On a sunny July afternoon in 2011 I decided to take a break from the computer and get some fresh air on the front step of our house in South London. Suddenly I looked up to see my 58 year-old husband walk up the path with the pale skin and unsteady movements of a man in his mid-eighties. I knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong. Within an hour he was delirious, writhing and screaming in the Accident and Emergency department of St Thomas’ Hospital in South London like something out of The Exorcist. By the evening he was in a coma.

Bed 12

Bed 12

Simon was unconscious for five weeks, hooked up to every kind of life support. The doctors were pessimistic, warning me that if he ever did come round, there was a strong possibility of brain damage. But even in the worst moments I was determined not to give up. I negotiated a sabbatical from work, and spent 12 hours each day at his bedside, trying everything possible to bring him round—from whispering loving words in his ear to music, massage and aromatherapy. When Simon eventually emerged from his mysterious coma, I found my difficulties were far from over. Instead of being an independent feminist with a career of my own, I now had to adapt to being a housewife and carer who was joined to her husband at the hip.

Yet Simon and I are now closer and happier than we’ve ever been before. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.


Simon’s dramatic illness turned all my priorities on their head. Although he was intelligent and charming, tall and fit with silver-fox hair, our 17-year relationship hadn’t always been smooth. We both worked long hours and didn’t get enough quality time together. I was a planner, while Simon preferred spontaneity, which made sparks fly. And although he considered himself a 21st century man, I was convinced he didn't do his fair share of the housework. But when we were in crisis all that melted away – and it’s mostly stayed that way ever since. I learned that paying attention to the important things like love, kindness and mutual respect means that we can work the rest out.


As the long days at the hospital turned into weeks, Simon’s brother was one of the few people I felt comfortable to ring at any time of day or night. After all, he’d known my husband even longer than I had. On bad days, it was immensely comforting just to sit together, look at old photos and share memories of better times. Similarly, I’ll always treasure the friends who put their lives on hold for us. Our best man, Philip, either visited the hospital or sent me a text every single day. When the going gets tough, family and friends are a priceless resource.


I’ll never forget what it was like to lie awake in the early hours of the morning facing up to the strong possibility of becoming a widow. The only way to stay sane was by simply focusing on the day ahead and making the most of whatever it brought. Being in such close proximity to death showed me that nothing can be taken for granted, and that all we can do is make the best of what we have now. In the process, I discovered being that being relaxed, kind and warm-hearted brings me far more happiness than money, designer goods or career success ever could.


When he came out of his coma, Simon needed to learn not only how to eat, drink and walk again, but also how to navigate all the demands of modern life, from using a mobile phone to managing his money (he repeatedly lost his debit card and forgot his pin number.) However there was no point getting impatient or angry. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” The insight that Simon is simply doing his best—and so am I—continues to take the sting out of almost every difficulty.


The result of our near-tragedy is that gratitude seems to have taken up permanent residence in one corner of my mind. Many research studies now indicate that being thankful is good for both mind and body, and will make us happier and less depressed. This is definitely my experience. I’m grateful to the wonderful NHS staff that looked after us, to the family and friends who supported us, and – above all - that we’re still able to wake up each morning in each other’s arms.

Bed 12 by Alison Murdoch is out now, published by Hikari Press, priced at £9.99. 50% of the royalties from Bed 12 go to the Encephalitis Society.

For more information about encephalitis visit www.encephalitis.info.

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