Gary Parkinson - The day my life changed forever

Gary Parkinson with wife Deborah and son Luke at last month's game at Middlesbrough. Below: Gary in his role as Blackpool youth coach in 2009.
Gary Parkinson with wife Deborah and son Luke at last month's game at Middlesbrough. Below: Gary in his role as Blackpool youth coach in 2009.
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Three years ago Blackpool FC youth team coach and former player Gary Parkinson had a massive stroke leaving him suffering from ‘locked-in’ syndrome.

The condition means he is conscious but unable to speak or move. Gary communicates with his beloved family through blinking his eyes.

Gary in his role as Blackpool youth coach in 2009.

Gary in his role as Blackpool youth coach in 2009.

Here, in his own words, as told to his son Luke who painstakingly worked through the alphabet with his father to select the right letters, are Gary’s thoughts and feelings about his condition and the support of his family and friends.

September 6, 2010 and my Blackpool Under 18s side had started the season unbeaten, a normal day of training at the club’s Squires Gate training ground had gone by like any other and I had gone to bed without a trouble in the world.

Around 6am, I woke with a severe headache, my wife Deborah brought me a paracetamol and a glass of water. I struggled to hold the glass and that’s when Deborah said she was going to ring an ambulance.

Minutes then turned to hours as I was rushed to the Royal Bolton Hospital to be tested for a host of possible problems. The initial thoughts were of an inner-ear infection and the doctor prescribed some medication with a view to me returning home within 24 hours. As Deborah went to pick up the prescription, things changed for the worse and I was taken into intensive care and placed on a ventilator to stop any further damage to my brain and body.

From this point, I have very little recollection of events and without the help of my family I wouldn’t be able to remember what happened in the weeks that followed.

After being taken to intensive care, three brain scans were carried out on me to diagnose my symptoms.

It wasn’t until two days later, with the third scan, that the extent of the illness was truly diagnosed — a brain stem stroke leaving me with locked-in syndrome, a condition that completely shut down my ability to move any body parts apart from my eyes.

After six weeks of hospitalisation it was agreed that my position had stabilised enough for me to be transferred to a neuro-rehabilitation unit, where I spent the next two years on a programme of intense rehabilitation.

This was extremely difficult and demanding for my family, who had an hour round-trip to see me each day.

That was something my wife, Deborah, and my children did every single day without fail — Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, they were there with me every step of the way.

There were some bad days for me, as there would be for anybody.

Just imagine being in a room on your own once visiting times had finished, not being able to move or speak.

At times I would shed a tear or two. At the end of the day I am a family man, I love my family and I just wanted to go home with them, to the place I belonged. That hope became a reality shortly before Christmas 2012.

My first night back at home was incredible. Our family home was adapted thanks to the support of fund-raisers of the Gary Parkinson Trust and everything from bathrooms to lifts has been fitted to fulfil my every need.

Having my family sitting around my bed that night was something I had dreamed about since my life had changed.

Twelve months have passed since then and being at home to watch my children Luke, 20, Chloe, 17, and Sophie, 10, come home from school, college and university each day is something that most people would take for granted but for me it is quality time I thought I might never see again.

It is the little things such as these — and being able to go out shopping with Deborah — that keep me remaining positive.

Without them I don’t think I would have ever been able to go back to a football ground as I did on Boxing Day to watch my two former clubs, Middlesbrough and Burnley, at the Riverside Stadium. That day was a huge step in my progress and rehabilitation.

Football has been a major part of my life since I was a child and to be back around the atmosphere of a match day was a great feeling. I was very anxious on the way up to the game as it was my first real public outing since being taken ill and I wasn’t sure about the perception people would have of me sat in my wheelchair.

Both clubs were great and I would like to thank Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, who had invited me to the game to go in a hospitality box.

Within half an hour of arriving at the stadium, Steve had been to see me alongside Neil Bausor, Keith Lamb and Burnley directors Barry Kilby and Clive Holt.

That’s not to mention the host of friends and former team-mates in Lee Turnbull, Gary Hamilton, Gary Gill and Bernie Slaven.

But the feeling I will never forget came from the fans that day at the Riverside.

As I came out on to the pitch alongside my family just minutes before kick-off, to see all 20,000 fans – including 5,000 from Burnley – on their feet, applauding and singing my name is something that has really given me a huge lift and the motivation to keep moving forward.

Of course, I still have my dark days where I get upset and wonder why all this had to happen to me, but what kind of person doesn’t have a down day?

I appreciate my family so much because when those dark days come along they are always there to keep me thinking positively, whether that’s talking about my playing days or just something one of the children has been doing with their friends. Their positivity always brings a smile to my face.

I thank all the fans, and all the friends for the support they continue to give me but without my family – and particularly my wife, Deborah – it would have been hard to keep on fighting.


Luke Parkinson: The same dad who’s always been there

This festive period marked a real landmark time for us as a family with my dad making his first public appearance back at a football ground.

For those who maybe didn’t get a paper over Christmas we took my dad up to Middlesbrough to watch their home game with Burnley on Boxing Day.

My dad received a tremendous reception from all four corners of the ground and it created a moment that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

Since then I have helped my dad to write an account of that day and it’s great to see that so many people want to hear about him even though it’s been more than three years since he fell ill with a stroke and as a result locked-in syndrome.

The condition must be absolutely terrible to deal with as it shuts down his ability to move his own body despite that fact that he is fully aware of everything that is going on around him.

That’s what we want to continue to get across to people who visit him because he is just the dad who has always been there; we do our football coupon on a weekend and he knows the form of teams, their position in the table, who the best players are and basically all the information that the average season ticket holder probably couldn’t tell you about the opposition.

The column we did together was one that brought back some raw and unpleasant memories that as a father and son we haven’t really revisited before.

We have done different bits and pieces in the past on football and my dad’s progress but this was the first time we went back to the start to the time my dad first took ill back in September 2010.

To be honest some of the moments particularly when my dad was first taken to hospital, I was at home looking after my two younger sisters, Chloe, 17 and Sophie, 10 so it was difficult to hear his thoughts through the diagnosis of his illness.

But I think the biggest emotion I take out of taking my dad to the match and then writing the column is that of joy and achievement.

Going back to those much darker days makes you really appreciate how far my dad has progressed and it has been nice to reflect on how far he and as a family we have come.

We were once told he might not pull through but that just made us fight even more and we will always continue to that.

• For further information about Gary’s condition and fund-raising activities for the Gary Parkinson Trust please visit the website

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