Last September, after hustling our children into bed, my phone rang. It was my mum’s friend Sheelagh, who had gone to stay with her in Norfolk. When I answered, a flood of tears poured down the line. My mum Amanda, a vigorous 73-year-old, had been found dead in her bed.

The last time I’d got a similar call was four years previously. That time, I was in Greece and my stepmother was on the line. My father had suffered a stroke and was in hospital. I then had to break the news to my two brothers.

Now, having talked all night with them both about Mum, I set out to deliver the news in person to Dad. Our parents had split up when I was seven but had reached a fond understanding, eased by the arrival of grandchildren. En route to Dad’s, I thought back to that call four years ago on holiday. Cherishing family as Greeks do, our friends on the island threw their arms around us. As they commiserated about Dad’s ‘enkefaliko’ (“brain attack”), one asked what we call it in English.

The term “stroke” was coined in the 1500s, when diagnoses were fashioned by astrological chart. Gabelhouer’s Book of Physic carries the earliest known usage, referring to “the stroke of God’s hand”.

Of course, any disease takes on an ominous ring when it’s your own diagnosis, whatever its etymology. Yet none are as destructive as “stroke”. As my father, Anthony – an award-winning journalist and biographer – later wrote in his autobiography: “It is decidedly the wrong term... Too gentle a word: you stroke a baby, or a pet, or indeed a lover.”

Dad’s “insult to the brain” – as a stroke is sometimes also labelled – occurred just weeks after a party to celebrate his 70th birthday at which he’d been, as ever, the life and soul. That morning of the phone call, however, he awoke to find that he couldn’t get out of bed. Unsure what was happening, Dad dragged himself downstairs, made a move for the phone and crashed into a table, his left side giving way.

He managed somehow to call my stepmother and, meanwhile, rolled himself to the front door, which he unlocked using the tip of an umbrella, in anticipation of the paramedics’ arrival. Within half an hour he was in the specialist stroke unit at King’s College Hospital.

I remain thankful for the speed of the response time; a critical factor to the outcome for a stroke patient. The left side of his body had given way because the stroke had occurred in the right side of Dad’s brain. This neurology would turn out to be somewhat merciful. A person’s language centre is found in the brain’s left hemisphere, so he would be spared the hardships of aphasia (a condition that prevents a person from being able to understand or formulate phrases).Dad then underwent months in-patient rehab, including occupational therapy, speech, counselling and, crucially, physio.

Ten days after Sheelagh’s call from Norfolk, my brother Sam and I visited our mother’s cottage. We pocketed the to-do list atop the kitchen table. Emptied the fridge. Remade the bed in which she died. As we were about to leave, the coroner phoned. The post-mortem had established the cause of death. Stroke had struck again.

I was taken aback, but more fool me. Stroke is second only to heart disease in terms of global fatalities. In stroke, a blockage (“ischaemic”/Dad) or a bleed (“haemorrhagic”/Mum) stops the arterial flow of oxygen, damaging the brain. Both are vascular events. So why is “heart attack” common parlance and “brain attack” a contrivance in English, despite this being how it’s described in most other tongues?

Following that post-mortem, the term “stroke” became a source of indignation and I researched the case against it in the hope of banishing the dangerously vague term altogether. Stroke strikes every three-and-a-half minutes in the UK. Of its victims, a quarter die within a year; half are left disabled.

Funding is miniscule compared to other major diseases, despite the disproportionate burden placed upon the public purse. Most damningly, a survey of stroke survivors found that 85 per cent feel people do not understand the condition.

Surely some of this widespread ignorance could be ameliorated by relabelling strokes “brain attacks”? And who better to ask than “stroke tsar” Prof Anthony Rudd, who was England’s former national clinical director of stroke and was also Dad’s consultant.

“You’re spot on,” he says. “The term ‘stroke’ has undoubtedly contributed to the lack of public awareness. All the surveys in the UK show that about 50 per cent of people know one or two symptoms of stroke. I’ve argued that we should switch to ‘brain attack’. We need a different strategy to get the message across somehow.”

Not least because some basic preventative measures exist: most notably, tracking blood pressure. Moreover, should a brain attack occur, as Rudd explains, “we have effective treatments if we see people quickly enough”.

Once in an assisted living flat, Dad resumed work on his book, doggedly typing it with one finger. We celebrated its recent publication with a party – a magical evening, made more poignant by Mum’s absence.

Based on a True Story by Anthony Holden. Ben Holden is co-editor, with Anthony, of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

The Daily Telegraph

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