Heart attack, road accident and cancer brought the things that matter most in life into focus for kate and roy

Roy and Kate Iwaniec
Roy and Kate Iwaniec
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THE wedding vows said it all. As bride and groom Kate and Roy Iwaniec promised to be true to each other in sickness and in health, “till death us do part”, their pledge held a particularly poignant twist.

For as they exchanged rings, both were only too aware that this was a marriage ceremony that very nearly never was.

And had fate dealt them both just a slightly different blow, there would never have been any Mr and Mrs Iwaniec at all.

Today the Bonnyrigg couple are still fresh from their October wedding, looking forward to their first Christmas together as husband and wife.

But this time last year, Roy was battling to recover from a road accident that nearly killed him – remarkably, his second brush with death following a near-fatal heart attack years earlier. And while Kate tirelessly nursed him and tended to his every need, she was completely unaware that she, too, was about to confront very her own near-death experience.

Roy had astonished doctors with an amazing recovery from a horrendous brain injury, learning to walk and talk against all the odds, when a chance discovery revealed that Kate’s niggling and frustrating medical problem was, in fact, life-threatening cervical cancer.

The horrendous chain of events would have tested any couple’s relationship and resolve to the limit. Instead, confronted by the darkest of days that left both wondering what the future might possibly hold, Kate and Roy drew closer together than ever before.

And, after a relationship spanning 11 years together as a couple, they finally agreed to get married.

“It must have been the bang on the head that did it,” laughs Roy, 51. “But I woke up from 11 days in a coma after the accident and realised what’s important in life.

“I knew right away that, whatever else happened, I had to ask Kate to marry me.”

The couple had been enjoying a night out in Dalkeith in October last year when Roy decided to nip out of the club they were in to pick up a takeaway. Somehow – he has never found out precisely how – he ended up quarter of a mile away from the Indian restaurant, on a busy stretch of road near Melville Golf Centre.

“I have absolutely no idea what I was doing there,” he says. “I’d been out, I’d had a couple of pints, I wasn’t drunk but I wasn’t sober either. It was Sunday, October 24, the first Old Firm game of the season and Rangers won 3-1. That’s the only vivid memory I have.”

Later he discovered the car that hit him had propelled him 12 feet up in the air. He flew eight feet before smashing his head into a wall.

He woke up 11 days later from an induced coma to find himself in the Western General’s high dependency unit surrounded by tubes and beeping machines. He had a broken bone in his neck, bleeding in his brain, broken ribs and Kate – frantic with worry – was holding vigil by his side.

“I was pulling at all the tubes, trying to rip them out,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what was happening. The nurses had to hold my hands down, I was so determined to get the tubes that were keeping me alive, out.

“There were two weird metal bolts sticking out of my head too,” he says. “I felt like a Dalek with these things sticking out.”

Medics had bored two holes in either side of Roy’s head to help relieve the bleeding around his brain, caused when his skull smashed into the wall.

“Doctors said he’d broken what’s called the C2 bone in his neck,” remembers Kate. “We were told that he was incredibly lucky, a fraction of an inch away from being paralysed.”

For Roy it was a second near-death nightmare. Eleven years earlier a blood clot in an artery in his heart caused a massive heart attack. “I was pretty much dead,” he says. “The doctors had to inject adrenalin straight into my heart to bring me back.

“You can’t go through all of that and not start thinking about what is really important in life.”

In spite of his injuries from the road accident, Roy, a driving instructor at the time, made a remarkable physical recovery. Within a month he had proposed to Kate and the couple set a date for their wedding in May.

“I call her my ‘Ground Bound Angel’,” he smiles. “She’s been with me through thick and thin and I couldn’t manage without her.

“I never really found out much about the accident. It was just one of those things. The driver stopped at the scene and wasn’t charged with having done anything wrong, but to be honest I didn’t really want to know too much about it – I was too busy trying to get better.

“The worst thing has been having to learn to walk again, that wasn’t something I expected to do in my fifties, and having other adults having to take care of all my personal hygiene.

“I remember standing up for the first time in hospital supported by a giant zimmer frame, wearing some kind of nappy, wondering if I could walk. It was awful.

“Even now that I’m physically much better, my brain injury still causes problems.

“I had to learn how to write again. And I get frustrated easily and if two people are talking to me at once I feel like my head is going to explode.”

There are mood swings and periods of depression too, including sleepless nights when Roy admits he was often too frightened to close his eyes in case he never woke up again.

But he found vital support from brain injury organisation Headway at Astley Ainslie hospital, where he met other brain injury patients and took comfort from seeing their progress.

As his condition improved, the couple looked forward to finally tying the knot. But their plans were suddenly and dramatically thrown into chaos.

A chance remark to a doctor led to Kate, who works as a cleaner at Dalkeith Police Station and at Kings Park Primary School, undergoing tests which revealed devastating news that she had cervical cancer.

“I’d been so busy looking after Roy,” she remembers, “it was like having a baby in the house, I had to do everything for him, from cutting his toenails to helping him wash.

“I wasn’t thinking too much about my own health but I’d noticed every month I had irregular bleeding.

“I was referred to hospital and was told I was anaemic and had fibroids, growths in the womb which weren’t cancerous. When I went back I happened to mention I had a bit of pain and the doctor thought it might be best to have a biopsy.

“I thought maybe it was something like polyps. I went back to get the results and two nurses were in the room and I just knew it was something serious.

“When they told me it was cancer, my first reaction was it couldn’t be because I was due to get married in seven weeks.”

The couple’s May wedding was rearranged for June only to be cancelled again as Kate recovered from a hysterectomy.

Eventually Roy and Kate, who live at Adam Kelly View, Bonnyrigg, made it third time lucky in October – almost a year to the day from Roy’s accident – when they tied the knot at Dalkeith Registrar’s Office.

“We had a great day and a wonderful honeymoon in Malta,” says Roy, who is now hoping to return to his role as a Trainer and Assessor for St Andrew’s First Aid.

“You look back on it all and wonder how on earth we got through it,” says Kate, 54. “We’re just very lucky that things have worked out the way they have.

“It might have been very different.”

Support and therapy for those suffering brain trauma

HEAD injury as the result of an accident is the most common cause of sudden trauma to the brain in adults.

But while some can be left with obvious signs of brain damage that impacts on their physical abilities, others, like Roy Iwaniec, have more subtle symptoms such as short-term memory loss, sudden mood swings and difficulties with every day issues like problem solving and crowded places.

Edinburgh Headway Group based at Astley Ainslie Hospital provides a meeting place for people coping with brain trauma, offering support, advice and facilities to aid their recovery such as a gym, computer games, art and music therapy, reflexology and social activities.

“It’s been amazing,” says Roy. “I can go there and talk to people who know what I’m going through. I look around and see some of the people there and realise how lucky I’ve been – I could have been left so much worse.”

The charity has its own premises within the hospital grounds.

For details, contact 0131 537 9116, e-mail office@edinburghheadway.org.uk or visit www.edinburghheadway.org.uk.