Strokes don't just affect the elderly, as Steve Ojomoh knows only too well. The former England No 8's toughest battle came off the pitch and here he relives the experience

Steve Ojomoh: The day I had a stroke

One in six people in England will have a stroke during their lifetime, writes Alan Pearey. And more than a third of first-time strokes occur in middle-aged adults (age 40 to 69), according to recent Public Health England statistics.

From rugby, Michael Lynagh became a high-profile stroke victim in 2012. And in April, Bristol centre Will Hurrell retired from the sport following a suspected stroke in January. It followed an incident against Leicester that was assumed at the time to be a head injury.

Steve Ojomoh, the former Bath and England No 8, also knows what it’s like to experience the life-threatening medical condition. Ojomoh was 48 when he suffered a stroke in October 2018.

Rugby World went to meet him at one of the two children’s nurseries he owns, Little Willows in Bath, for a feature published in our April 2020 issue. Below is a more detailed first-person account of the events of that fateful day and how it has impacted on his life…

Steve Ojomoh, Bath v Leicester cup final 1996

Buoyant: celebrating Bath’s victory over Leicester in the 1996 Pilkington Cup final (Getty Images)

“Looking back, when you piece it all together, you can see how the stroke manifested itself. I had a meeting booked with my nursery manager and in my head that was always going to be stressful because we were discussing pay increase for staff; she would naturally fight the staff corner, and I would naturally fight the company’s corner to get an even balance.

“So I didn’t sleep too well the night before. We’d arranged to meet for lunch and it was during that lunch meeting, when we started talking about things like spreadsheets, that I took the bull by the horns and said, ‘Right, this is what I’m proposing’.

“As we were talking there was a noise in my head, like the release of a gas. It’s like when you look into the sun. Then the headaches started within five minutes. Bad headaches. It must have been bad because I handed the keys of the car to her. We were meant to drive on to Trowbridge to view a property, a 20-minute drive away.

“She gave me a couple of headache tablets, which didn’t really have an effect. I could still talk normally. It wasn’t debilitating but almost like a toothache. We drove to the property, I was able to walk in, did all the stuff, drove back to the nursery in Bath.

Steve Ojomoh at his Bath children's nursery

Time to reflect: the former international at Little Willows Day Nursery in Bath (Andrew Sydenham)

“At that stage it was about 3, 3.30pm. My daughter (Ava) goes to school just down the road and her pick-up time was four o’clock, so I drove to pick her up. 4, 4.30. I’ve got really good friends next door to the school so we went to their house, this was now maybe five o’clock. Whilst the children played I just lay on the sofa, it was boom, boom, I just couldn’t shake it.

“But at no stage did I think, ‘This is bad’. It was just a really bad headache. I have a phobia about going to doctors’ surgeries. I’d rather be in pain than go there, I have this white coat syndrome. So the thought of going to A&E never came into my way of thinking.

“That day Ava ended up having tea at my friends’ place, so it was now 6.45, 7 o’clock and time to go home. Driving home, I took the wrong turning two or three times. This is a journey I do every day. Ava was saying, ‘Go straight, Dad, you’ve gone one too early’.

Steve Ojomoh, 2020

“I have a phobia about doctors’ surgeries. I’d rather be in pain,” admits Ojomoh (Andrew Sydenham)

“We eventually got home. It was 8, 9 o’clock and I had a hot shower because at this stage I was trying to find anything to ease the pain. I tried putting ice cubes on my head.

“I was up with it most of the night, and at about 3, 4 o’clock, that’s when I had given up, the pain was such that I thought I need to go in. But my next thought was I can’t disrupt the school pattern because my wife (Lisa) was away at the time. If I go to A&E now, how will Ava get to school?

“So I waited until the morning. My son (Max) had only just started driving, so at 6 o’clock I crawled up the stairs and told him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to take me to hospital, I’ve been up all night with this’. And with that he got his sister into the car, me into the passenger seat and took me to A&E in Bath.

“I got seen in A&E in Bath and the next thing I’m in an ambulance going to Southmead Hospital (Bristol). My blood pressure was absolutely ridiculous. The ambulance was the most uncomfortable ride ever; for me the determination was to just hang in there. All those bumps, just hang in there.

“The next thing I know is I wake up and they’re asking me all sorts of questions, I’m being pinched and stuff. What’s your name? What’s your age? I was a bit disorientated, I thought I was in a Jason Bourne movie. My wife tells a very good story about that, I said to her about half lies and half truths.

“When I came round, they said, ‘Do you know why you’re here? Do you know what you’ve had?’ I said, ‘No, not at all.’ They said, ‘You’ve had a stroke.’ My first thought was that’s what old people get. It didn’t make sense to me. I was surprised.

“I was in recovery and had to start doing all these cognitive tests to get everything going again. They said my stroke was caused by high blood pressure. That can be a hereditary thing. My mother suffered from hypertension, it never occurred to me. Black people, West African people, tend to have a propensity for high blood pressure.

“You would have thought I would have done all these checks. There were days where I’d get a nosebleed and I’d just think it’s a cold day or something, but these are the triggers. I never thought anything about it. I’d been operating with this high blood pressure for a while and not knowing. This is something I could have had on and off for ten years.

Steve OjomSteve Ojomoh, England v Ireland 1994

On the hoof: in action on his England debut, a 13-12 home defeat by Ireland in 1994 (Getty Images)

“But it was a combination of things that caused the stroke. On the exercise front, that had stopped compared to what I used to do. But the habit of what I ate hadn’t changed as much, I was still eating a lot of carbs. So that’s one thing.

“But you look at the run-up to October 2018; I had just buried my mother, in May. An African funeral is like no other; dealing with that, being her only son, the responsibility falls on to me. I came back from Nigeria and continued with life without having grieved. All that built up without me knowing it.

“I now take blood pressure tablets every day, a lifetime thing. I go to the gym once in a while, I wear this watch and will do a minimum of 10,000 steps every day. And I try to step back and avoid stress now because stress does not help. I have a good manager. I have to let go a bit and give the manager more responsibility.

Steve Ojomoh

New outlook: Ojomoh has made lifestyle changes. “But you’ve got to live a bit.” (Andrew Sydenham)

“Was I working too hard? It was everything. It was helter-skelter. I internalise a lot of things and when you’ve got that pressure cooker, everything is cumulative over time. Over the years the business had a stress, the funeral, the lifestyle, coming to work, going home, drinking.

“The alcohol side of things I stopped totally, I changed my diet. The shock of the stroke led me to totally change what I put in my body. I’m more aware of my body but the slack has loosened a bit. You’ve got to live and I now allow myself drinks now and again. But what I was doing previously, 2017, 2018…

“On my left side I still have days where if somebody’s there I don’t see them. Or if I bend down to pick something up too quickly I get disorientated. The lucky thing is that I never lost movement, so I was fine that way.

“I spent a lot of time recovering last year, from being here (at the nursery) five or six days to two half-days. I spent a lot of time by myself and with that you reflect a lot. The word ‘grateful’ comes to mind. I look at each day as a blessing. I’m just trying to avoid things that would bring me back to that day.

“I package it up, put it in a box, whoosh. Just like I did with my mum’s funeral. Some day it catches up. I haven’t been able to go in and dissect it.

“You sometimes hear people say, ‘So-and-so passed away’ and it takes me back. Oh my God, that could have been me. What would have happened to my daughter, to my son, all these things. I can’t help but feel very blessed.”

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