Changing course: How golf saved me after stroke

Neil Francis caddying at North Berwick Gold Club. Picture: Contributed
Neil Francis caddying at North Berwick Gold Club. Picture: Contributed
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Neil Francis was a successful chief executive of a web development company, with the lifestyle and status to match. Then he had a stroke, and his world changed forever. Here, Neil explains how he adjusted to his new way of life and how golf caddying helped him on the road to recovery

IF I MAY, I’d like to take you back to October 2006. At that time, I was the chief executive of an Edinburgh-based web development company, Company Net, which I had co-founded ten years earlier. A typical week for me at that time might involve presenting to senior executives at companies like Disney, Coca-Cola, and Miller Homes; running planning sessions with our leadership team; approving budgets; interviewing potential staff; and working on marketing strategies. My business life was not quiet.

And then, on 19 October 2006, at the age of 41, I had a stroke. I was on a family holiday on Arran at the time. One moment I was getting out of my car, the next I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t see out of one eye, I thought I was going to fall down, and I felt incredibly weird. After initial treatment in Arran, I was transferred to the mainland and eventually ended up in the Western Hospital in Edinburgh.

My stroke, the doctors told me, was caused by a blood clot in my leg (a deep vein thrombosis or DVT). This had developed during a business flight to Boston.

After a while, I was allowed to return home. There then followed regular visits to my doctor, new medications, appointments with a speech therapist, and the many (and ongoing) sessions with my brilliant neuropsychologist. I had numerous medical scans, tests and assessments, all courtesy of Scotland’s fantastic NHS.

For about a year after the stroke, I couldn’t really communicate. Words that were in my mind just wouldn’t come out, even though I knew what I wanted to say. Immediately after the stroke, just after I left hospital, I kept a video diary. In one entry I’m sitting with my daughter, then aged eight, trying to read one of my younger son’s books. It was one of those A, B, C books. I knew then I was seeing an apple in the ‘A’ chapter, but I just couldn’t say what it was. That’s what the stroke had done to my brain.

It was, of course, incredibly frustrating. And if I did eventually get the words out, they were often wrong and sometimes highly inappropriate (just ask my kids). For a while, too, my memory was non-existent. I couldn’t even remember the names of my children. The small memories – like passwords – had gone, as well as the big ones, like important family events. It felt as if I was constantly living in the “now”, with no sense of time. Something that had occurred an hour previously could have happened a year ago, or vice versa.

I felt very confused and highly charged emotionally. I would burst into tears unexpectedly, and at the most inappropriate times. My moods would go up and down, and I was incredibly tired. I had difficulty expressing my thoughts, feelings and emotions. And trying to focus on more than one thing was just impossible. I was unable to read or write. I was not allowed to drive for a long while.

None of these are great attributes for a CEO, so I had to resign from my job.

Physically I was fine, but the challenges for me were cognitive and emotional. For the cognitive difficulties, I learned coping strategies. I had, and still have, regular sessions with my NHS neuropsychologist. I’ve put together a “rule book in my mind” for how to cope with situations where I know it will be needed. For example, if I am meeting people in a restaurant, I will arrive 15 minutes early and find the quietest table, as talking and listening to what someone is saying when it is noisy is still very difficult.

However, it was the emotional effects of the stroke which were the most challenging. One of the main ones was coping with my perceived loss of status. I’d loved being a CEO. And to be brutally honest, I’d also loved the “badge” that came with it. The role made me feel important and valued. It fuelled my ego. The meetings I led, the pitches we tackled, the clients I worked for, the buzz of winning new business, the conferences I attended and spoke at, the business trips, the long lunches with clients, the corporate hospitality. I had loved it all.

But that all went.

How did I cope with that emotional loss of status? Well first, just through time. I eventually accepted that this was me – the ex-CEO with brain damage. But that took at least a year. There’s no easy solution to all of this. I came to realise that you just need to understand that a part of you has gone. You can grieve for it. You can even get angry about it. But I decided I was not going to dwell on it.

From all of this, I now accept and understand that I will never recover 100 per cent. I know that I’ll sometimes make mistakes or poor decisions. I’ll feel embarrassed when I “lose” words, or use the wrong ones, when talking to people. I’ll make mistakes in e-mails. I’ll constantly forget things: the names of people I’ve known for many years, important events, what I did last week. But I have accepted that this is the way it is and I move on. Eventually I realised that I could never be a CEO again. And that is okay.

Secondly, further down the line, I came to the conclusion that even though I would not be a CEO again, there were skills, knowledge and strengths that I still had which other companies might benefit from. I would focus on the things I could still do well and put strategies in place to manage my new limitations. That has led to me, over the last few years, becoming a non-executive director for a number of technology and digital companies. My confidence began to rebuild.

Lastly, and surprisingly, I found an unlikely way of coping with my change in status – caddying at a golf course. From CEO to caddie!

It all began with a suggestion from my wife. We watched a television programme about the caddies at the Old Course in St Andrews, and afterwards my wife said that maybe I should think about caddying as part of my recovery. I’d always loved golf and was a member of the North Berwick Golf Club, so I approached the caddie master, Sam Fox, and with his help and support, I started caddying there in 2008.

Since then, I’ve caddied for all sorts of people – doctors, lawyers, judges, pilots, venture capitalists, millionaires, sports champions, bankers, truck drivers, politicians, entrepreneurs, investment managers, professors, senators, estate agents, brokers, and CEOs. These people come from all around the world, especially America.

It was through caddying that I started spending time with people again. It allowed me to communicate and engage in conversations with “strangers”– the type of people I used to deal with when I was a CEO. Crucially, it showed me that whether you are a millionaire, a schoolteacher, or a dentist, most people accept who you are and are interested in your story. Just by caddying and talking to these people I was able to gain new ideas and insights about doing new things in my own life. Many I caddied for also shared experiences they had about starting again or changing course, and I took inspiration from these conversations.

Seven years ago, I was forced to start again. Now I’m a caddie but I’m also a non-executive director, a consultant, and a joint founder of a charity. Soon – to my amazement – I am to become an author as I have written a book based on my experiences (and some of those for whom I have caddied) on the theme of “changing course”.

In many ways, my life with brain damage is better now than it was when I was a CEO, with all of the perceived status which that brought. And all of this is because I carry a golf bag around a golf course.

• Changing Course: Inspiration, Ideas and Insights for Starting Again from the CEO Who Became a Caddie by Neil Francis will be published by Hay House in September.