Michael Lynagh was having a quiet drink with school friends in Brisbane when he laughed at an old war story and choked innocuously into his beer. When he opened his eyes, he couldn't see.
That innocent moment was the start of a life-or-death sequence of events for the Wallaby great, who has been released from hospital after suffering a rare stroke that stood a very real chance of claiming his life.
Coughing fit led to stroke: Lynagh
Wallabies great Michael Lynagh describes how choking on a beer led to a stroke, saying "I opened my eyes and I couldn't see".
The 48-year-old was erudite and showing few signs of his ordeal as he spoke to the media this morning at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital. But he has lost almost half of the sight in his left eye and faces a long recovery after his brush with death.
Lynagh recounted the frightening events that unfolded during a whistlestop visit to Brisbane to see old friends and play golf before returning to his home in London.
Doctors this morning did little to play down the severity of Lynagh's particular stroke, which they said can be fatal and the Queensland rugby icon had the luckiest of escapes.
“I was in Singapore for three or four days and part of that was coming down to Brisbane. I arrived early Monday morning, I was tired but I played golf that day. Part of my catch-up was to see old schoolmates,” Lynagh said.
After catching up with friends at a Brisbane pub, a humorous story saw Lynagh cough on a gulp of a light beer and laugh at the same time.
“When I finished that, I opened my eyes and couldn't see. I could light and shapes and couldn't focus. I tried to shake my head and clear it and it got worse,” Lynagh said.
“I was aware of what was going on around me. One of my schoolmates asked if I should call an ambulance. I said, 'I think so, I think we better'.
“It was fairly scary but I had communication and thought and speech. Luckily Dr Rob Henderson was on call when I came in. I went to the ICU unit and was in there for six or seven days. I was jetlagged, I was tired and had a pretty severe stroke.
“It's been a tough couple of weeks. I'm pleased to be here. I'm pleased to be standing here in front of you today.
“It's not an insignificant thing that happened to me. As Rob said to me, 'you didn't just dodge a bullet, you dodged a bloody great big cannonball'.”
When I finished that, I opened my eyes and couldn't see. I could light and shapes and couldn't focus. I tried to shake my head and clear it and it got worse
Dr Henderson, who has been treating Lynagh, said there were worrying signs after his arrival at hospital as medical staff tried to reduce swelling in the back of his brain.
“Certainly there was a time we wouldn't have thought this was quite possible. He split the wall in an artery in the back of the right side of the neck,” Dr Henderson said.
“The back part of the right side of his brain has had a stroke, effecting that left side of his vision. He blocked off another artery that controls a really important part of your balance and information centre. Most people with that degree of stroke wouldn't be walking for two weeks.
“People die with that stroke where they block that artery. We notice it more in young people. Michael's not a guy who's had the typical risk factors for a stroke.
“We've seen people before not make it from that type of stroke. The worst case scenario was that he wouldn't survive.”
At the riskiest stage, Lynagh was in intensive care and woken every hour for 24 hours as well as being denied fluids in an attempt to reduce the swelling. It eventually subsided and Lynagh avoided surgery.
The most telling impact is on his vision. He has lost 45 per cent of the vision in his left eye, although that will gradually improve over time. At the moment, he can't drive but is learning to negotiate his way around on foot, using Brisbane's South Bank and Chinatown as testing grounds.
“I've lost quite a bit of sight. My actual eyes are fine, but my brain has been damaged in certain places. About 45 per cent of my sight to the left I don't have. I'm hopeful over time that will improve. Already I see quite a bit of difference,” Lynagh said.
“Eventually I hope to (drive). My coordination is intact and I'm learning to look before I step. I can read, write, watch TV, use the computer, use the phone. I hit the wrong keys but probably no more than normal.
“(But) if you see me out on the road, get out of the way.”
Lynagh will remain in Brisbane for three or four weeks as it is still too dangerous for him to fly. He thanked his wife Isabella and three boys, Louis (11), Thomas (9) and Nic (5), who have remained in London throughout the duration.
He also thanked medical staff at the RBWS for their help and life-saving treatment, as well as the wider rugby community for its support.
“If you're going to have a stroke, have it here. The doctors here have been fantastic. There's been quite a team working on me. It's unbelievable,” Lynagh said.
“I'd like to thank all my friends. I didn't know I had so many. The outpouring of love has been amazing.
“To my family back in London, it hasn't been easy. Once they knew I was in safe hands, they made the decision to stay there. They're continuing to get on with their life as such. We decided it was the best course of action.”
Dr Henderson said there was no evidence Lynagh's long rugby career had any factor in causing the stroke.
“You can wonder. But there's no definite evidence that playing rugby caused it,” he said.
“Trauma can cause it. You do it in people after a whiplash car accident. The rest of his neck looks fine and we don't have history to suggest it.
“Usually you can identify some minor trauma. In Michael's case he was laughing and coughing at the same time, so that might be a good thing to avoid.”