It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-February when the house phone rang – and it would drastically change our lives forever…

The call was from my sister Eftyhia, telling us that she found our grandmother (“Yiayia”, Greek for grandmother) collapsed on the living room floor. My mother and I jumped into in the car and raced to her house. By the time we got there, an ambulance was already outside. I remember seeing Yiayia on the floor, collapsed, unconscious. Both my mum and sister were in tears and my grandfather looked numb.

I travelled in the ambulance with her and once we were at our local hospital she went for a CT scan. Sitting in the waiting room in the A&E department in what felt like hours, a group of doctors asked to speak to the next-of-kin. They told us it was a very severe bleed to the brain (a subarachnoid aneurysm or SAH). The prognosis was extremely poor and the next 24 hours would be critical. She was transferred the next day to The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

At the hospital she was taken to theatre for a ‘life or death’ procedure with a very small percentage of success – where surgeons inserted a coil in the large blood vessels in the brain to stop the bleeding. During the procedure her heart stopped, she suffered a large amount of external bleeding (extremely unusual) and she later suffered ICP (elevated intracranial pressure) to the brain.

She subsequently fell into a deep coma and was later placed on a life support machine. Doctors told us that although they had stopped the bleeding, the damage caused to both the cerebral hemispheres was so severe and that it would be extremely unlikely that she would survive, let alone open her eyes, talk, walk or interact again.

No words could describe how we felt. During this difficult time we all turned to God, praying and asking family and friends to light candles for her and all the fellow patients that were in critical conditions in intensive care units at The National Hospital and beyond.

“Unbelievably, with our strong faith, the life-saving procedures and care from the consultants at The National Hospital, as well as the love, support and constant encouragement to get her home, she made an incredible recovery.”

Her consultant called her a ‘living miracle’ and people at her local church call her “Lazarou” (Lazarus) – she was in effect dead but came back to life.

From her time in hospital, Yiayia has very little recollection of her condition, though she does have two strong memories – one is seeing her older brother, who had passed away in 1995, sitting on an elevated rock and telling her, ‘Go back, it isn’t your time yet. Your family still needs you.’ The other is of a woman with long hair and an angelic face, who was constantly tugging on her hair – she believes that this was Saint Barbara (a saint extremely close to her heart) visiting her to let her know to keep fighting.

Slow progress

Her recovery took a very long time. She finally left the hospital after many months in both intensive care and the wards. She was transferred to rehabilitation centres, where she had to start over – to learn to talk, recognise people and walk again.

Though many doctors didn’t think that she would survive, let alone start any form of rehab, she did. Her goal was to be in a position where she could go back to her village of Lagia in Cyprus and say prayers of thanks at her childhood church. This spurred her on to make a recovery and she made the trip, which was extremely emotional for all of us. She was also determined to see both my sister and I graduate from university, which she did – and it has been a highlight for her.

Since seeing the most important person in my life go through this experience, I have thrown myself into fundraising for The National Brain Appeal to say thank you for the life-saving world-class care and support my grandmother received. I ran The London Marathon back in 2013 and last year I took on two amazing challenges – The Great Wall of China and the New York Marathon 2016. I have managed to obtain a place in the New York Marathon this year.

Taking on global challenges

The Great Wall of China was 53k of vigorous upward climbs of more than 10,000 relentless steps, runs and winding paths along the mountains. Not only a life-changing experience but an eye opener from a historic perspective! The high point was definitely reaching the peak of the Wall with its jaw-dropping views. The New York Marathon was an extremely difficult challenge both mentally and physically. I got a huge boost when I reached the famous First Avenue in Manhattan, because I spotted TV station ABC7 New-York setting up for a live broadcast. I decided to stop and give an interview, talking about the global challenges I was taking on and why, mentioning my grandmother, The National Hospital and the global fundraising.

I am extremely lucky to have a very supportive employer who matched funded the amount I raised through sponsorship – where I have raised more than £8,300 to date. I’d encourage everyone who takes on a challenge for a charity to ask their employer and see what can be matched – it could be the difference between reaching – or smashing – your target. It is also key to get people to support you via Gift Aid, which again, significantly increases the amount you can raise.

Yiayia Effy is proud of me for taking on these challenges. The day before I left for New York in 2016, I spent time with both my grandparents, there were plenty of kisses and hugs, words of encouragement and also feeding me endless amounts of food – as grandmothers do! For me, the opportunity to raise both awareness and funds for such an amazing and life-changing cause has always been the key motivating factor, and we will always be grateful that the team at The National Hospital who went the extra mile to help to save my grandmother’s life.”

Alexis Alexandrou