Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 21 October 2017

Brendan Courtney: My pain at seeing dad become a prisoner in his own body

TV star opens up about his father's stroke and how families need to start the conversation

Television presenter Brendan Courtney
Television presenter Brendan Courtney
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Brendan Courtney has spoken about his pain at seeing his beloved father, Frank, become a prisoner in his own body following a massive stroke.

The television presenter was speaking four years after he also suffered a blood clot at just 40 years of age - which doctors have said could leave him at risk of the same illness in the future.

Happy family: Brendan with his dad Frank on his First Holy Communion
Happy family: Brendan with his dad Frank on his First Holy Communion

"It can hit me at any time," said Brendan. "The sadness is so deep in you when it emerges you have no control over it. It can happen on a Tuesday afternoon when you're in complete sobriety.

"I could think of it in the shower and get very emotional - I wish my dad had gotten a little longer. As men, we were really getting on together in the last few years."

Speaking ahead of his documentary, We Need To Talk About Dad, the RTE star described the unexpected set of circumstances that led to the family's worst nightmare.

In 2014, his mother was hospitalised with septicaemia. The sudden illness caused organ failure. Brendan and his father were standing at the foot of her bed, watching doctors put her on life support, when his father suddenly collapsed too.

Brendan with his mum Nuala and Dad on his 21st birthday
Brendan with his mum Nuala and Dad on his 21st birthday

"Most people I have encountered have had a stroke after something very stressful, so I definitely think what we were going through at the time didn't help.

"He was fighting it, saying he was fine but I recognised it as a stroke. He was put into the bed beside her," said Brendan. "It was the worst day of my life."

His father left the hospital five weeks later and his mother made a full recovery. But Brendan said: "That was the biggest mistake my family made. We thought 'everything is fine now, everybody can go back to normal'.''

A year later, his father suffered another stroke - this time leaving him paralysed. The questions continue to haunt Brendan to this day. He said: "Why didn't we prepare for this?

Why didn't we think about what we would do if it ever happened again?"

The fashion designer and TV presenter was speaking as his family are facing the difficult decision of caring for their father at home, or the heart-breaking decision of placing him in long-term care.

He says the hardest part of the tragedy has been watching his father hide his inner turmoil - for the sake of his family.

"He is paralysed. Yet I would go in and say 'Howarya dad?' and he would reply 'I couldn't be better'. This is the part that makes me very, very sad. My father's upbeat nature I thought was denial, but it's actually an alpha-male trying to protect his family from his pain. One day I realised what he was doing. He doesn't want us to worry. He wants to protect us."

Both his parents were staunch advocates of health insurance for their children. But when the stroke hit, Brendan's parents were on a basic plan.

"We all had a family policy for years. My mother used to buy us our health care for Christmas," he explained. As the children got older and could afford their own, they took out private insurance. But Brendan explains, the crash changed things for others. He said: "Pockets got tighter, people couldn't afford it. When the crash happens, the first thing to go is your gym membership and your health care, to be honest."

It made things difficult for his parents. Although all stroke patients have to present themselves at A&E, regardless of their insurance - when a hospital has done everything they can for a patient - Brendan says, that's when the real problems start.

In the documentary, he looks at the HSE's 'Fair Deal' scheme. It provides financial support to people who need long-term nursing home care. He says the level of confusion around the scheme is "mind-blowing". He also takes issue with the State's approach to healthcare. He said: "There is a two-tier system in this country and my father didn't have healthcare. We have to use his house. The one thing that he was so proud of was that he paid off the mortgage. I mean what an achievement in their lifetime? My father feels, 'They have no right to take my house. I have worked my whole life for that'.''

It comes down to the bigger question of do we want an insurance profit-driven country where our health system is based on bottom line and profit margin, or do we want a country where we know we will be looked after by the healthcare system?

He says the hard-hitting truth is: "Don't get old and don't be poor in this country because the State will not care." More than 10,000 people suffer a stroke every year in Ireland. Brendan wants the documentary to start a conversation among families about how they would manage practically and financially if one of their parents suffered from the life-changing illness in their elder years.

He said: ''My fear is I don't think some people want to know. But there is something called 40/70 - when you get to your forties and your parents are in their seventies - it's time to have the conversation."

'We Need to Talk About Dad' airs on Monday, January 16 on RTE1 at 9.30pm

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