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 moment was the start of a life-or-death sequence for the Wallaby great, who was yesterday released from hospital after suffering a rare stroke that stood a very real chance of claiming his life.
The 48-year-old was showing few signs of his ordeal as he spoke to the media at the Royal Brisbane 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 visit to Brisbane to see old friends and play golf before returning to his home in London.
Doctors yesterday did little to play down the severity of Lynagh's stroke, which they said can be fatal.
After catching up with friends at a Brisbane pub, a humorous story resulted in Lynagh coughing on a gulp of light beer and laughing at the same time.
''When I finished that, I opened my eyes and couldn't see. I could see 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 and was in there for six or seven days. I was jet lagged, 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'.''
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,'' Henderson said.
''The back part of the right side of his brain has had a stroke, affecting 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.''
Lynagh has lost 45 per cent of the vision in his left eye, although that will gradually improve. At the moment, he can't drive but is learning to negotiate his way around on foot.
''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.
Henderson said there was no evidence Lynagh's long rugby career had any factor in causing the stroke.