Gary Parkinson battling with same spirit as his playing days

The term “hero” is obscurely unquantifiable.
Wembley winner: Gary Parkinson celebrates putting Burnley ahead in the 1994 play-off finalWembley winner: Gary Parkinson celebrates putting Burnley ahead in the 1994 play-off final
Wembley winner: Gary Parkinson celebrates putting Burnley ahead in the 1994 play-off final

With so many definitions and examples it’s almost impossible to assign an accurate meaning.

But, in some cases, the character of an individual and the circumstances surrounding them transcends interpretation. One of those examples is former Clarets defender Gary Parkinson.

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The 45-year-old inscribed his name indelibly in to Turf Moor folklore when beating John Keeley in the 66th minute at the old Wembley Stadium as Jimmy Mullen’s Clarets beat Stockport County 2-1 in the play-off final in 1994.

However, it’s Parkinson’s current goal and ambition that has captured the inspiration and imagination of those both inside and outside the footballing sphere.

It was 1,133 days ago, on September 7th, 2010, when everything changed for the one-time full back and his family when Gary, an immensely popular and respected character in English football, revered for his infectious camaraderie, suffered a stroke, leaving him with locked-in syndrome.

Here, his devoted wife Deborah speaks of his battle to overcome the debilitating illness, the family’s home life, methods of communication, outside influences, support, and her husband’s determination to stay involved in the sport that he loved.

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“He has always been a hero to us and I guess he’ll go down as a hero or legend for what he did at Burnley,” said Deborah. “But this is a battle and it takes somebody really strong to fight it. I think the background that Gary has had has really helped him along the way to keep fighting and keep focused really.

“Even though Gary has had such a debilitating illness he’s been able to fight it because he’s so strong. He’s had to keep his mind focused on it and that helps. You can physically try to do things and we’ve got physios, speech therapists and carers on duty 24 hours a day, but it’s got to be Gary from the inside who has to try. And he does.”

Last Christmas the family received the perfect festive gift with news that Gary would be moved back home after being reliant on 24-hour care at the Priory Highbank Centre for Neuro-Rehabilitation in Bury. Now he is able to be around his three children; Luke, 20, Chloe, 16, and Sophie, 10.

“We are looking forward to Christmas this year but I don’t think anything will be like last year how we got him home just two weeks before Christmas and on that first night he didn’t want us to go to bed and I think we stayed up until about 4 a.m. It was lovely with the children just sat around his bedside. It was lovely to have him with us.

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“It’s a life changing thing but I feel we’ve adjusted to it well. I’ve always said to the children that we’ve got to stay positive. I never wanted anything negative around Gary or in the house. We fought to get Gary home and we managed to do it. He sometimes feels guilty and a burden but we don’t want that. We want the five of us to be together. We are getting on with helping him and we’ve just got to keep going.”

Deborah added: “Each day that comes along we see brighter bits of him coming back. He can boss the kids around and tell us what we should and shouldn’t be doing. The idea of him coming home was for him to see what was going on rather than me telling him each night so it’s great. He can be involved; he’s seeing it and hearing it and it’s having an impact on what the children are doing. That’s what we’ve always wanted.”

Gary’s condition - which has been captured and portrayed through literature in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s poetic prose ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, charting the diagnosis and aftermath of the former French journalist’s life - remains much the same physically. But while imprisoned in his own body, a return to his home life and the familiarity of his surroundings has been psychologically rewarding.

It’s now hoped that a physically and mentally hectic schedule of rehabilitation including treatment, care and communication will gradually work towards addressing his current state of paralysis.

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“Gary is still completely paralysed but we’ve seen little flickers and the odd movement,” said Deborah. “They’ll then go away and we won’t see them for a couple of months. We are trying desperately to work on his jaw because we can’t open his mouth which affects his breathing because he can’t take in air. While he is breathing unaided, he’s got a tracheotomy and it’s helping him with his saliva.

“We are looking at surgery now. We don’t really know whether that will lead to getting some voice from him or whether he could eat. That would be amazing if we could get that but it’s still early days. He has been trialing some liquid foods and his swallowing refluxes are coming back so that’s good. He’s totally reliant on people 24 hours a day. “

She added: “We’ve employed some private therapists because we’ve been fortunate enough with the funding that has gone on and the PFA has been very good because they’ve funded some of the care.

“We’ve got a speech therapist who comes in three times a week, a physiotherapist who comes in twice a week, as well as the NHS care with nurses who come in to do his medical treatment. Some staff help with Gary’s personal care as well, along with me. There’s about seven carers and four nurses involved plus the two therapists.

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“His spirit is very good; he has down days, but then who doesn’t.

“The children try to keep him happy and he watches DVDs of his former clubs, which makes him smile. He does a lot of smiling. His days are kept really busy but he’s generally looked after really well. Seeing him smile every day keeps us going to the day after.”

Read the second part of Deborah’s account in next Tuesday’s Burnley Express Sport.