“I died, medically speaking, three times last summer,” Bernard Gallacher says calmly as he explains why he has grown used to thinking about mortality and the mysteries of an after-life in the most unlikely of settings.
The 65-year-old former golfer, who played eight Ryder Cups and captained Europe three times in the competition, looks around a hushed room at the plush Wentworth Club in Surrey. “The funny thing is that someone here, a member, came up to me and said: ‘I just want to ask you a question: is there anything on the other side?’ He thought I might have some answers for him because, just like Fabrice Muamba, I had been clinically dead. I said: ‘I don’t think it quite works that way.’”
Gallacher is an undemonstrative man but the circumstances he endured last August, when a cardiac arrest stopped his heart repeatedly and left him in a coma for seven days, have marked him. He shakes his head and murmurs: “I’m still having an out-of-body experience right now. I have no recollection of what happened and so it’s very difficult to register something which still seems surreal.”
Coming to grips
The power of Gallacher’s story is underlined by the quietness of its telling. He relives his near-death experience like a slightly dazed tourist describing a visit to a strange country. But Gallacher takes care to get the details right for he knows that explaining clearly what happened to him will bolster the campaign he and his wife now lead to raise awareness of the need for defibrillators at golf clubs and as many public venues as possible. Gallacher “died” three times; and three times a defibrillator ensured that his heart began beating again.
“I had a cardiac arrest rather than a heart attack, which is associated with the plumbing of the heart, like a coronary with blocked arteries,” he says. “Pain is associated with a heart attack. There are symptoms attached to a heart attack. You feel breathless. You don’t feel well. The danger of a cardiac arrest is that it just happens. It’s about the electrical currents of the heart. It goes into a rhythm and then it stops. There would not have been many fitter 23-year-olds than Fabrice Muamba and he would’ve been monitored regularly by the club [Bolton Wanderers]. But there are no symptoms or warnings and it happened to him the same way as me. I was just about to stand up and talk at a golf function in Aberdeen. People tell me that I fell over like I was hit by a boxer. I was poleaxed. I was just about to say something and...”
Gallacher clicks his fingers and mimes falling flat on his face. He laughs dryly. “Some people thought it was part of my act. Slapstick comedy before a Ryder Cup speech.”
He shrugs when asked if it’s difficult to relive that fateful day. “It’s actually not disconcerting. I just know that circumstances contrived to keep me alive. There were two nurses at the hotel where I was speaking who knew exactly what they were doing. One nurse was a sister of the secretary at Bathgate [Gallacher’s first golf club]. I recently met her and, funnily enough, she thought I was slurring my speech that day. She didn’t like the look of me when I stood up. Apparently, I started to go a bit grey, and to sweat. But I can’t remember it.”
An unlikely chain of coincidences rescued him — the first being that he was attended to immediately by that experienced nurse. “She gave me mouth-to-mouth for 20 minutes before they got the defibrillator going. Apparently, I played golf earlier that day with this guy who teaches people how to use defibrillators as part of his health and safety work. He got the hotel defibrillator working.”
During a fraught trip in the ambulance, Gallacher’s heart stopped completely again and again. “They had to use the defibrillator three times. A South African, Doctor Block, saved me three times in the ambulance. In terms of the heart not working, I really was gone. I was medically dead. But he kept me going. I was very lucky.”
The prognosis still seemed bleak when Gallacher was wheeled into the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. “My family were told the bad news,” he says. “They then phoned our family doctor and he couldn’t reassure them. He said it doesn’t sound good. Doctors just don’t want to give false hope,” he adds.
“I was in a coma for seven days and when I woke up I saw all the family by the bed. I had tubes up me. But I felt perfectly well and so I thought: ‘What’s going on here?’ They told me what had happened. I have no recollection of it. This is where it gets very strange.”
Gallacher leans forward and maps out the itinerary of his lost days. “I was coming from a family holiday in Gibraltar and flying to Gatwick. After landing at Gatwick I went to my house in Ascot. The taxi waited while I got my stuff and then he took me to Heathrow. I flew to Aberdeen and the guy organising the event picked me up. We had a meal. The next day I played golf with various people. I then went back to the hotel to give my speech. But my last actual memory is going into Gibraltar airport. The rest is gone.”
Have all these incidents changed him? “Um,” Gallacher says before lapsing into a long and thoughtful pause. “I’m a Catholic and I go to church. But I don’t feel religious about this. I don’t pray any more than I used to. I know I’ve changed a little on the inside but outwardly it hasn’t apart from the fact that I’m not allowed to drive a car any more. But I don’t feel like I’m on borrowed time. People do feel immortal and it’s only when something like this happens that you consider your mortality much more closely. I’m now more aware that there is an end. I just don’t know when it will be.
“I think my family have been more traumatised. It was very hard for Lesley [his wife]. So after I recovered she said we really need to take this opportunity to help people and have this awareness campaign and try to get a defibrillator into as many golf clubs as possible.”
He adds: “Around 100,000 people in the UK suffer from cardiac arrest every year. And if there is a defibrillator around you have over a 50 per cent chance of survival. If not, your chances reduce to around 5 per cent. Those statistics are frightening — but they inspired my wife. She’s the driving force behind the campaign. We’re going to run with it until the Ryder Cup in September and Leslie will remain involved with the Arrhythmia Alliance.”
Gallacher, who also represents Golf Care, a company which insures golfers, is not the archetypal victim of a heart condition. He does not smoke, drinks moderately, exercises regularly and does not suffer from undue stress. But his genetic flaw is a reminder that anyone could be affected by an irregular heartbeat. “I’m not an irascible guy,” he says wryly. “I don’t get too excited. I’ve won golf tournaments and you don’t do that if you get overexcited. You have to keep calm. That’s the trick of golf.”
During his Ryder Cup-playing days, he beat Lee Trevino and the greatest of all golfers, Jack Nicklaus, in singles competition.
His links with the Ryder Cup remain strong. Gallacher will again work as a BBC specialist summariser in September and he is close to Paul McGinley, Europe’s captain, who lives near him. McGinley and Gallacher often meet to play golf and discuss this year’s clash against the US. His nephew, Stephen Gallacher, is also hoping to make McGinley’s team.
Gallacher lingers over an old photograph of him leaping in the air as a jubilant Ryder Cup captain.
“That was 1995 at Oakhill, when Philip Walton beat Jay Haas on the last hole — which meant we had won the Ryder Cup again. I’d lost the two previous matches as captain and they had been desperately close. That was a relief because I almost thought there was something wrong with my captaincy. It was a truly great moment. I didn’t know I could jump that high — maybe that triggered the cardiac arrest!”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd