Few of us could hope to be so sanguine or composed. But when Helen Layton’s husband, Andy, suddenly collapsed with a brain haemorrhage in May 2021, she recalls it now as “just one of those things”.
Helen, a 31-year-old primary school teacher, adds with remarkable acceptance of this catastrophic event, “There was no cause, no precursor. All I could think was ‘What is going on?’”
Andy, an armourer putting weapons on jets for the RAF, was on the verge of promotion to sergeant and physically fit.
The couple, both Geordies, were looking forward to becoming first-time parents in six months, and lived in Elgin, near Andy’s base, RAF Lossiemouth.
Nothing could have been more unexpected – or to have such a profound lifelong effect for the pair. And one which has seen them reliant on the RAF Benevolent Fund, which is being supported as part of this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal.
Helen explains: “We were having a chilled afternoon, then at around five o’clock, Andy had this excruciating headache which came out of nowhere.
“He had sudden blindness, he couldn’t breathe and his heart was racing. I called an ambulance and he was blue-lighted to a hospital in Aberdeen.”
Medics explained that Andy had suffered a catastrophic haemorrhage around his brain stem; he was only able to choke out the words “I love you” and “I’m scared” before he lost the power of speech. Doctors had to rush him straight into surgery to try to remove some of the blood pooling in his brain.
“My life flashed before my eyes,” says Andy, “my brain went to those dark places.
“I found myself thinking ‘Is this it? Is my baby going to grow up without a father?’ It was terrifying.”
Around 6am the next morning, Andy showed some signs of consciousness. But doctors couldn’t be sure how badly his brain was affected.
That was the start of a new life for the Laytons.
The first four months of Andy’s recovery were spent in Aberdeen. It took seven weeks to wean him off a ventilator so that he could be moved to the neurological ward.
While on the ventilator, Andy had to undergo a tracheostomy, a plastic tube directly into his throat supplying oxygen which affected his ability to swallow, leading to near-constant chest infections and requiring a tube directly into his stomach to feed him.
Andy spent four months recovering in hospital, and every day Helen made the hour-and-a-half drive to visit him – a 130-mile round trip. She estimates that the cost of petrol alone was adding up to £200 or £300 a week, but she felt there was no choice.
“This was while the Covid restrictions were still in place,” she explains. “They were very worried about cross-contamination with other patients, so he could have only one designated visitor. If I hadn’t gone, he’d have been all on his own.”
As a teacher, Helen had a lot of military children in her classroom in Elgin and the school often raised money for the RAF Benevolent Fund in charity appeals. Now she found herself applying. The fund leapt at the chance to help, offering money to cover her fuel costs and assuring her it would be more than willing to help with whatever else the couple might need.
By now seven months pregnant, the drive was becoming increasingly onerous and Helen was starting to worry about what would happen when the baby eventually arrived. “My family were still in Newcastle and that was a six-hour drive away, so I didn’t really have anyone who could support me,” she explains.
With no other options, the decision was made for Andy to be transferred to Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital near Newcastle, while Helen would temporarily move back in with her mother. In the weeks approaching Helen’s due date, the RAF Benevolent Fund stepped in again, offering six months’ accommodation in military quarters in Newcastle.
“It felt like a weight had been lifted,” Helen says. “For the first time in a long time I felt like I could be excited about the birth of my child, rather than dreading what I was going to do about living costs and accommodation. It was a massive weight off my shoulders.”
The couple’s daughter, Lyra, was born on November 23, with her father still in critical care, experiencing constant chest infections. Even so, nurses laid out a comprehensive battle plan to ensure Andy could be there for his daughter’s birth.
“Ironically,” says Layton, “Lyra was also born with a chest infection, so she was being tube fed, her dad was being tube fed, and I was stuck in there too – all of us in different parts of the hospital at the same time.”
She adds: “Not a pleasant experience, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Still, she says, “fact of the matter was that once the little one was able to get out of hospital, we had a place to go where we had our own space and could work out what we were doing”.
After another month and a half, Andy was taken to rehab and spent six months getting stronger, working on his walking and figuring out what he was going to do next. Occupational therapists helped him learn to manage the skills he’d need to support Helen – such as changing nappies and cooking.
He began to come home for weekend visits. “We spent a lot of time at home because Andy wasn’t strong enough, but we managed a few outings,” Helen says.
In June 2022, Andy came home full-time. Helen often found herself with a baby strapped to her chest while pushing his wheelchair, but the family were reunited.
Help from the RAF Benevolent Fund didn’t stop there. Now that Andy was strong enough, the charity helped move the couple back to their home in Elgin and organised an occupational therapist to inspect the property and make recommendations about what adaptations Andy would need. The couple are on the waiting list for a fully funded home refit.
Things aren’t back to normal, however. The damage to Andy’s brain has left him with ataxia, a condition which affects muscle control and coordination, making it difficult for him to walk and speak. “He uses a four-wheeled walker through the house and a powerchair outdoors, which limits him,” says Helen. “He still has issues with his vocal cords; one cord works and he has some control over it, but the other comes and goes so it’s difficult for him to speak.”
Unfortunately, once a member of the military is medically discharged (as Andy was last month) there is no way of returning, even if they do make a full recovery. So Andy is learning bookkeeping and accounting to gain a trade, while also visiting the gym daily to build up muscular strength. Helen also had to leave her teaching career, having struggled to balance it with her newfound caring responsibilities.
“Our whole life has changed,” Layton says. “It’s hard to put into words. Life has changed a ridiculous amount, an amount that shouldn’t happen in such a short space of time. What gives me hope is seeing how kind and generous people were at the Benevolent Fund. If that lifeline didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have been able to support my husband. I don’t know where I would have given birth. I don’t know if Andy would have been there. There are so many things that were able to happen because the Benevolent Fund was there to support us.”
“It was very helpful; it took a lot off my mind,” agrees Andy. “Just knowing Helen and Lyra were okay and I could stay in hospital and get through rehab without worrying about money or anything… it helped keep my head above the water and kept me going on.”
The RAF Benevolent Fund is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Go Beyond, Race Against Dementia and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927