A devoted wife has told how her poignant video diary of her husband's recovery from a stroke so severe that half his skull was removed to save his life has more than 56,000 Facebook followers.
Terrified when she found her gym-bunny husband Geoff, 49, collapsed on the floor of their home in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, on March 28, 2019, Jo Smith, 48, feared the worst, after being rushed by ambulance to nearby Broomfield Hospital, where doctors confirmed he had suffered a massive stroke.
Facing an agonizing 72 critical hours, waiting to see if maintenance engineer Geoff would survive, Jo, a family support worker, was later told by doctors that 95 percent of people would not have pulled through.
But, on April 6 – 12 days after lifesaving surgery – when he was well enough to remove his oxygen mask for the first time, he uttered the three words she had been longing to hear since their nightmare began, saying: “I love you."
Jo, who since Geoff returned home on October 4 has been keeping a moving video diary, charting his progress as he learns to walk, talk and perform everyday tasks all over again, firmly believes keeping his independence has aided his recovery, saying: “Even the professionals think he's remarkable.
“One consultant told us that 95 percent of people wouldn't survive what Geoff has."
Jo and Geoff hiking in the Yorkshire Dales in 2017, before the stroke (PA Real Life/Collect)
Jo added: “When they're helping with a recovery, a lot of people do things out of love. Nobody wants to see someone they care about struggle, and it can be hard to sit there and watch Geoff having difficulty with every day tasks.
“But I try really hard not to rush in and help, as it's important for him to relearn to do it himself. I fully believe that's why we've come so far."
Jo, who has three children, Paige, 23, Josh, 21, and Georgie, 18, said her alarm bells first rang early in the morning on March 28, when she could not hear the pitter patter of her pet dogs' paws as Geoff – who had slept downstairs to care for one that was sick – let them out.
Geoff working out before the stroke (PA Real Life/Collect)
Deciding to investigate, she was horrified to find him collapsed on the floor, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.
Panicking, she called for her eldest, Paige, to phone an ambulance and sat with Geoff as they waited for paramedics to arrive.
“We were instructed to lie him down on the floor and tell the 999 operator 'yes' every time he breathed," she said.
Jo showing cards to Geoff in the hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
Then, once Geoff's diagnosis of a middle cerebral artery stroke was confirmed at Broomfield Hospital, he was transferred to a specialist neurology unit in Queens Hospital, Romford, Essex.
Jo continued: “I kept thinking, 'This must be a nightmare and I am going to wake up.' I kept asking, 'Why me? Why Geoff? Why this beautiful person who is my soul mate?'"
Told the first 72 hours following a stroke are critical, Jo realized there was a real chance Geoff may not make it.
Geoff in the hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
But, following an emergency operation to remove the left side of his skull and relieve the pressure on his brain, he pulled through – although medics warned he could be left with severe physical difficulties.
For 12 days after his surgery, Geoff's loved ones faced an emotional rollercoaster – not least because he had to be put back on a ventilator three times to aid his breathing.
But, on April 6, after his oxygen mask was removed and he said the magic words, 'I love you,' Jo knew her beloved husband was back.
She recalled: “That was the most incredible feeling, hearing those three words which we all throw around the place."
On April 11, Geoff was moved from critical care to the acute ward, where he spent six days transitioning from being tube fed to eating soft foods.
Already his muscle wastage was so severe he was barely even able to sit up by himself, and he had no feeling on his right side, signaling that his road to recovery would be a long one.
Geoff in September during one of his weekends at home (PA Real Life/Collect)
By the end of April, he was back at Broomfield Hospital, closer to his home, before moving to east London's Homerton University Hospital in Hackney, which specializes in neurological rehabilitation.
“Getting in there was like winning a golden ticket," explained Jo. “They are really renowned for treating people with neurological injuries – not just stroke survivors."
At Homerton, Geoff's days involved various therapy sessions, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.
Jo, Paige, Josh, Georgie and Geoff (PA Real Life/Collect)
He also attended special groups to help teach him different ways of communicating beyond talking.
“They taught him things like how to hum the tune to a song when he couldn't remember what the words were," said Jo.
By working hard at physiotherapy, Geoff gradually grew stronger and about three weeks after arriving in Homerton, he took his first steps.
Jo and Geoff (PA Real Life/Collect)
Jo, who was by her husband's side virtually every day, said: “I always knew he'd do it. I never stopped believing that he would regain full function, and relearn to do everything he used to be able to.
“We've had some difficult times, but keeping positive is what's got us through them."
By August, Geoff was ready to come home on a phased discharge – first spending one hour at home, to see how he would cope, then an evening, then an overnight stay, then an entire weekend.
Geoff's surgery scar (PA Real Life/Collect)
It was estimated he would be home for good by September – until a hole in his heart known as a Percutaneous Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) was discovered during a test at Homerton.
Although a PFO is a hole that babies have in their heart, which usually closes naturally after birth, according to the NHS, in up to one in four people it can remain open until adulthood, and while it does not usually cause problems, in some people it can lead to strokes.
“The doctors are fairly sure that's what happened with Geoff," explained Jo. “Nobody had any idea that he was living with a PFO. “Apparently, people can have them for their whole lives and never have any problems."
At the end of September, Geoff had surgery done by Dr. Jain at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in central London to close the hole and, finally, on October 4, he was discharged and sent home for good.
“That was really emotional," said Jo. “I think he was quite overwhelmed, as being in hospital for months like he was, you almost get institutionalized, and begin to think the day when you're allowed home will never come."
Since then, Geoff has gone from strength to strength, with Jo documenting every step of his journey on a Facebook page she set up called Geoff's Journey, which now has more than 50,000 followers.
Jo with Geoff in 2009 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Through candid videos, she has shown him doing everything from shaving for the first time since his stroke, rebuilding his strength on an exercise bike and even presenting her with a touching card thanking her for all she has done for him.
She continued: “There's not a lot he can't do now. Though the feeling in his right arm has returned, he doesn't have functional use, so he struggles to grip and hold things – but we are working hard to rebuild that.
“He can also walk fairly well too, though there is still some weakness on his right side."
Geoff in May, while learning to walk at Homerton Hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
She added: “His speech is getting better all the time. We have a way to go, but we can have a simple conversation now, whereas before, when he was first in hospital, he couldn't say my name or decipher the difference between yes and no.
“He will remember long-term things, like holidays, and he knows who people are – it's just that sometimes, if it's someone outside the family who he doesn't see all the time, he may need a photo to jog his memory."
As well as the Geoff's Journey page, Jo has also set up a GoFundMe, and organized several fundraising events to help with the costs of his ongoing care.
Jo helping Geoff shave in the hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
She hopes to use the money raised – over £10,000 (over $13,000) to date – to help with things like physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, as well as to buy specialist equipment which they are currently borrowing from the NHS.
“The more time goes on, the more opportunities come up, as now I'm discovering therapies and treatments that I didn't know existed before," she said. “We're becoming more aware of what Geoff may need in the future with each day."
Jo also hopes that the videos she shares will spur Geoff on and enable him to look back over his own progress and help other people.
Jo, Paige, Josh and Georgie and Geoff the day he was transferred back to Broomfield (PA Real Life/Collect)
She continued: “I have no idea how we've reached more than 56,000 followers. It's absolutely wowed me. Every follower helps raise awareness, so I'm so pleased to have people following our journey.
“It isn't just stroke survivors – we want to help anybody out there struggling. Geoff has no idea how much he has inspired people to keep going.
“Most people are supportive, but sadly we do get the odd troll. That can be difficult as it's such an emotional, personal story."
Geoff in hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
She added: “I will never be able to get my head around why you would want to be nasty to a stranger on the internet – but that's the downside of social media."
Praising her husband for his unwavering determination, she concluded: “We both have our off days, but we know how to pick one another up and carry on."