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26 May 2021

“It should be available everywhere”: How thrombectomy saved Gerald McMullen’s life

The swift removal of blood clotting can seriously reduce a stroke sufferer’s risk of death or disability.

By Martin Oxley

Gerald McMullen, a 65-year-old retired pub landlord and driver, had a stroke at his home in Cardiff in October 2020. A thrombectomy at Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales removed a blood clot from his brain.

The procedure has facilitated his recovery, meaning he can play golf again and look forward to enjoying life with his family: wife Linda, two children, five grandchildren, and great-grandson Jayden, aged five.

“I got up in the morning and felt OK,” McMullen recalls. “I was sitting in my chair having a cup of tea when Linda suddenly asked if I was OK. I said ‘yes’. However, she noticed that something was amiss. My outstretched arm, holding my cup, seemed rigid to her.”

McMullen’s speech became “a little slurry”, and despite his insistence he was fine, his wife ignored him and called an ambulance. “Thank goodness,” he says.

“She was on the phone to 999 and was asked if my face had dropped – it hadn’t – and whether I could lift my arms, which by then I couldn’t. My speech did not make sense by this time either.”

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Read more: The logistics of saving lives

About 15 minutes later, two paramedics arrived and examined McMullen in his chair. “One of the paramedics got on the phone to hurry the ambulance along. The ambulance arrived and I managed to walk to it with support from a paramedic and my wife,” he says.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Linda could not accompany McMullen to the hospital, adding to an already scary situation. In the ambulance, his symptoms worsened.

On arrival, he was taken for a scan, then taken to another department where his head was taped to a table and the thrombectomy carried out.

McMullen recognises that he was “so lucky” to be taken to the University Hospital of Wales, currently the only hospital in Wales that carries out the procedure. He adds: “Fortunately, one of the top surgeons in this field was there to carry it out.”

Read more: How thrombectomy can make the difference for stroke survivors

McMullen continues: “All I remember of the operation was the machine over the top of my head. They removed my trousers. A wire was inserted in my groin and sent to the brain where the blood clot was removed.

“I could feel something going on down below but it was nothing I was really aware of. I had my head taped to the table and I drifted off to sleep. The next thing I remember is the guy said to me: ‘That’s it, you’re done.’ I had no discomfort in my groin afterwards.”

McMullen was taken back to the ward in a wheelchair, and he stayed there for just two nights and three days. While his speech remained “a bit mumbo jumbo” for a couple of days, it did return.

Read more: How AI is speeding up stroke care

“The stroke has left me with a legacy of a weak right arm,” McMullen says, “but I’m getting that back now too.” A minor inconvenience, he notes, which is much better than the alternative.

“My foot is slightly swollen but that’s nothing, nothing at all. Without the thrombectomy I would have been in a much worse state. The doctors said I would have been catastrophically damaged. I could have died. I came through and I’m here now.

“I thought ‘my God, I’ve had a stroke’. I’m so grateful that I was able to be up and about so quickly. Friends couldn’t believe it. Thrombectomy is such a new thing.”

Within six weeks of his stroke, McMullen was back on the golf course. “I still can’t swing properly and I’ve been given a 22 handicap, ten shots more than before,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’m hitting the ball about 150 yards and it’s going straight, so that’s not bad!”

Thrombectomy has helped McMullen to maintain a relatively active lifestyle, and while any stroke is stressful and dangerous, he remains grateful as to the timing and location of his. “I’d like to add my appreciation to the surgeon and his team, and the nursing staff who attended to me,” he says. “Their speed and care were exceptional. I think thrombectomy is fantastic. I think it should be made available everywhere. Get it done quickly and get rid of the clot. It’s brilliant technology.”

Gerard McMullen was talking to Martin Oxley, PR Officer at the Stroke AssociationFor more information about stroke and the support services for survivors and carers, visit the Stroke Association’s website or call the Stroke Helpline on 0303 3033 100

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