Paul McLean reached for his phone to show his wife something, but his hand wouldn’t move. The 40-year-old panicked and tried to convince Suzanne he wasn’t joking. Within minutes, it became clear he was having a stroke.
He was rushed into the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, for a mechanical thrombectomy, pioneering surgery to retrieve a blood clot – but doctors told Suzanne he had a 10 per cent chance of survival.
“I had a short period of time to be saved – about 30 minutes before I’d be gone,” says Paul. “So it was a wee bit serious.”
Paul, now 44, survived the surgery and, four years later, is a stay-at-home parent to his and Suzanne’s 10-month-old son Lorcan. But although he looks and sounds like he has recovered, he is still unable to read and write.
“It’s an invisible wound,” he says. Paul is a participant in a new Channel 4 series, The Write Offs, in which Sandi Toksvig takes eight illiterate adults back to the classroom to teach them how to read and write in 18 weeks.
Around 7.1 million people in the UK are functionally illiterate, according to the National Literacy Trust, meaning they get by with a reading age of 11 or below. The World Literacy Foundation estimates the problem costs the economy more than £37 billion per year.
“The UK has one of the worst literacy levels in Europe,” says Jackie Hewitt-Main, teacher and adult illiteracy expert, at the beginning of the series.
Unlike the other contributors, some of whom never learnt and others who struggle with severe dyslexia, Paul was once an English and Drama teacher. But damage to the left side of his brain during the stroke gave him aphasia, a language impairment that damages the ability to speak, read, write and use numbers. A third of people who have a stroke will experience aphasia, according to the Stroke Association, and more than 350,000 people in the UK are affected by the problem.
Losing a language
“Language has always been a massive part of my life – and all of a sudden it was gone,” says Paul. “It took a long time for me to realise what I had lost.”
When we meet over Zoom, Paul talks with a confidence that belies the trouble he has finding words and meaning. He swaps words around and mixes up details like numbers and dates, but his meaning isn’t lost. “By my bed, I used to have a stack of books, and I could be reading four or five at the same time,” he says. “It could be one fiction and the rest non-fiction, biographies, books on Germany… things I was interested in at the time.”
It took Paul 11 days to understand he had had a stroke, and more time to realise he wasn’t making sense. “My brain couldn’t catch on to the fact that I couldn’t understand what people were saying and they couldn’t understand me,” he recalls. “I thought everyone else was wrong; I didn’t realise I had a problem.”
When Paul realised what he’d lost, he didn’t feel anger or sadness, but a determination to recover. In the middle of the stroke, he thought: “Don’t be sad, because there’s nothing you can do,” he says. “That stayed for a long period of time.”
As a former English teacher, Paul started re-learning language in the way he knew best – reading the Harry Potter series. He flicked through the pages with the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry playing in his ears, trying to match what he was hearing with the words on the page.
Although he knew the story well, he couldn’t understand anything at first. “My speech was lost, so I tried to learn how to read,” he says. “Stephen Fry’s voice is so quiet and slow, so I could listen to it and go through it with him there.” Save for the complication of not knowing whether ‘muggle’ was supposed to be a real word, his comprehension improved from nothing in the first book to around 60 per cent by the fourth. By the last book, he could read along with Fry.
But while Paul’s reading comprehension improved, his speech remained poor. A therapist told him that after a stroke patients often need to focus on one skill – and that picking up one can push the other out. He was faced with choosing between reading books and conversations with his wife. So he switched tack. It took more than a year, but his speech improved.
“My wife is fluent in aphasia,” he says. “I can say the wrong words to her and she sorts it out and says it the right way.”
Paul has learnt coping mechanisms to get by. When he goes to the supermarket, for example, he gets his wife to send him the shopping list on a voice note. He then listens to it on repeat until everything is in the basket. People with aphasia, dyslexia and other forms of adult illiteracy are used to tricks like this.
Another participant in The Write Offs, Tommy, a 66-year-old factory worker and town crier, has his grandchildren’s names tattooed on his arm so he can remember the spelling. He has also developed impressive memory and improvisation skills.
In the series, other contributors suggest that Paul should try to access familiar parts of his brain in new ways – and it’s a pantomime that brings a revelation. “Reading a script seemed to come from a different part of the brain, which was exciting,” he says. The words tripped off his tongue. “If it’s written in a certain way I can read a bit better. Not all books are written like a script, but I can use that.”
Paul sustains conversation with me for over an hour with only a few slip-ups – he tells me his stroke was in January when he means June, and spells his son’s name ‘Norkin’ rather than ‘Lorcan’. He now looks at the world without the prism of language, but, in some ways, says he prefers it. “Trees are more beautiful than they were before,” he says. “Hearing the birds sing, noticing a butterfly in my back garden that’s suddenly the most beautiful thing you’ve seen. Everything seems nicer.”
It isn’t just his new relationship with language that has changed his perspective. “When you know what you’ve lost, getting it back is beautiful and you appreciate it more,” he continues. “Even now, I still do.”
That isn’t to say Paul wouldn’t love to regain his skills. One of the reasons he signed up to The Write Offs is because he doesn’t want the day to come when his son’s reading and writing ability outstrips his own. “I don’t want to be behind my son, to be sitting with my child who’s now seven years of age, and he asks: ‘Dad, can you read this book?’ and I have to say: ‘No.’”
Paul doesn’t know if he will keep apace with his son’s learning – but he can see a positive side. “I’ve come to a place where I think: ‘It’s cool, it’ll be nice that he’s teaching me something’,” he says. “Together, we can make learning something fun.” As if to illustrate the point, he jokes: “I’ll be the fun teacher in the house. My wife will have to do all the hard work.”
The Write Offs is on Channel 4 on September 22 at 9.30pm
For more information go to the Stroke Association or call its helpline on 0303 3033 100