Sitting on board an Aer Lingus flight in January 1996, I noticed Jack Charlton across the aisle from me.
This was a significant flight for Jack, his final, emotional farewell voyage following his retirement as Manager of the Ireland team after nine great years in charge and three unforgettable major tournaments. I resisted the temptation to join the queue for his autograph but was delighted to have a brief encounter when he commented that he liked my hat!
I wasn’t to know then that four years later, I would be privileged to be involved in an amazing and moving act of kindness by Jack towards a patient of mine.
As a young Occupational Therapist working in a Yorkshire hospital, I was treating a man named Frank* who had suffered a brain stem stroke and had an incredibly rare condition called Locked-in Syndrome.
People with locked-in syndrome are conscious and can think and reason but are unable to speak or move. Frank was left with complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles, with the exception of vertical eye movements and blinking. It was necessary to establish whether this eye movement could be used to enable Frank to communicate.
After some experimentation, a light-touch switch was positioned above Frank’s left eyebrow and when this switch was activated by his vertical eye movement, a sound was heard.
To try to create words, the speech therapist and I moved a finger along each letter on an alphabet board and to select his required letter, Frank used his eye movement.
Communication was painstakingly slow and exhausting for him but on one unforgettable day, a very determined Frank succeeded, for the first time, in creating words. He spelled out ILOVEYOU to his wife. It was an incredible and emotional breakthrough.
In the months that followed, Frank experienced many setbacks. He had ongoing medical complications, and during these periods, was unable to engage in therapy.
Over these many months, I got to know Frank so much better … his love of the great Leeds United, Jack Charlton, Ireland and especially fishing in Ireland. And being an Irish lass, he and I formed a great connection.
In that time, I wondered how we could motivate Frank in his efforts to communicate. I thought about Jack Charlton, a Geordie treasure and Frank’s hero, and what it might be like for Frank to communicate with Jack.
I googled Jack Charlton but of course I didn’t find a contact number. I called on my mother in Dublin who somehow managed to contact a senior figure in the Football Association of Ireland who, in the circumstances, was kindly willing to provide Jack’s number on the condition of confidentiality.
Somewhat petrified about the reaction I might get, I called the number. But I needn’t have worried. Jack listened to my unusual request for a visit and without hesitation, agreed to visit Frank on one condition: No press could be involved. I gave him my word and a date was set.
On the morning of Jack’s visit, the hospital was abuzz with excitement and tension, a local idol was on the way. I met Jack, a towering man at the hospital entrance. I must admit I felt more than a little intimidated looking up at him but his warmth and presence soon left me feeling at home with him. It took some time to get through the hospital as people stopped Jack for a word …
I remember bringing him into a quiet room to prepare him for the meeting with Frank. I described how Frank would be sitting in a specialised seating system, with a tracheostomy tube, and that communication would be slow and difficult using an eye switch and an alphabet board system.
But Jack needed no preparation. He told me, in his straight-talking Geordie way, that he was used to visiting patients with motor neurone disease and that there would be no problem.
When we walked into the quiet room on Ward 2, Jack, straight away, lowered his head to ensure his eyes met Frank’s. He then settled into the chair next to Frank where he sat for the following two hours. We facilitated Frank’s communication and together, they covered great ground – soccer, Yorkshire, Ireland, fishing, family.
Jack was inspirational in how he motivated Frank to keep going. And the emotion in Frank’s eyes showed how much the visit meant to him.
My overriding memory of that day was Jack’s generosity of spirit, his genuine interest in Frank, his wife and their lives. As they said their goodbyes, Jack promised to send his autobiography which his wife could read to Frank.
What a true privilege it was to witness Jack’s extraordinary gesture of kindness and to see the love, joy and hope it brought to Frank’s life – one good day, at a time when the good days were few.
You’ll always be remembered Jack. Rest in peace.
*Frank’s name has been changed for confidentiality.
This Blog was written by Alison Enright, Health and Social Care Professions Development Manager, National HSCP Office.