UKC

FILM: In The Bubble - Andy Earl's Story

Andy Earl is one of Britain's most accomplished climbers, from hard, dangerous first ascents in Northumberland, to performing at the highest level in World Cup competitions. In 2010, tragedy struck and changed the Earl's lives forever. 

This film focusses on Andy's climbing career, detailing some of his extraordinary ascents that have since stood the test of time. On the surface, In The Bubble is a documentary about Andy Earl. A closer look will show you a tragic, but ultimately heartwarming story of an inseparable family that rallied around their partner, son, brother and father.

 

Read Suzan Dudink's account of the 9th of December 2010:

In The Bubble 1, 202 kb
'Morning handsome. Did you sleep ok?' Andy said he wasn’t feeling very well, his head was hurting a little. It didn’t surprise me, he had been working non-stop the last few weeks. The baby’s due date was two weeks away, so Andy had worked around the clock to get all his work done in time.

Early that afternoon Andy rang to tell me he had arrived at Willowburn sport centre in Alnwick, about 45 minutes away from Newcastle. I wished him luck with the setting and he replied ‘I love you too’. I remember his reply surprised me, it didn't make sense. I assumed he was just tired and not really focusing on our conversation.

That afternoon I went to Climb Newcastle. I had to do some work for the wall and wanted to train a little myself. When I looked at my phone I saw I had a missed call from Chris, who  Andy was working with . I assumed he wanted to talk about work so I rang him back. The phone was picked up immediately.

Hi Spring, I saw you rang.’

Hi Suzan.' John (Andy's dad) replied. 'It’s me’. I wasn’t sure what john was doing with Chris' phone, and was a bit surprised.

Andy isn’t very well’, John said. ‘They are taking him to the hospital. Chris and I are on our way to the wall to pick you up, we will be there soon’.

Of course you always worry a little when you hear your partner is taken to hospital, but I must admit I did not have that gut feeling something bad had happened to him. I honestly thought he was overworked, but fine. John was waiting for me inside his car. As soon as he saw me he told me what the paramedics had told him.

They think Andy has suffered a stroke’, he said. He looked worried when he said those words. ‘They don't know for sure, but Andy’s reactions and expressions, resemble signs of a brain bleed’, he added.

I was getting a little worried myself now, but still thought  Andy was fine. I wonder if we try and ignore sincere worries as a protective mechanism. Normally I listen to fact and judge those facts objectively, but this time I choose to ignore them. Andy was fine, I kept telling myself.

I’d never seen John drive so fast and he ignored all traffic rules. We went on the bus lanes, passed cars left and right and exceeded all speed limits. John said he didn’t care if he would get fined, he just wanted to see his son. Within ten minutes we arrived at the RVI and went straight to the A&E department. They told us to stay in this little waiting room and wait further instructions. A few minutes later we saw Chris, he sat down next to us. We waited. When I looked at John and Chris, I could see the worry in their eyes. I was still very optimistic. I asked Chris to tell me again what had happened that afternoon.

Andy wasn’t feeling very well after our lunch’, he said. ‘He had to throw up and lay down on the mats for a while afterwards. I offered to drive home so Andy could have a snooze in the passenger seat. He forgot to put his seat belt on, so I told him to do so. He reacted very slowly. That’s when I started to think something wasn’t right,’ Chris added.

He then told me that when they arrived at our house Andy couldn’t get out of the car himself. They had to carry him inside. John (who was at our house that day) called the ambulance which arrived within minutes.

Andy climbing Graviton (7A) in Fontainebleau, 107 kb
Andy climbing Graviton (7A) in Fontainebleau
© Darren Stevenson
At that point the door of our little waiting room opened. A doctor and a nurse stepped in and closed the door. They both took a seat and for a second the room was filled with silence. The doctor asked us who we were and if we could tell him what had happened to Andy. I think Chris told him what he had just told me; that Andy threw up after lunch and collapsed when he tried to leave the van. What happened next was the most surreal moment of my life.

I’m very sorry but I have some bad news for you,’ the doctor said without showing any emotion.

Surely the news wasn’t that bad. The words that came out of the Doctor's mouth were something out of a TV series, or a film, but not words that belonged in our life. Andy was just overworked and had collapsed because of it. Surely Andy was fine.

But  Andy wasn’t fine, he was far from fine. Andy had suffered a grade 5 V subarachnoid haemorrhage and fronto-temporal intracranial haemorrhage -  the most severe aneurysm, in the left side of his brain.

I’m not sure at what point and why it finally started to sink in that Andy's situation wasn't good. Maybe it was the emotionless and serious look of the doctor, or the worried  and sympathetic look of the nurse. Whatever the trigger, all of a sudden realised I that Andy's life was in danger. Without saying anything I started to cry. Words can’t describe how I felt that moment, but I’m trembling writing this down and my eyes are filling up with tears again. It was as if the fundamentals of my life had been taken away from me in a split second. There was not much to hold on to except believing Andy would never leave me.

When emotions tell you to ignore painful facts, your mind doesn't seem to work anymore. I couldn’t think straight, I felt as if I wasn’t part of this world any longer. A feeling I had to get used to, because it would not get easier any time soon.

I wanted to see Andy. I needed to tell him he wasn’t allowed to leave me. He had to stay with me forever. I needed him, he was my everything. 'Please can I go and see him?' I asked the doctor. He said I could, but a second later, the doctors phone rang. It was the neurosurgeon. They were taking Andy to theatre, I wouldn't be able to see him until after his operation. The doctor asked who Andy’s next of kin was. John motioned towards me. I remember feeling overwhelmed by this. I wasn’t in any state to make reasonable decisions, I needed other persons to make them for me. But John insisted I was Andy’s next of kin. 'Andy would want it that way,' he said.

I can’t remember much of what happened afterwards. When we arrived at the intensive care unit, Carol (his mum) and Sarah (his sister) were already there. Sarah looked worried when she saw us, whereas Carol just looked pleased to see us. Until then, they both didn’t know what had happened to Andy. When we told them Andy had suffered a severe brain bleed and was in theatre, they both looked the way I had felt when the doctor had told me the same news. Disbelief, worry and fear was written all over their faces.

The next couple of hours we just waited. None of us said much. A lady who was also in the waiting room, told us her husband had suffered a stroke and had been in the intensive care for the last two weeks. I remember thinking to myself, Andy will be out of here tomorrow. Finally, after almost 3 hours we were taken to a little room where two people were waiting for us. One of them was Mr Bhattethiri, the neurosurgeon who had operated on Andy, the other was Bethany,  Andy's nurse for that evening. Unlike the doctor we met in the A&E, Mr Bhattethiri had a very friendly touch about him. He made us feel at ease. He wasn’t as clinical as the previous doctor, he was human, sympathetic. He told us Andy had suffered a very severe bleed in the left side of his brain and tried to explain what he had done to Andy.

Andy making a rare ascent of High Fidelity (8B) at Caley., 152 kb
Andy making a rare ascent of High Fidelity (8B) at Caley.
© Darren Stevenson
The next 48 hours are critical,’ he started. ‘We will keep Andy in an induced coma to allow his brain to recover. If he makes it trough these 48 hours we will slowly try and wake him up. I can’t tell you what effect the bleed will have on Andy till he wakes up. What I can tell you, is that the support of the family seems one of the most important factors in the recovery process of the patient. Over the years I’ve noticed that patients with supportive families, recover better than patients without.’ He looked at me and my bump and said ‘as for you Suzan, you have to take extra good care of yourself. Your baby really needs you right now. Andy is asleep at the moment and the only thing you can do for him is look after yourself and his child. After you’ve seen Andy you have to go home to try and eat and sleep. And in the next few weeks you have to be strong for your baby, Andy and yourself.'

He ask me to promise him that. This simple instruction would turn out to be one of the hardest instruction I've ever faced. When Mr Bhattethiri finished, we were allowed to see Andy. Bethany, the nurse prepared us for what Andy would look like.

He will have lots of wires attached to him which are all linked to machines. Because we have to measure the pressure in his brain, he will have a probe sticking out of his skull. Because he is in an induced coma, he won’t be able to respond to you at all.

John and I went in first. There he was, my handsome boyfriend. He looked peaceful as if he was enjoying a good night sleep. You wouldn’t know he was in a coma if it wasn’t for all the machines he was plugged into. Even his skin colour and the smell of his body were the same as normal. I took his right hand and started to talk to him. I can’t remember what I said to him, but I do remember feeling relieved. He didn’t look like he belonged in hospital. He looked comfortable, healthy and asleep. I wasn’t worried about him anymore.

They kept Andy in an induced come for two weeks, the longest two weeks of my life. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, they couldn't get the swelling of his brain down and he developed pneumonia. My mum and dad and brother, who is a doctor himself, came over from Holland to support us. I remember my brother telling me, after he looked at the output of Andy's machines.

'Suz, Andy is really really struggling at the moment. You have to prepare yourself for the phone call tonight'.

But Andy made sure I didn't get a phone call. He fought his hardest fight, and won. My brother, and all other doctors at the RVI were amazed. They still see Andy as the miracle patient who survived against all odds. 

While Andy was in a coma I visited him twice every day. Mr Bhattethiri requested that I rest, eat, and look after myself and our unborn child. I had pushed this towards the back of my mind. I didn't care about myself or this baby, I cared about Andy. So I ignored Mr Bhattethiri's request. But I couldn't ignore nature.

Amber - Born 23rd December 2010, 73 kb
Amber - Born 23rd December 2010
© Suzan Dudink
On the 23rd of December, two weeks after Andy's bleed, I went into labour. The baby was ready to come out, but my body didn't want to let her go. I think unconsciously I felt she was safe inside me, but wouldn't be safe in this world. Fifty hours later, with the help of gas and air, an epidural, hormones and the unconditional support of my mum who held my hand those hours, our daughter finally saw the world. At 12:07pm, on Christmas Day 2010, Amber was born. She was the most perfectly shaped, healthy and gorgeous looking baby girl I'd ever seen. Just for a moment I forget about everything else in life.

In the fifty hours that I was in labour, Andy had woken up from his coma. Even the juiciest soap series wouldn’t of written what happened next. The doctors and nurses of the ICU had arranged for Andy to come and see me and his baby girl. Bear in mind he’d just woken up out of a coma, had no clue what had happened to him, had severe brain damage, was still severely drugged and wired up. I didn’t know if he would remember me, or his unborn daughter. But when he saw me, he took my hand and didn’t let go, which was the perfect Christmas present. I’m so grateful to the ICU staff for bringing us together that day. Thanks to them we have pictures of the three of us together on the day Amber was born, which is so important.

The weeks and months that followed were everything that life has to offer when times get tough: emotional, tiring, lonely, but also powerful and strengthening. When I look back at it now I think we all just tried to survive and cope with the changes in our lives those first few months. All in our own way, but all together.

Andy was moved from the intensive care to the high dependence unit where he stayed another week. Thereafter he was moved to another ward at the RVI were he had to stay until he was offered a room at Walkergate hospital, a neuro-rehabilitation centre in Newcastle.

The effects of Andy's bleed were enormous. He couldn't move, speak, eat, drink or even breath independently. But from the day he woke up, his eyes showed signs of recognition. I was convinced he knew who we were, because every time he saw us his eyes would light up and every time we left him he would look scared and sad. It was horrible seeing him that way.

After 5 weeks in the RVI, Andy was moved to Walkergate, where he stayed another 9 months. We've been very lucky living close to such good hospitals. Both the staff at the RVI and Walkergate have helped Andy tremendously in his recovery. I can't thank them enough for what they've done for us. Because he was such hard working and determined patient, they loved working with him. They offered him speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and medical care on a daily basis.

After the surgery, 120 kb
After the surgery
© Suzan Dudink
I won't go into much detail about his recovery. I could write a whole book about it; the effort it took to drink without straw, the months it took him to relearn how to produce sounds, the endless hours he spend trying to learn how to dress himself single handed.  What I do want to say is that his recovery was very slow, very hard and faced many setbacks. Andy had to relearn everything, even the simplest things like swallowing, holding up his head, and making a sound.

In many ways Andy went through the same developmental stages as his daughter. It took Andy two weeks to learn to swallow and three weeks to hold his head up unassisted, and these were the easy things he had to learn. His stroke had left the right side of his body fully paralysed (and he was right handed), he suffered from both Aphasia (he had difficulty speaking and finding the right words to complete his thoughts) and Apraxia (where the messages from the brain to the mouth are disrupted), was effected by epileptic seizures, suffered from selected memory loss and his vision was impaired.

It took him months before he could go to the toilet on his own, or say a single word. The first steps he took were around the same time as Amber took hers, at ten months old. But the important thing was that he made progress. The progress might of been slow, but it was there for everyone to observe. And the main reason for his progress, I believe, was Andy's motivation, determination and even his stubbornness - he wanted to do everything by himself. His bleed had not change his personality, it just put it to an extreme test. 

Suzan and Andy, 108 kb
Suzan and Andy
© Darren Stevenson

You can read more of Suzan's account in our Digital Feature

UKClimbing would like to thank:

Suzan Dudink, Andy Earl, John Earl, Carol Earl, Chris Graham, Graeme AldersonDarren Stevenson, Mark SavageAlex MessengerLucinda Whittaker, Martin Smith, Climb Newcastle.

 

 

 



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