Sunday 22 September 2019

'We were on holiday in a restaurant when my husband collapsed' - Irish woman on holiday trauma

Earlier this year, while Stephanie Regan and her husband, Liam Scott, were visiting a restaurant in Spain, Liam collapsed. She tells Joy Orpen that she is eternally grateful to the friend who sprang into action to help save Liam's life

Stephanie Ryan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Stephanie Ryan. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When Dubliners Stephanie Regan and her husband, Liam Scott, went on holiday to Spain, they had no reason to suspect that they were about to experience a major, life-changing event. But that same terrifying experience would give Stephanie valuable insights into the work she does with clients who have faced traumatic periods in their own lives.

It all began last March, as the harsh winter marched on. "We'd had all this snow," says Stephanie, "so we thought we'd get a bit of brightness into our lives." The couple, both psychotherapists, own an apartment in San Pedro, near Malaga. On the following Friday, accompanied by Stephanie's recently bereaved sister, Columba, they went to have lunch with their friends, Tom and Cora, in a restaurant in Marbella. As they began threading their way through the tables, Stephanie heard a crashing noise. She wheeled around to see her husband crumpling to the ground.

"By the time he hit the floor, he was gone," she recounts, still visibly shaken by the memory. "He looked dead; his eyes were open, and the colour was draining from his face. I could see the blood pooling at the back of his neck. I thought he'd had a stroke or a heart attack, and that he was dying or already dead." She remembers screaming, and running out on to the street, trying to alert any passing doctors or medical personnel. When she returned, Liam began shuddering uncontrollably. "We didn't know what was going on. I thought how unfair this was for a man who takes such good care of himself," she says. When they were told that an ambulance was on the way, Columba suggested they do CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Fortunately, their friend Tom had recently learned how to perform this life-saving procedure, so he swung into action. "The imperatives these days are the compressions," explains Stephanie. "If you start those within three minutes, there is unlikely to be brain damage."

When the paramedics arrived, they attached electrodes to Liam's chest and began to monitor him very carefully. When he was more stable, he was taken to the local hospital. "They were strict there," Stephanie remembers. "There were about 40 patients in the emergency room. Only one visitor was allowed in for five minutes, twice a day. No one was drunk, and no one was shouting and giving out in the waiting room. I was worried not being with Liam, but I also knew he was in good hands." Stephanie says the hospital staff examined her husband carefully. They ascribed the episode to arrhythmia - abnormal heart rhythm. By evening, they were being reassured that Liam was making an excellent recovery. "There were some language difficulties," explains Stephanie. "But they were very thorough and attentive. However, once they had dealt with the actual emergency, it was out the door with him." Unbelievably, given the recent dramatic events, Liam and Stephanie were already back at their holiday home by midnight.

The following Monday morning, they visited their local doctor in San Pedro, who said she was certain that what Liam had experienced was more significant than just arrhythmia. "His heart stopped, so we have to get to the bottom of this," she told them. "You can't go anywhere until we know why this happened." By 6pm that evening, Liam was in the consulting rooms of a cardiologist. Following a battery of tests, Stephanie says the specialist was of the opinion that Liam had suffered a cardiac arrest, which could have been brought on by a reaction to medication. But the danger had passed, and he was free to fly home, so he could consult his own English-speaking doctors.

Following a few days of rest in the sun, Liam and Stephanie landed back in Dublin. Soon after, they visited a heart specialist. "The cardiologist in Dublin agreed it was a reaction to a medication," says Stephanie. "He also reassured us that this was all over and we could resume our old lifestyle."

Stephanie says Liam has little memory of his frightening experience, which seemed so unlikely, given his lifestyle. "He eats well, cycles, drinks only moderately, and had his heart thoroughly checked just a few months before this happened," she says. But it seems he's bounced back with gusto. "He's cycling 150km a week and feeling pretty wonderful," she notes.

However, the experience has brought an unexpected insightful dimension to Stephanie's endeavours as a therapist. "Some of the work I do involves seeing individuals and groups who have experienced traumatic events," she explains. "Often, they are referred to me by psychiatrists or other clinicians. So it was astounding to find myself in the midst of my own personal crisis. The shock was so intense, I found myself screaming and crying. Even now, there are gaps for me around what happened that day. For weeks after, I had thoughts about dying, while my sleep was jagged. In essence, I became super-sensitised."

Stephanie says it's critical that those who have endured a harrowing event, such as the death, or serious illness, of a loved one, are allowed to speak about their experiences, so they can process them fully. "Please understand that enduring an unexpected, traumatic event is emotionally intense, and working through that may bring up some disturbing symptoms. Just because the trauma is over, does not mean the worry stops. Understand that sleep problems, anxiety, and jumpiness represent your own personal adjustment to what has happened, and will subside with time," she says, adding, "In the work I do, I always ask the question, 'How has it changed your world?' Because you can be sure it has - dramatically. It changes the ground beneath your feet. All that you take for granted about life is shaken."

Brigid Sinnott, resuscitation manager for the Irish Heart Foundation, says 70pc of cardiac arrests happen at home. She says, "Phone 112 or 999 immediately. If the person is unresponsive and not breathing normally, do CPR; that may double or triple the person's chances of survival. Place one hand over the other, in the middle of the patient's chest, and press down rapidly [about 100 to 120 times a minute]. Anyone can do CPR, and please rest assured, you can do no harm."

Stephanie is so convinced of the value of this technique, she is organising CPR training for a group of her friends. "We are eternally grateful to Tom for his timely action, which 100pc saved Liam's life," she says.

Stephanie is a clinical psychotherapist, email stephanie@sraadmin.com For more on CPR, contact the Irish Heart Foundation, see irishheart.ie

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