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panic-stricken daughter beside her. Justine’s face, Stephen recalls, was drooping slightly on one side.
“She was smiling. I think she knew something drastic had happened to her body and was glad I was there to look after the girls.”
Tests soon confirmed Stephen’s suspicions. Justine had suffered a major stroke, which happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Her only symptom had been a slight headache earlier that day, which had been helped by a pilates class.
“The next day I listened to a voicemail from Thea and she sounded utterly panicked,” recalls Stephen, 48. “They had come back from a walk in Pollok Park and Justine had gone for a lie down and asked Thea to put her younger sister to bed, which was unheard of.
“About 10 minutes later, Justine had got up, walked through to Thea’s room and just went completely to one side. She managed to get to the couch and literally collapsed. She couldn’t speak and it was as if she couldn’t hear Thea. That’s when Thea knew there was something wrong. She had tried to get hold of me and, when she couldn’t, she called an ambulance.”
The paramedics started going through the FAST test, the mnemonic used to help detect if someone has suffered a stroke: facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulties and time to call an ambulance.
“She couldn’t speak but was making groaning sounds. She was holding her arm and trying to move it.”
Justine was taken to Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital while Stephen arranged for his mother to come and look after the girls.
“We were taken into a room and I knew straight away it was catastrophic because of the face of the woman who came out to speak to me,” he says. “One of the doctors cried when she saw I had two little girls.”
THEIR mother underwent emergency surgery to try to ease the swelling in her brain caused by the stroke. Initially the operation appeared to be successful. However, the day after the procedure Stephen was told the swelling on one side of Justine’s brain had spread to the other side and the doctors said there was no real hope.
“From then on in, you just go into a strange sensation,” he says. “I didn’t want to lie to the girls. Their aunt was helping them get the Christmas tree up. I got home and the girls were like, ‘Dad, look’. It was heart-wrenching and horrible.
“I didn’t know what language to use to a 10-year-old, let alone a six-year-old. I sat at the kitchen table and Googled ‘how to tell children their mother has died’ and stumbled on a page by the charity Barnardo’s which suggested using words like ‘death’ and ‘dead’ rather than ‘gone for a long sleep’ or ‘to a better place’, which will cause confusion. Young children need to be told repeatedly that when someone dies they can never come back.
“I spoke to people who had lost parents young because I didn’t want to make bad choices and one of the big things that came