On the morning of Tuesday 7 September 2010, everything changed for Gary Parkinson and his wife Deborah when the former Middlesbrough and Burnley right-back, a hugely popular figure in English football, suffered a stroke, leaving him with locked-in syndrome (LIS).
A year and a half has passed, with the 44-year-old, affectionately known as "Parky", remaining paralysed and only able to communicate through his eyes, while fully reliant on 24-hour care at the Priory Highbank Centre for Neuro-Rehabilitation in Bury.
"Gary woke up with this horrendous headache and he couldn't open his eyes because the room was spinning," Deborah told The Independent. "For the first 12 hours he was being treated for an inner ear problem but then it soon came to light that it was more serious and he started to fit. They put him into an induced coma to help his airway and he spent a full day in intensive care.
"It can take a couple of days before you can identify a bleed on the brain because I was worried why it had taken so long to identify it."
During his 18-year playing career, Parkinson was revered as a solid performer, particularly in the north-east, where he spent his early seasons marauding up and down Ayresome Park for his hometown club Middlesbrough – typifying the spirit synonymous with Bruce Rioch's side of the late eighties. He had a brief spell at Bolton Wanderers prior to winning promotions with Burnley, Preston North End (right) and Blackpool before being appointed Head of Youth at the latter, where he split duties with the first team. Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam, the Seasiders' talismanic figure in the Premier League, recalls the impact Parkinson's stroke had on the Bloomfield Road dressing room.
"At the time we were gobsmacked. We could not believe it, because everybody knew Gaz was fit and healthy and he never seemed as if he had anything wrong with him. We went to Newcastle, we won the match and dedicated that to him," Adam said. "To lose a presence like that inside the dressing room is huge, and I've said all along that he definitely would have helped us through our difficult spell in January and February. We were losing games and I'm sure his character would have helped the lads massively with his whole demeanour. When you lose a few games it is hard, especially at the level we were playing at, and somebody like him keeps the dressing room going."
The number of people who fully recover from locked-in syndrome is minute, but although Parkinson's prognosis makes for difficult reading, Joe Korner of the Stroke Association says he can draw strength from Kate Allatt, who regained all physical capability after eight months "locked in".
"We do hear of people who come out of this situation and their stories are remarkable because it is so rare. Kate's willpower in wanting to turn things around can't be underestimated," said Korner. "That is one of the lessons that there is definitely a relationship between people's determination to recover and the extent to which they recover. During a stroke, the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off. In most cases that is due to a clot or a bleed. The result of starving an area of the brain of oxygen is that it dies. Depending on where that happens determines what the long-term symptoms are."
Allatt, a Fighting Strokes charity campaigner and author of Gonna Fly Now!, is adamant that medical advancement is needed to properly tackle LIS, which is something the Stroke Association are striving towards. They say stroke victims have lost out on funding for years.
"The medical community need a rocket up their backside because people with our condition are being misunderstood," Allatt said. "They need to know I'm not divine intervention. I worked damn hard. People must not be written off like they often are. This particular condition is misunderstood and if you or your family are told that you're screwed, do you roll over and accept that medical assessment? Or do you do everything to try and fight to prove the doubters wrong? My glass was half-full not empty and it still is."
Her story has been an inspiration for Parkinson's family, and Allatt's book is a source of motivation for Deborah: "I read Kate's book at Gary's bedside and it gave me so much strength as I was reading it. I kept on going on at Gary about her and when she came to visit I said 'Now do you believe? She is living proof and has walked up that staircase to see you'. It's happened once and there is no reason why it can't again. Kate has been fantastic support – she's incredible. It is lovely to be able to talk to her and I feel she is better than any consultant because she can totally sympathise."
That inner belief and help from others is beginning to be mirrored by steady improvement. Parkinson is due to move back home once adaptations have been made, including a lift and wet-room facilities. "It's a double-storey extension that is going on the back of the house. I was keen not to move because it is the family home. It's a big transformation but we're trying to keep the home as before and not a clinical environment," Deborah said. "I keep reading things from the newspaper to him and he's seeing bits on TV and the realisation that 'God it's really happening, I'm going home' is growing."
The reason they are able to afford the building work on the house is almost solely down to the Gary Parkinson Trust, set up to provide a platform for the footballing community to help. Ahead of tonight's Sportsman's Dinner at the Reebok Stadium, the total raised is estimated at £80,000. After his sick pay was stopped after 28 weeks by Blackpool, and with no other current income, the fundraising has been crucial.
Talking about the sold-out event, Deborah revealed that it is exactly the type of evening her husband would love to have attended, and said that he still holds on to the personality that made him so well-liked within the game.
"He still has that sparkle in his eye and we have a laugh and a joke. Everybody who comes in says that they find it hard to comprehend because he was such a chatty and smiling character," she remarked. "You never want to say it about one of your own, but people keep telling me what a great coach Gary is and would have gone on to better things. He wanted to keep learning and move up the ladder. He put a lot of effort into the youth department at Blackpool which is why it's disappointing that he hasn't been rewarded for that."
Steve Thompson, assistant manager at Blackpool and a close friend, added a glowing reference. "The youth team were flying when he was in charge. He is a terrific coach, and there is no bigger character. His sense of humour is brilliant and he could have you in bits," he said. "It's that which keeps driving us all on in wanting Parky back here as soon as we can."
Parkinson's eye for a player has been utilised by Tony Mowbray at Middlesbrough – the manager giving him the opportunity to scout potential transfer targets from his bed. While that has been quite rightly applauded for sporting reasons – keeping him in sync with football and being part of a club – Kate Allatt believes Mowbray's gesture goes much further than that.
"The scouting for him is absolutely essential – keeping his mental faculties alive is a huge part of the recovery," she said. "To use his mind to give his life some remnant of structure and to provide a focus is what he needs. Gary is a very focused man and to have that worthiness can stop him lying there thinking his life is over."
Situations such as this, coupled with recent heart-breaking stories in the sport, put football into perspective. Former managers David Moyes and Bruce Rioch regularly contact the family; Deborah exclaims she has got "so much to keep going for". And for supporters in towns across the north of the country, the tragic circumstances surrounding Gary Parkinson have been joined with a confluence of interest in standing tall for a man who has touched so many lives. After 18 months of anguish, that man looks set to start his new life back where he belongs: at home.
For more information on upcoming events and to donate to the cause, visit the Gary Parkinson Trust website: http://www.garyparky.co.uk/Reuse content