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Resilience: The Next Lamppost

Ian Day, Senior Teaching Fellow on our Coaching programmes and co-author of Challenging Coaching, describes the greatest challenge he’s had to face and what he learnt in a recent article published in Coaching at Work

What’s it like to be dead?” I was asked. Maybe this was real after all and not a bad dream, I thought. According to the British Heart Foundation there are more than 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK each year, with an overall survival rate of fewer than one in 10. I’m one of the 10% that survived.

There are times when we take things for granted. Not questioning how lucky we are, not recognising how grateful we should be for the people around us, and the life we have. I had a very happy life, which I expected to continue. I didn’t question the future. Until one day when everything changed.

On 2 March 2017, I went to a sports club as I had for years, but that evening, my arms dropped to my side and I crumpled to the ground. My heart had stopped. Despite CPU, I had no heartbeat for 20 minutes and my brain was starved of oxygen. Rushed to hospital, luckily a senior cardiologist was on call who was able to identify blocked arteries and that I’d suffered a cardiac arrest. A stent was inserted into one artery to allow blood to my heart but the other arteries were blocked beyond repair.

I was in a coma and in intensive care for 17 days. The doctors told my wife they weren’t sure I’d survive and even if I did, what condition I’d be in. I’d suffered brain damage and might never walk or talk again, or be able to live independently.

Several times my wife was told I wasn’t “responding”. Then one day, not willing to give up, my wife placed her mobile on my pillow and played a video of a holiday in 2016 when my wife, daughter and I were playing together on the beach. As I heard the laughter, I slowly moved my head towards the sound. To prove that this was no coincidence, my wife moved the phone to the other side of my head and played the video again. Very slowly my head moved again towards the sound, and my wife said to the doctors, “We have something to work with.”

Gradually I came out of the coma. Although my heart could be fixed with a triple heart bypass operation, the doctors didn’t know how my brain would recover. It was like my mental capacity had been ‘reset’ to the age of two.

I called my wife “that nice lady”, and I didn’t know I had a daughter. I had to learn everything again. When I started to walk, I wobbled from side to side as if intoxicated. Day after day my wife and daughter tirelessly worked with me so that I gradually learnt to walk again. My daughter played counting and shopping games with me – she was now my teacher.

As I recovered, nurses would place food in front of me, but as I wouldn’t eat, they assumed I wasn’t hungry. My wife had to explain that I didn’t know what food was, or how to eat. She put a fork in my hand, moved my hand and fork to the plate, picking up some food, and then into my mouth. To the astonishment of the nurses, I ate.

One day, my wife was pleased to find me sat up in a chair looking at The Times newspaper, seeing it as a clear sign I was making a good recovery. I was looking at an article about Syrian refugees fleeing to safety, accompanied by a photograph of a desperate Syrian woman queuing for food with her crying children. But when my wife asked what I was reading, I said, “These people are queuing for the number 29 bus and it’s late, so they’re not very happy.”

I had no comprehension of the real story and had invented my own simplistic interpretation of the photograph. Upset, my wife talked to the doctor and was told that this could be as good as it gets.

As well as developing my physical abilities I needed to rebuild my judgement. For example, I didn’t know the difference between hot and cold and couldn’t tell that scalding hot water was dangerous to touch. It took time for my judgement to return, and at times my judgement was pretty poor. I would say that I was perfectly healthy and didn’t need to be in hospital with all these sick people. Yet, as the doctor told my wife, I was the sickest person on the ward.

As I was determined to return home, my shoes, wallet and phone were taken away from me so I couldn’t call a taxi and abscond.

My cognitive abilities gradually improved with daily inputs from my wife and daughter, helping me undertake repetitive activities such as walking, counting and making cups of tea. Forty days after the cardiac arrest, I was allowed home to await my triple bypass operation, but I was warned not to do anything except eat, rest and sleep as my heart condition was “precarious”.

The guy who delivered the wheelchair I needed to get about with told me “you’ll be a member of the zipper club”, undoing his shirt to show me his bypass scar from five years before. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

In July 2017, I had the operation, with veins ‘harvested’ from my left thigh and grafted on to my heart to form three bypasses. It went really well, although the three-month recovery period was slow and painful.

The hospital physios had encouraged me to walk, so I went for daily walks. Lampposts became incredibly important. I’d walk from my front door to the nearest lamppost and back again, probably 20 yards. Each day, I’d increase the distance by one lamppost, which became tangible symbols of my recovery.

I returned to work three months after the operation, with doctors and friends saying that my physical and cognitive recovery was miraculous.

Guides and helpers

All my life, I’d been stubbornly independent, refusing help. But when you can’t feed yourself, stand, walk or drive, you’ve no choice but to rely on others. Without the help of others, particularly my wife and daughter, I wouldn’t have recovered so well or so quickly. We all need helpers and guides along our journey. I was reminded of Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero’s Journey (2014), with stories of heroes being tested by mythological beasts, for example. These ‘journeys’ have common elements across stories and cultures, such as the importance of guides or helpers.

At different points on my journey, different helpers guided me along my trails. A friend came to intensive care to play me my favourite music in the hope it would stimulate me out of the coma. A friend I hadn’t seen for 10 years drove two hours to visit me in hospital. Other friends visited me while I was recovering at home and drove me out to get a cup of coffee. But most of all, my wife and daughter guided me through learning to walk, eat, count and how to become independent again

Resilience and optimism

Reflecting on my illness and recovery, I truly believe the saying by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Although I’m still recovering, I feel a stronger person, happier and less anxious, with more purpose and the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a bright future.

Several people have said to me that I must be incredibly resilient to come through what I’ve experienced. I’ve never considered myself as a resilient person. Over the past few years, resilience has become a hot topic, and I’d been to a few presentations but struggled to connect with the subject. The speakers seemed to be either former SAS soldiers who’d survived the terrible experiences of war, or people who had trekked unsupported across the Arctic. These ‘super humans’ were nothing like me – I couldn’t do what they had done, and so I ignored the subject, believing that I was just a normal bloke from Birmingham.

But there is more to resilience. It seems to be a hidden ability, only evident when we’re tested and it’s called upon. Something that comes from the depths of our being. Does that mean that resilience can be developed, or do we have to wait and see if we have enough to get us through a crisis? Martin Seligman, known as the father of resilience, concluded after 15 years of study, that optimism was the key to resilience.

I can connect to optimism. I‘ve always thought the future will be better than the past, and that setbacks are temporary. While I was ill I experienced this in others. My friends at the sports club didn’t give up and continued with CPR even when I didn’t respond. The doctors and nurses didn’t give up. These have been very dark times for my family, but together we never gave up – my wife and daughter always believed that I would get better.

And I didn’t give up, believing and hoping that the next day would be better than today and that I would walk to the next lamppost.

Questions to explore in coaching

  • If you/your client can’t connect with the topic of resilience, how about connecting with another aspect in similar territory, such as optimism?
  • When you or your clients face dark moments, what is the next lamppost to walk to?
  • If you believed it were possible, what would you do?
  • What can be done to reconnect with your true purpose?
  • Who are the guides and helpers who can help you in your journey?

Find the original article on the Coaching at Work website