A Renfrew dad of three, who became critically ill when struck by covid, says it was the love of his family that brought him back from the brink of death.
As Stuart McCullagh lay in a medically-induced coma within the intensive care unit, staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary twice contacted his family to suggest they say their goodbyes and switch off his life support.
But his partner Maureen and his three grown-up children refused to let Stuart go, believing he had what it takes to defy doctors and pull through.
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Now 55-year-old Stuart, who was in a coma for more than five weeks, has made a full recovery.
And he insists that if it wasn’t for his loving and resolute family, he wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Glasgow Airport taxi driver Stuart hung up his cab keys. Like most, he thought the lockdown would last no more than four weeks, and he’d soon be back on the road.
At the end of that month, a fit and healthy Stuart contracted covid, which left him lethargic, agitated and unable to sleep.
When a concerned Maureen called NHS 24 on April 2, she was advised to take her partner to the former Maryhill Medical Centre, where staff were waiting for them.
“Maureen had to wait outside. They put me straight on oxygen, a full mask, and into a wheelchair,” said Stuart, who admits his recollection of that day is hazy.
“There was an ambulance outside to take me to the Royal Infirmary – blue lights and the lot. There was no administration, just straight up to the high dependency ward. It was right at the start of the pandemic and they were not expecting me.
“It is quite surreal when they wheel you in. You are trying to be calm, because you know you are in the best place. All I could see was black and yellow danger tape.”
Stuart was taken to a side ward, where a team of eight medical staff began stripping off all his clothing, inserting cannulas to his arm, applying ECG leads to his chest.
“I managed to send Maureen a text to say it is serious, but don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” remembers Stuart, who had no underlying health conditions.
“Then, there was a big incubation tube going down my throat and I just passed out with the drugs. As soon as they take over your breathing, that is them keeping you alive. Looking back, I feel I had the easy side of it. I was out of it and the doctors were taking care of me. But who was taking care of Maureen and the kids? I always like to know my family are alright.”
Stuart’s 27-year-old son Ryan stepped up to the mark, staying with a frantic Maureen day and night and calling the hospital for regular updates.
As he battled for life, desperately ill Stuart contracted pneumonia and sepsis, and his kidneys began to fail. Medics considered the time to be right to withdraw treatment and move him to palliative care.
“It was not looking good. They phoned Maureen to say you really want to be saying your cheerios now,” he explained.
“But Maureen told them: ‘I saw him walking into that ambulance. He is coming home.’”
Stuart continued: “The intensive care team were tremendous. When I was in the coma, they would pass the phone and let me hear the kids speak. I really do think you hear people when you’re in a coma.
“I remember ‘seeing’ my two girls standing at the bottom of the bed. I was in a dream-like state. They were telling me ‘You are going to be alright. You’ll be fine.’
“My mum came on the phone at one point and gave me a right telling off, as only mums can do. She said ‘No son of mine is going into palliative care. No son of mine will pass away before me.’ The nurse came on the phone and asked her what she’d said to me – because my blood pressure had shot through the roof. So, I must have heard it.”
Knowing that the hospital wanted to move her partner to palliative care, a relative who is a doctor advised Maureen to request a second opinion to “buy him a bit of time to fight.”
Stuart continued: “The second time they tried to move me to palliative care, take everything away, and let me pass away, Maureen told them ‘You need to understand. This is my man, and this is those kids’ father.’”
As his time in a coma turned from days into weeks, his children – Ryan, 22-year-old Olivia and Jessica, 20 – racked their brains for inspiration about what might kick-start their dad into recovery.
On behalf of super-fan Stuart, they reached out to Shakin’ Stevens, who sent them a video message to be played to him in intensive care.
“It was a lovely thing for him to take the time to care,” said Stuart, who’s seen the artist perform live 50 times. “The girls needed something that their dad would love. And I did.”
By the time the family managed to get the second opinion they’d requested, Stuart’s condition had improved to the extent it was not required. He was moved out of intensive care, but had a long rehabilitation journey ahead of him.
Hospital staff made a video, in which Stuart mustered the energy to attempt a wave and blow a kiss to his family. It was the only way he knew how to tell them he was in recovery and would be coming home to Renfrew.
And that’s what he did on May 22, 2020 – seven weeks after his admission to hospital.
“I was in a terrible state. I caught another bug, got over that and got home. You should have seen the amount of people who were here to greet me. I just wanted to be under the radar. I didn’t want people to see me like that. It was upsetting for my family, let alone anyone else,” said Stuart.
“I had to learn to talk again, how to eat, how to walk. I’d lost three stones. My hip joints were gone, my shoulder joints were gone, and the brain goes because you’ve not used it. These are the things nobody talks about.
“You hit a lot of brick walls. You get impatient with yourself. It gets you down, because you don’t want not to be coping. People who get the flu are back to normal after two or three weeks. But this is different. My body was ravished, and I still have scarring on my lungs.”
Stuart firmly believes that had he not been admitted to hospital on the morning of April 2, he’d have been dead by teatime.
“I’m a typical old school guy. I thought I was just feeling a bit down and breathless, and would be fine. It couldn’t have been further from the truth,” he said.
“It took me a long time to get over the brain fog. I lost my dad to dementia. One day he was there and the next minute, he was not. That’s how I felt in a conversation. You lose your confidence, so you just sit in the background.”
Determined to get his dad back and living again, self-employed Ryan insisted Stuart help him out in the office by taking calls.
“If it was not for Ryan forcing me to learn things again, I’d probably be a shadow. I’m back to being my confident self again,” said Stuart, who is back at the wheel of his cab, collecting fares from passengers arriving at and departing from Glasgow International Airport. But to his frustration and humiliation, he no longer has the physical fitness needed to be able to welcome wheelchair-using passengers into his taxi.
It goes with the territory that passengers will chat to him about the scourge of covid and relate their own stories of the sacrifices they’ve made over the past two years.
The Partygate scandal disgusts Stuart, and the behaviour of some members of the Westminster government is, for him, nothing short of embarrassing.
But covid and his brush with death has also taught Stuart to re-evaluate his life. After 10 years together, he and Maureen decided to marry, and the couple were wed at Bowfield Country Club on May 28 last year, surrounded by loving family and friends.
“People need to ‘get’ the situation. It hit my family hard. Most people don’t know anyone who has been in this situation, and that’s a good thing. I don’t want anyone to suffer the way my family did,” said Stuart.
“If it had not been for Maureen and my kids, and her kids too, I would not be here. That’s no disrespect to the NHS. Words do not fix you. Their care did. I do not want them [the NHS] to think I never appreciated every single thing they did for me. The fight Maureen and my kids had on their hands was second to none. But this is not about ‘poor Stuart.’ I am one of the lucky ones.
“Yes, it has changed my outlook on life. It’s not a case of living every day like it’s your last. To me, that’s a silly way to live. It has made me focus of things I’d like to do with my life. It doesn’t have to be helicopters through the Grand Canyon. It’s about having lovely holidays, having goals and setting them realistically. I am not here for the short term. I’m here for the long haul.”
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