A Stroke  of  Luck

A criminal barrister in his early 50s recounts how his life was turned upside down by a stroke, and offers some advice.

It is 4.30am. I have to leave for court in four hours’ time. I can’t sleep, but it isn’t the imminent case that keeps me awake. My left arm has pins and needles. The sensation isn’t going away. In fact, it’s spreading to my leg. I put up with this for a long time, expecting it to stop. Then I settle for hoping it will stop, until eventually my wife is dragged from sleep by my increasing restlessness. We debate the situation. I insist forcefully that I’m fine to go to court, but it turns out that I can’t walk. I can’t even stand unsupported. By now, my entire left side is alive with strangeness, yet oddly dead. We agree that the court had better wait. Soon afterwards I am in A&E. Our lives are changing irrevocably as the minutes pass. The Acute Stroke Ward beckons, and my family and I enter uncharted territory.


At that time I was a reasonably healthy, workaday criminal barrister in my early 50s, my early promise still comfortably latent. No one has immunity from the unexpected. For no identifiable reason my vertebral artery had ruptured; blood seeped into the brainstem. Fuse-box mayhem ensued; my life changed forever. A similar random medical crisis could happen to anyone, at any time. From my own experience, I offer a few tips to former colleagues.

The Barristers’ Benevolent Association

Finally, have you ever contributed to the Barristers’ Benevolent Association, or even thought about it? It relies on the support of the Bar. Even if you survive to retire at a time of your choosing, some of your colleagues will not be so lucky. Someone in your chambers, maybe. If in three months’ time he has suddenly been incapacitated for life, it might be good to think that you had made a contribution to help him, his nice wife and those adorable children. To make it really easy, you can even donate using the “Justgiving” website (visit: www.justgiving.com/the-bba).

My story is one of recovery, with plenty of medical and family support, to a completely tolerable life. It’s been hard work for us all. I am a different person now, possibly a nicer one. I have to do a lot of gym work, so in one sense I am fitter than for many years. I have two small part-time jobs locally (“Admin”, aka occupational therapy) ironically paid at the same rate per hour as the fee for a guilty plea in a road traffic case when I was a pupil in the 1970s. There are of course moments when I recall the rich pickings of the Criminal Bar, or when I think fondly of a rainy Snaresbrook, a tetchy judge, an amiable opponent, that tempting cuisine. But not many.

The author is an unexpectedly retired barrister

Make a will

Make a will (or, if you have one, update it). We made ours before our marriage, drafted broadly enough to allow for children (two, as it transpired) and other eventualities. More than 25 years later, though, my will was hopelessly inadequate. Had I died (brainstem stroke has a high mortality rate, to say nothing of other arguably even less palatable outcomes) my irresponsibility to my family would have been horribly exposed.

Medical insurance

While it is rightly said that the NHS is hard to beat in an emergency, there are additional considerations. For example, essential post-hospital treatment such as neuro-physio may simply be unavailable in your area, or only for one hour every six weeks, as in my case. If so, you will have to fund it yourself—or do without. Investigate discounts on private medical insurance, for example those available through BarCo.

Finances

50 is the perfect age for a good celebration. Follow that with a systematic review of your finances, if only for the sake of your widow and family. Make it easy for them. Close dormant accounts. Make a clear record of your finances, listing full details of accounts, pension(s), and so forth. Throw out all the routine documents – company reports and so on – accumulated over the years (try that box in the spare bedroom). Don’t leave it for others to sort out while they grieve for you – they will have plenty of other things to occupy them. (Oh, and men, while you are about it, get rid of that suit you bought in 1993, the one with the funny lapels. Your wife hated it. You will never wear it, I promise. It won’t fit you now. It never will again.)

Life insurance

Do you have any at all? Do you, as I did, have a couple of footling insurances for which you have been paying tiny premiums over the years? Have you even a vague idea what your insurance cover is? Or the exclusions? If not, have a look. Now. Before it is too late and you have effectively become uninsurable, at least at any affordable rate.

Economics and maths lesson

Before my stroke, our joint travel insurance (we don’t do dangerous sports) was less than £100 a year. Since the intrusion of my “congeries of defects” (© Lord Denning), I have been quoted, for a 10-day trip with my wife, around £500 for “full cover” for me alone.

Squirrel fund

Keep a squirrel or rainy day fund that is accessible to your partner. On your death, your assets are frozen. Your relict will need funds while your affairs are sorted out. Even if you survive, you may not be able to manage your own affairs for a while. Or ever.

Lasting Power of Attorney

Arrange a Lasting Power of Attorney (“LPA”). Make mutual ones with your partner. The law has changed at least twice in the last few years; is that old one in the middle left drawer of your desk still effective? If not, do something about it.

Health check

I know you took your dodgy knee to the doctor last year, but when was your blood pressure last checked? Or your cholesterol? Now you are 50, it might be sensible to have a routine service, and repeat it every three years. See your GP. It might prevent something that you would prefer not to think about.

Pensions

Do you have one? If so, have you kept abreast with its progress or indeed regress? What might it be worth if you have to cash it in early? Can you even do so? Have you been meaning to check for ages but somehow never got round to it? Now would be a good time. And if you haven’t got one, shouldn’t you take some action? Your lovely house may not turn out to be quite the enviable pension that you have always believed it would be.

Chambers

You are seriously ill in hospital. You face an uncertain future medically and financially. Many thousands of pounds are waiting to be collected, and you earned them all. As your worried partner keeps your chambers informed of your progress, an early request to send out those fee notes would be a wise move.

Death and taxes

Thoughts of the one certainty lead inevitably to the other. Those with spare post-“downturn” assets should review their options. Soon. If you can do something sensible now to minimise inheritance tax (“IHT”), get on with it. Check those exemptions. They have changed a bit since you last looked, haven’t they?

Other insurances

While you sort out your life and medical insurances, there are other types of cover to research. Mortgage protection and critical illness cover, for example. The costs may be intimidating, but aren’t they at least worth looking into? I had none.

Survival tactics: Dos

Do use your time in hospital to plan ahead. You may be “off-games” for some time, maybe for good. Recall the National Insurance Contributions (“NICs”) you have paid over many years – there was a good reason for it, after all. A spousal visit to your local Jobcentre before your discharge will be an investment for the future. There will be advice on entitlements. There are leaflets to read and forms to fill in. Incapacity benefit won’t just arrive – you have to do something about it. Get into the system early, because your financial security has just changed for the foreseeable future.

Survival tactics: Don’ts

Don’t refuse (for over a year, in my case) to register as disabled if you are advised to do so. Contrary to popular (tabloid?) belief, it isn’t lavishly dished out to all-comers. There are benefits besides a regular income: it can mean free public transport, a car permit, parking concessions, no congestion charge. Be positive, of course, but don’t naively believe that everything will be fine in a year’s time, and that you’ll be back at the top of the over-40s squash ladder at the Club. Be aware of, but ignore, the risks of (self-) stigmatisation. Don’t let pride get in the way of doing the sensible thing for yourself and your family. Life will be hard, so make it easier. You are used to preparing intricate skeleton arguments, so get on and fill in that long form (it’s still sitting on your desk. It’s under those tax forms).

Further information and help
Contact: 
The Stroke Association 
Website: www.stroke.org.uk  
Helpline: 0845 3033100

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