United Kingdom

Norman Lamb asks why medics did not know his blurred vision was a tell-tale sign of a stroke

Former health minister Norman Lamb vividly recalls the morning last year when he woke up with double visio

Former health minister Norman Lamb vividly recalls the morning last year when he woke up with double vision.

‘My alarm had gone off as usual, but when I looked up, there were a lot more cows than usual grazing on the Norfolk marshes in the picture on my bedroom wall,’ he says wryly. 

‘Everything was blurred and I couldn’t focus on anything.

‘I initially thought it might just be a symptom of heavy sleep, but I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, there were still two of everything: the bed, the door, the phone. And that’s when I realised something was up.’

In fact, although unaware of this at the time, the 61-year-old Liberal Democrat MP, who stood for the Party leadership in 2015, had suffered a stroke.

Every year, more than 100,000 Brits, one in four of whom are of working age, have a stroke — which occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Stroke is not only the fourth-biggest killer in the country, it is also one of the biggest causes of disability.

The slim, 5ft 11in MP — previously a minister in the coalition government and now chairman of the science and technology select committee — did not see himself as a candidate for the condition. 

He considered himself healthy and didn’t have any of the classic symptoms, such as slurred speech or a drooping face.

‘In fact, I’ve since met quite a few people who experienced double vision when having a stroke, so it can be an indicator,’ says the married father-of-two.

Despite his double vision, Norman managed to call his GP sister, Kirsten, from his London flat — his wife Mary was at their Norfolk home — and she told him to ‘get to A&E quickly’.

Luckily, Norman’s son, Ned, 28, was staying over and took his father to hospital. ‘By then, my sight was returning to normal,’ he says.

Norman then went on to experience ‘the good and the bad of the NHS’, as he describes it. 

After telling a nurse he’d woken up with double vision, Norman was told to go to the emergency eye clinic.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked. But she insisted, so I spent the whole morning having eye tests.’

The eye clinic discovered ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ and he was told to ‘get a blood test, go home and come back in a fortnight’ — despite the fact that the Stroke Association’s website advises that ‘sudden blurred vision or loss of sight in one or both eyes’ indicates a potential stroke.

Norman rang his sister again, who, fearing he had a brain tumour, told him not to leave the hospital but to get himself to the neurovascular department, which specialises in disorders of the brain and its blood supply.

‘I’m articulate enough and confident enough to go back and challenge what I’d been told,’ he says. 

‘But there are many who wouldn’t have a GP sister to advise them, so there was a lot of luck in my stroke even being diagnosed. That worries me.’

Referred, at his insistence, to the neurovascular department — where he received ‘very kind and impressive care’ — he had an MRI brain scan and was ‘horrified’ to be told he’d had a minor ischaemic stroke. 

This is the most common type of stroke, and is caused by a blood clot blocking the blood supply to parts of the brain.

Professor Tony Rudd, the national clinical director for strokes at NHS England, who has just retired after 31 years as a consultant stroke physician, was among those who treated the MP.

‘If you’ve had a stroke like that, the risk of having another is higher, but can be significantly reduced by medication and lifestyle changes,’ says Professor Rudd, who prescribed clopidogrel, an aspirin-like drug, to reduce the risk of clotting, and precautionary statins to lower Norman’s cholesterol (although it wasn’t particularly high).

‘The evidence is that the lower the cholesterol, the better.’

Referred, at his insistence, to the neurovascular department — where he received ‘very kind and impressive care’ — he had an MRI brain scan and was ‘horrified’ to be told he’d had a minor ischaemic stroke 

The biggest risk factor is high blood pressure, which can damage and narrow the brain’s blood vessels and raise the odds of one becoming blocked. 

He advises people of all ages to get their blood pressure checked at least every six months.

Norman, who didn’t have high blood pressure and regularly went on two to three-mile runs, believes overwork and lack of sleep may have contributed to his stroke.

The former solicitor, who has been MP for North Norfolk since 2001, admits to being ‘a bit of a workaholic’, often working long hours during his ministerial days. He was doing 60 to 80 hours a week when he had his stroke.

‘There is ‘some evidence’ that people who work long hours and don’t get enough sleep — less than six hours a night — may be at greater risk, says Professor Rudd.

‘But my view is that, if you’re doing a job you enjoy, even if it is stressful, then that probably isn’t particularly harmful.’

Binge drinking and recreational drugs also put you at greater risk of having a stroke, but, he adds: ‘There is no evidence that moderate drinking increases the risk.’

Smoking, however, ‘undoubtedly increases’ the risk, says Professor Rudd — and there is no such thing as a safe level of cigarette use. He adds that if you stop, the risk of a stroke reduces quickly.

Norman had been an ‘intermittent smoker’ — having up to five a day — but had given up.

Those at risk are ‘smokers, diabetics, anyone overweight and those with unhealthy diets, eating large amounts of red meat and not enough fruit and veg,’ says Professor Rudd.

‘Although you can still have a stroke if you do none of those things — as in Norman’s case, which was just bad luck.’

The MP feels lucky to have had a ‘second chance’ after learning that the stroke did not cause him any physical damage, but says that, in the immediate aftermath, he was left thinking: ‘What on Earth do I do now? Do I scale down?’

In fact, doctors told him to ‘carry on as before but not to go mad and do crazy hours’. 

He also gets more sleep now, cycles ‘when he can’ and strives for a better overall work-life balance.

However, the psychological scars of the stroke are still evident.

‘I feel an increased sense of vulnerability and anxiety — and I still wonder whether I’m going to wake up with double vision,’ says Norman, who would like to see every stroke clinic provide access to psychological support.

‘I don’t think we as a nation give people the psychological support — the holistic care — that they very often need after having such a health scare.’

Professor Rudd says British stroke treatment success rates compare ‘favourably’ with the rest of Europe and it is a high priority for the government.

However, he concedes that there is room for improvement in the ongoing, long-term treatment of stroke patients.

Having the stroke has made him reassess his life, says Norman, but he has yet to make a decision about whether to stand again in his North Norfolk constituency in the next General Election.

‘It inevitably becomes a factor to be taken into account,’ he says.n stroke.org.uk

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