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Monday, October 18, 2021

Zeb Soanes: ‘I told myself I couldn’t be having a stroke – I was only 44’

More than 100,000 people in the UK have a stroke each year and a quarter of them are under 65, and often fit and healthy. Soanes’s BBC colleague Andrew Marr – a keen runner in his 50s – had a stroke in 2013; he has blamed an intense workout on a rowing machine, though also reflected that he was “heavily overworking”.

At the time of his stroke, Soanes and his colleagues were in the eye of the Covid storm, still travelling into work and reporting on the pandemic – though, he says: “Everyone was under a heightened sense of pressure during that year, so I’m not sure that it really led to my stroke.

“I’ve always been someone who liked to keep the plates spinning but there was no obvious reason for my stroke and that is alarming”.  

After tests, he spent one night in hospital and was off work for three months while he recovered, inundated with texts, cards and video messages including from his colleagues on Today, such as Nick Robinson, Michal Husein and Martha Kearney.

There were regular hospital check-ups and blood tests, and he took anti-coagulant medication to prevent further strokes. He also takes high doses of vitamin B2 to prevent migraines, which can be a side-effect of stroke.  

Soanes’s stroke came as a huge shock to his friends and family too. His partner, Christophe, was “in pieces”, he says, but comforted by the ambulance crew.

“I was never more relieved to see someone as I was when I saw Christophe when I got out of hospital”. He recalls telling his parents over Facetime, and pauses to collect himself. “It was a very tearful experience. Parents in their 70s don’t expect their son in his 40s to have a stroke”.

Today, he is his usual dapper, chatty, self – no sign of a slur, the voice strong again. But he experienced serious post stroke-fatigue and says he has had to  “listen to my body”.

“For me there was tiredness like I’d never known, where for the first few weeks I would achieve one thing a day – walking round the block and getting a coffee and that was as much as I could do.”

Doctors warned him that depression is common post-stroke and, in the early weeks, he suffered from what he describes as melancholy. He was fearful of another stroke and worried about the impact of having one on his career. “I was worried about being seen as damaged goods. But there was a sense of embarrassment too, a feeling that I had brought it on myself which was ridiculous.”

On one occasion he was so overcome by his feelings of sadness that he cancelled a lunch and went home to bed for the rest of the day.

“It was like a dark cloud descending. I thought, I just can’t do this.”

It has understandably readdressed his outlook on life. “Something like this – a brush with the reaper – that makes you realise that it is all going to come to an end; it reframes everything.”

Now, he says, he appreciates the simpler things of life – and is keen to do what he can to raise awareness of stroke among others.

“For me, that message advertised about stroke and FAST – face, arms, speech, time – must have sunk in. I was surprised when I learnt from the Stroke Association how many younger people are affected. It’s important to know the signs and get help.”

While aware that he must be careful and not tax himself, he is edging back to normality. There are no early morning news bulletins, or ending the day to the sound of Sailing By, but daytime shifts for the time being.

Along with his career with Radio 4, he continues to write children’s books – with the next one due to be published soon – and works as a concert narrator, with a Christmas afternoon concert booked at St Martins-in-the-Fields.

The Stroke Association is launching a new campaign this week with a focus on hope – the charity says without it, many patients feel recovery is impossible. This is something that rings true for Soanes, who knows how vital it is for rebuilding confidence.

His moment of hope came when he took part in the Thaxted Festival in July, reciting William Walton’s Façade, a booking he had made several months before. He didn’t tell the organisers what had happened and decided to go ahead – and it went well. “I knew then,” he says. “I thought ‘it’s going to be alright’. I was getting back on that horse”.

For details of the Stroke Association’s campaign, go to www.stroke.org.uk/hopeafterstroke 

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