanket, but I ran inside and to the top of the house to find one.

On my way out of the door, I was stopped dead by a dreamlike sight, a Top Gun slow-motion mirage of redsuited superheroes, lugging equipment as if they had just landed from another planet – the air ambulance crew had landed! One of the team took me to one side and told me to prepare for the worst; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Richard was strapped down with his neck packed tight and carried out to the ambulance. I asked if I could see him for a moment and kissed his beautiful cold face, told him that I loved him and then climbed back out of the ambulance before the doors closed. It left approximately 10 minutes later.

The Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance team ground escorted Richard in the ambulance to Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester for
a scan. They then, transferred him again to Southampton Hospital where, after a failed coiling, he had his anterior communication artery clipped. Richard was sedated and ventilated for about a month. On 24th December, he was transferred back to Dorset County Hospital, where he unfortunately suffered a few strokes. He was eventually discharged home on 31st January.

The days immediately after Richard was rushed to hospital, were the loneliest of my life. Not only was he not there and the house was empty, but the pandemic made my isolation extreme. There were no hugs, no one to cry over, no one to make me a cup of tea. I frightened myself as my tears weren’t pretty; sometimes out of nowhere, I’d find myself on the floor howling like a wild animal from pain and anguish. The extraordinary outpouring of warmth and kindness I received came in many forms. Shepherd’s pies, cakes, biscuits and improbable winter posies from local gardens were left on my doorstep. At night, half of the village turned out to sing carols to me alone, as I stood in the porch in my socks gently and gratefully sobbing. I also received calls, flower deliveries, handwritten letters, packages, emails and doorstep visitors. I even had a couple at one end of the village, who right-away scooped me into their bubble and sometimes fed me for several days in a row. It was all overwhelming and tender.

I’m very struck by the irony, that this story about Richard, is in fact, mine. I’m still castigating myself over the lead-up to the aneurysm. Richard, who’s not a complainer, had a bad headache (bad enough to mention), for about two weeks beforehand and he was concerned that the vision in his left eye was blurry. I’d even bought several packets of pain killers from the supermarket. He says that one of the discombobulating things about his recovery is the time that he’s lost. He looks out at the garden and sees leaves on trees and roses in bloom, but says he has a sense that Christmas is just around the corner.

When Richard came home, I was suddenly thrust into a nursing role that I knew nothing about and instantly felt out of my depth. There were late-night 999 calls and a few scary moments, however, we’ve had enormous help from the Purbeck Rehabilitation team and the Brain Injury Trust.

A few days after the aneurysm, I nearly overlooked a text from Jo Petheram, DSAA’s Patient and Family Liaison Nurse, essentially saying, I’m here if you need me. In my ignorance, I’d never heard of Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance, so I had no idea that anyone might be there for me, as after all, I wasn’t the patient. I called her and I will never forget her words, “I will stay with you until Richard walks back through the front door.” It was about the sweetest thing that I’ve ever heard and it filled me with so much hope and comfort.

Over the following weeks, Jo would call every few days to check-in and offer support when needed. I felt her behind-the-scenes influence, aid and possible smoothing of feathers more than once. In May, Jo organised a Zoom session with Dr Ian Mew, who was the doctor on scene that bleak November day. Richard and I were able to talk to him in detail about what happened and it felt hugely cathartic to meet the man who’d saved Richard’s life. Jo has subsequently been to visit me. It was our first face-to-face meeting after months of contact and she felt like a best friend.

Richard’s recovery has slowed, the dramatic changes have all happened and we both realise he’s hugely lucky to have escaped with so little damage. I’m writing this while Richard is out for his weekly walk with a kind neighbour. It’s hard to watch him head-off without me, as he’s been in my care for so many weeks now. I know that things will settle down soon – life will never be the same, but it’s just possible, it might be better.

VIEW FROM THE CREW: Dr Ian Mew

"Richard was not a well man when we arrived. Despite the weather being too poor to fly, we had arrived rapidly in the emergency outreach car and were able to provide Richard with the critical care that he needed. The land crew had done an excellent job of packaging him for safe transfer but he needed a CT scan to determine the cause of his collapse and together, while administering potent anti-seizure medication, the air ambulance and land crews worked together to safely take Richard to the CT scanner at Dorset County Hospital.

A ruptured artery within Richard’s brain was identified and Richard was transferred to the neurosurgical unit at Southampton by the late
crew, Dr Sean Santos, Owen Hammett and Jo Hernandez.

The heroes in this story are however Jo and Kirsty, our patient and family liaison nurses. Richard’s rehabilitation was a slow one, and during a COVID-19 pandemic, which meant his wife was unable to visit him in hospital. The support that our patient and family liaison
nurses are able to offer to relatives cannot be underestimated. Helping to bridge the gap during a pandemic was even more key and as a team, months after we had first met Richard, I am proud that DSAA still had a very significant role in helping him and his family. DSAA can only do this with the public’s support, but it’s so very necessary, so I’d personally like to say a huge thank you to everyone who supports us”

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