Stand-up Terry McHugh is finally taking mini-strokes seriously – in a funny way
We often say that one day we'll look back at something bad and laugh about it – but why wait, asks Belfast comic Terry McHugh, who after suffering two mini-strokes, is finally taking them seriously
HAVING two mini-strokes in quick succession before your 40th birthday is no laughing matter – unless you're comedian Terry McHugh.
The north Belfast father-of-three, who now lives "in the sticks", seven miles outside Omagh, was just coming to terms with his first TIA (transient ischemic attack) when he was hit by a second one a few months later.
Ignoring advice to 'clean up his act' and make significant changes to his lifestyle following the first mini-stroke, Terry knew he had to take this second warning seriously. But being a comic, he saw levity in his situation and decided to write a new stand-up show around his health.
“When bad things happen in life we often say 'we'll look back at this one day and laugh about it' but why wait?” Terry says. “I considered myself fortunate. I'd had two wee strokes, not a big one, and this was a warning to sort myself out.
“So my new show is called Mini Strokes of Luck – for that's what they were. My mum had seven TIAs and three major strokes and her first one was in her late 30s, the same age as me. You think you're indestructible at that age and that strokes are things that only happen to old people.
“After the second one, I was kept in hospital overnight. The stroke nurse was brilliant. She asked me had I been taking the medication I'd been given first time around and I told her 'on and off'. She asked me had I made changes to my diet and taken up exercise. I hadn't really, I must admit. So she told me, 'You've had two goes at this now and the next one could be a major stroke'.
"She said I could end up with brain damage or die. I realised then she had a point. It was a massive wake-up call.”
In the run-up to his first mini-stroke in October 2017, Terry was working full-time in a mobile phone shop in Omagh and gearing up for a December tour with fellow north Belfast comedian Jake O'Kane. His lifestyle at the time, he admits, wasn't healthy. Rushing from his job to a stand-up gig meant he wasn't sitting down and eating a proper evening meal. Instead he filled up with junk food post-show and drank a few beers before bedtime to wind down.
“Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a big drinker,” he says. “If a gig had gone well, I'd have a couple of beers to relax. If it hadn't, I'd have a couple to commiserate.
“The only exercise I got was walking from the sofa to the fridge to get a beer when Celtic were playing. Every morning I'd get up, do the school run, go to work, finish work, jump in the car and go to a gig, grab a McDonald's on the way home, have a beer, go to bed. Then I'd do it all over again. That was my life. Something had to give.”
Terry, a former yo-yo champion who travelled the globe promoting his skills, had been going through the household expenditure with wife Patricia when he suffered his first mini-stroke. There's a joke there, of course, and one which makes its way into his stand-up material – but at the time it was anything but funny.
Lying down on the sofa to watch The X Factor, he began to feel pins and needles down the right hand side of his body. He felt numb, dazed and confused. His mobile phone, which had been in his hand, slipped to the floor. His alarmed wife told him half of his face had drooped and wanted to call for an ambulance. But Terry knew what was happening from his mum's own experiences. He told himself it would pass and insisted on going to bed.
“I passed out and slept until 1pm the next day,” Terry recalls. “Patricia kept an eye on me. It's hard to describe how I felt at the time, just really out of it. My head was so fuzzy and I was exhausted. I remember crawling up to bed and thinking, 'If I'm going to die, I want to do it in my own bed'.
"I'd done this before, when I'd had a collapsed lung eight years prior to this. I drove home that night too, just wanting to get to my bed, but ended up in hospital. I knew something was happening to me again when I had that first mini-stroke but I just wanted to sleep.”
Patricia made an appointment for Terry to see his GP, who scolded him for not taking the warning more seriously. He was sent off to the South West Acute Hospital, where the stroke team put him on statins and aspirin and advised him to overhaul his poor habits.
But Terry carried on as before, believing himself invincible – until the second TIA struck.
Once again, Terry was at home and walking across the living room floor, when he suddenly fell over and hit the floor. He can't remember many details of it but knows Patricia was squeezing his hand and asking him to count. When he kept omitting the number eight, she knew it was serious and rushed him to the hospital. This time he was kept in.
“I knew then I had to wise up,” he says. “Mum had her first mini-stroke when she was 38/39 and I wasn't 40 yet. My condition wasn't the same as hers, though, as she has something wrong with a valve, which may require surgery at some time.
“I was told to make lifestyle changes after the first mini-stroke but hadn't paid heed. I knew I'd been given another chance.”
Terry cut back on the beer and fizzy drinks, swapped takeaways for healthy dinners and started to walk up Cave Hill, near his childhood home, once a week. He also took a break from gigging.
“I didn't want to give up my day job but I knew I had to cut down on running around so I stopped doing stand-up for six months.”
His health has improved, thanks to the lifestyle alterations, but there are still after-effects of the mini-strokes. Some days he struggles when he's counting up figures, a weakness in his right hand means he can't always grasp tightly and on stage a few times, he's found himself forgetting what he's just been saying.
“I never had to think about things before but my level of concentration now is 10 times what it was," he says.
“There's still that niggling doubt at the back of my mind that this could happen again but the fact is, I'm doing the right things now to allay those fears.
“Bad things affect people differently but it's my personality to try and laugh stuff off. When my son got a piece of Lego stuck up his nose, I remember thinking 'ah, that'll give me good material'. And I was the same with the mini-strokes. I'm lucky I can do that, but sure what else can we do, but laugh?”
:: Terry is on the road with Mini Strokes of Luck from September 21 to December 21, starting off at the Old Courthouse, Antrim, and taking in Ballymena, Larne, Armagh, Lisburn, Omagh, Downpatrick, Dungannon and Enniskillen.
TRANSIENT ISCHAEMIC ATTACK (TIA)
A TRANSIENT ischaemic attack (TIA) or mini-stroke happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is temporarily cut. This can cause symptoms similar to a stroke – in either case it is important to phone 999 immediately.
A TIA or ‘mini stroke’ doesn't last as long as a stroke. The effects often only last for a few minutes or hours and fully resolve within 24 hours.
The main symptoms of a TIA can be remembered with the word FAST: Face-Arms-Speech-Time.
:: Face – the face may have dropped on one side, the person may not be able to smile, or their mouth or eye may have dropped
:: Arms – the person with suspected stroke may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of arm weakness or numbness in one arm
:: Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or the person may not be able to talk at all, despite appearing to be awake
:: Time – it is time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms
Other symptoms may include loss of vision, dizziness, difficulty walking or poor coordination.
:: For more see nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/transient-ischaemic-attack-tia