Bernard Gallacher on surviving cardiac arrest

Bernard Gallacher says he is 'feeling ok - probably better than you might think' after suffering a cardiac arrest in August. Picture: Tom Miles
Bernard Gallacher says he is 'feeling ok - probably better than you might think' after suffering a cardiac arrest in August. Picture: Tom Miles
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Bernard Gallacher admits he was lucky to survive cardiac arrest, but he’s determined to be back commentating at next year’s Ryder Cup

Bernard Gallacher has no recollection whatsoever of taking two flights to get from Gibraltar to Aberdeen, nor a taxi ride from Gatwick to Heathrow in between.

He can’t remember standing on the first tee at Banchory Golf Club with guests at the company day he was hosting, nor the second part of that event, a dinner in the Marcliffe Hotel. All he can recall is parking his car at La Linea, close to Gibraltar, then, five days later, waking up in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with a priest at his bedside.

Having since been filled in on the bit in between, the former Ryder Cup captain knows he is lucky to still be alive. After suffering a cardiac arrest at the dinner function, the 64-year-old would have been dead today if there hadn’t been a defibrillator in the hotel. The same would have been the case if the good fitness level retained by Gallacher hadn’t allowed him to overcome his heart stopping three times en route to hospital.

There, as Gallacher battled for his life in intensive care, his wife, Lesley, and their three children, Sky Sports presenter Kirsty, Jamie and Laura, kept vigil, their prayers being shared throughout the golfing world for the man who cut his teeth in the sport at Bathgate before going on to record ten European Tour victories, play in eight Ryder Cups and captain Europe three times against the Americans.

Kirsty’s husband, England rugby international Paul Simpson, also made the journey up to Aberdeen to lend his support to the family, as did Bernard’s mum, Millie, and his brother, Jim. Other visitors to his bedside in the Granite City included Sam Torrance, former Wentworth greenkeeper Chris Kennedy and broadcaster Renton Laidlaw.

Just under two months on from being at death’s doorstep, Gallacher is making a remarkable recovery. Last weekend, in his first public appearance since being cleared by doctors to resume the activities that have filled his diary after retiring as the long-serving PGA professional at the Wentworth Club, he joined Tony Jacklin and Peter Alliss at an event at the Surrey venue to mark the 60th anniversary of it staging the Ryder Cup.

Emotion was thick in the air as Gallacher was given a standing ovation by the members, having retained a strong bond with them through still living at nearby Ascot, and he’s hoping it won’t be long before he can rejoin them out on the course. He also sees no reason why he can’t get back to the broadcasting role he has enjoyed for BBC Radio Five Live over the past few years and, understandably, he is especially keen to be inside the ropes offering his views 
on next September’s Ryder Cup at 

“I’m feeling okay, thanks, probably better than you might think,” Gallacher told The Scotsman – he relies on to keep abreast of affairs north of the Border – in his first full interview since having a chunk of time erased from his memory as his family and friends went to hell and back.

“I’ve got no memory of what happened at all. All I remember is waking up in hospital five days after leaving Spain, where I’d been on holiday with Lesley, with a priest beside my bed. I had to go to Gibraltar to catch two flights to get up to Aberdeen. I can only recall parking my car at La Linea. I’ve got no recollection of getting on the plane at Gibraltar, getting off it at Gatwick then getting a taxi to take me to Heathrow and then completing the journey up to Aberdeen. I’ve also got no recollection of standing on the first tee at Banchory with all the people at the company day then coming back to the Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen for the dinner at night.

“The doctors say losing your memory like I did, which was due to the oxygen deprivation I suffered whilst in cardiac arrest, is like a safety mechanism in the brain. They say it’s normal in these circumstances. They also said that when my heart gave out two or three times on the way to the hospital it was my fitness that kept me alive in the end. If I hadn’t been quite as fit, they don’t think I would have pulled through.

“To be honest, Lesley and our children have been affected more by what happened than me as I was really out of it. Lesley, Jamie, Laura and Kirsty, as well as our grandchildren, were all up in Aberdeen and they were the ones that suffered most when I was in the hospital. Kirsty had to phone Lesley in Spain just after midnight to tell her what had happened. She was very calm as she knew her mum was on her own. But, in a situation like that, you always fear the worst and it must have been very hard for her that she couldn’t be there straight away due to the fact she was in Spain. I was told later they were staying in the next room to me in the hospital, but it was a very worrying and anxious time for all the family.”

Good fortune, spades of it, in fact, played its part in Gallacher pulling through. “I was lucky that there were two accident-and-emergency nurses at the function. They recognised right away what was happening. I was also lucky that the Marcliffe Hotel had a defibrillator which kept me going, hence the reason I’m now going to lead a campaign, which has the backing of both the PGA and European Tour, to make defibrillators widely accessible at golf courses around the UK. The doctors still do not know what caused my cardiac arrest but, sadly, it happens to many people and without warning, so this opportunity must not be lost and Lesley and I will do all we can to make sure at least all the golf clubs in the UK are equipped.

“I was lucky, too, that there was a doctor in the ambulance because when my heart stopped en route to the hospital he was able to get it going again. You read a lot of stories about hospitals being over-run, but I was lucky that the one in Aberdeen had everything under control and I was able to receive great treatment.

“I’m now seeing a cardiac specialist, an electrophysiologist, in London who specialises in the ‘wiring’ of the heart. My heart is okay and the arteries, too. What happened was that my heart went into a rhythm and stopped. The consultant I’m seeing is also a golfer and he’s anxious that I get back to full fitness as soon as possible. He’s given me a programme to work on.

“I feel very lucky that I’m around today so I’m taking my doctor’s advice by not doing too much. But, at the same time, he doesn’t want me to be an invalid. He doesn’t want me to be sitting around doing nothing. I’ve not been back on the golf course yet, but I’ve started hitting some balls and I’ve also been back in the gym. I’m trying to get back to normal as soon as possible, though one disappointment for Lesley and I is that we are having to miss the wedding of our godson James Lyle [Sandy’s son] this weekend as I feel I need to be close to home for the time being.”

Sir Bruce Forsyth, a long-time Wentworth club member, made daily phone calls to the hospital to check on Gallacher, who is still working his way through replying to all the messages of support he’s received over the past few weeks. “I was overwhelmed by all them, to be honest, and we are trying to answer as many as we can,” he said. “Even Sir Alex Ferguson got my number from [former European Tour chief executive] Ken Schofield and sent me a text when I was recovering in hospital. That was a nice touch.

“There was a celebratory dinner at Wentworth last Sunday night to mark the 60th anniversary of it hosting the 1953 Ryder Cup. Michael Parkinson hosted a Q&A with Peter Alliss, Tony Jacklin, George O’Grady and myself. That was the first time I’d had the chance to stand up and thank the members for their good wishes. It was very emotional as I got a nice standing ovation.”

A warm welcome will also await back on home soil when Gallacher, health permitting, returns on broadcasting duty at next year’s Ryder Cup. He played in the last match to be held in the home of golf – at Muirfield in 1973 – and is keeping his fingers crossed that another Gallacher, his nephew Stephen, can now share that experience by making Paul McGinley’s team for the eagerly-awaited clash in Perthshire against an American side with Tom Watson at its helm.

“The Radio Five Live guys have also been sending me cards and hopefully I can get back out on the course next year for them as I enjoy that. There’s two big events next year – The Open, of course, but an even bigger one is the Ryder Cup. I can remember the Muirfield match in 1973 [the third of his eight appearances in the event] as if it was yesterday.

“These days, of course, the Ryder Cup is now bigger, better and definitely more commercial. You just can’t compare what it was then to now. When I first played in it [at Birkdale in 1969], there were still big crowds, but golf has exploded in popularity, especially the Ryder Cup. It is a very special event. No matter what sport you are involved in, the Ryder Cup gets everyone excited.”

The excitement levels went through the roof as Europe pulled off their ‘Miracle at Medinah’ last year and, though it may be a mismatch in terms of individual achievements, Gallacher is confident McGinley is the perfect man to take on Watson. He also reckons it’s a certainty that Sam Torrance will be part of the Irishman’s backroom team.

“Paul, who’s been in touch with me, is very thorough in his preparations and he’ll leave no stone unturned, that’s for sure. I listened to his captains’ press conference with Tom Watson and he said all the right things. He’s very respectful of Tom but when the gun goes off he’ll be determined that Europe come out on top at Tom’s expense.

“I definitely think Sam will be part of Paul’s backroom team at Gleneagles. They play a lot of golf together at Sunningdale and get on very well. Even more significant, though, is that Paul played under Sam [in a winning team at The Belfry in 2002] and enjoyed his captaincy. He watched Sam get the best out of his players and he’ll be trying to do that, too – that’s going to be his style of captaincy.

“I think we need to get at least a couple of Scots in that team. And, if I can play in eight Ryder Cups, then Stephen can play in one, that’s for sure, as he is a better player than me. He’s a better ball-striker than me and longer, too. If he can make a big effort, then there’s no reason why he can’t get in the team. It would mean a lot to Stephen if that happened in Scotland. It would also mean a lot to a whole host of people in the Lothians, where he’s doing some excellent work these days with his foundation.

“It’s good that he wants to put something back into the game. He’s lucky that he has the facilities at Kingsfield, where they have the driving range to teach young kids in the first place, then a nice nine-hole course for them to go out and play. What fell into place was Robert Arkley, who owns Kingsfield, letting Stephen have it as a base for the foundation. That’s what really allowed it to get off the ground. The R&A have also got behind it, as has the Lothians Golf Association. I think it’s great because we can’t do enough of that kind of thing. There’s not enough people coming into golf these days and this will definitely help.”

Primarily an analyst himself these days, Gallacher was interested to read Brandel Chamblee’s comments in an American golf magazine that claimed Tiger Woods was “cavalier with the rules”. Chamblee, who works for the Golf Channel, has subsequently apologised to Woods for using a school cheating analogy and Gallacher certainly has sympathy for the world No 1 in this instance.

“I was surprised to hear what he said but, at the same time, I know that Brandel Chamblee likes to be controversial,” he observed. “I know we don’t hear him much over here, but I sometimes listen to him on the Golf Channel and he is very opinionated. But I will say one thing about Tiger – he doesn’t cheat and he isn’t a cheat. He has more cameras following him than anyone in the world probably. He can’t breathe without people seeing what he does. Anyone can make a mistake. And, when he makes a mistake, it is quickly drawn to people’s attention and, in some instances, blown out of proportion. The rules of golf are quite complex and there’s always going to be people waiting to pounce on Tiger if he breaks one of them.”

Over the next few weeks and months, people will be waiting to pounce on Bernard Gallacher, though only to tell him how pleased they are to see him. Too many of the good people are taken from us way too early. Thankfully, however, not on this occasion.