Bernard Gallacher: Back where he belongs

Bernard Gallacher enjoying life after his heart scare

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Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate the gallery. Photography by Andrew Crowley.

When he strolled onto the first tee of the West Course at Wentworth the other day with our photographer in tow, Bernard Gallacher looked a picture of health. No one would have guessed that, just a few weeks earlier, he had been fighting for his life.

A group of players had teed off and, when they spotted him, wandered over to shake his hand and to wish him well. It was to be that kind of day for the 64-year-old former Europe Ryder Cup captain.

Gallacher was back at his spiritual home, the club he had graced as head professional (and later as captain) for more than 25 years, and everyone, but everyone, was delighted to see him.

Immaculately dressed as always, and with not a hair out of place, the quietly-spoken Scot would stop for a chat one minute, be embraced in the hug of lady members the next, and acknowledge the waves of those driving by.

It was a homecoming in every sense.

Back on August 29, in Aberdeen, as he waited to give an after-dinner speech at the luxury Marcliffe Hotel, Gallacher, one of the finest golfers of his generation, suddenly keeled over. Without warning, his heart had stopped pumping and his life had started to ebb away. It looked, he was told later, as if he had been floored by a boxer.

When he came round after five days in an induced coma, Gallacher had no idea where he was, or why he was there. It was obvious he was lying in a hospital bed, but why were so many wires sticking out of his body?

“There’s only one thing for it,” he thought to himself, looking down at his chest. “Pull off the wires and let’s get out of here.” He was disabused of the idea, but little did he know that he had just cheated death. For his family – wife Lesley, daughters Laura and Kirsty, the television presenter, and son Jamie – who had been keeping a bedside vigil, the tears started to flow. Dad was back in the land of the living.

If it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of a group of nurses who happened to be in the room when he collapsed  – and the fact that the hotel owned a defibrillator – this most popular of sportsmen would not be with us today.

In layman’s terms, the device kick-started Gallacher’s heart into beating normally again and was used to keep it going when it “conked out” three more times on the way to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. It was touch and go whether or not he would survive. And, if he were to, would he suffer brain damage?

Now he is able to reflect on the scariest moment of his life. His recovery is progressing well. He has had a defibrillator implanted  in his chest, which will release an  electrical charge if it detects a heart malfunction similar to his previous cardiac arrest, and he is now planning to campaign on behalf of the British Heart Foundation.

“What I suffered was something known as SADS – Sudden Arrythmic Death Syndrome – and I’ll be trying to help the British Heart Foundation to make people more aware of the complaint,” Gallacher told me.

“I dodged a bullet that night and it takes someone lucky like me to make people realise how vital a defibrillator can be in saving your life. I’m going to campaign for clubs and organisations to have such devices on their premises. And to get people trained into using them.

“Wentworth have four. One in the clubhouse, one in the gym and one at each of the halfway huts. I think most golf clubs should have one around. Everybody has heard of people having heart attacks on a golf course. If it saved one life, then it would have been worth it.”

The biggest shock for Gallacher was that, prior to his collapse, he had no inkling of a problem. His supreme fitness, however, is what helped to pull him through – a lesson, in particular, for those of us of a certain age.

“It was a bit of a shock for everybody,” he says. “The doctors weren’t able to say what was going on because they didn’t know themselves. And they weren’t sure if there was going to be any brain damage until I came around. It wasn’t a normal heart attack. I had a
ventricular fibrillation, which meant the heart just stopped beating. I can’t remember anything of the day. I have complete amnesia.

“It was a very emotional time for the family, though, because they were told to expect the worst – it wasn’t easy for them. But when I woke up, they realised I’d got through it. It was all right for me because I’d not known what was going on. They’d had all the worry when I was in a coma, but I was able to shrug it off.”

Sitting back now, Gallacher says he has been blessed with good fortune. “I feel a very lucky man,” he said. “I’d had no warning at all, but the fact that I go to the gym most days and was as fit as a fiddle certainly helped. The doctors said that if I hadn’t been so fit, I wouldn’t have survived three heart stoppages.”

Asked if his brush with death had given him a new perspective on life, Gallacher – a Scot of the no-nonsense variety – revealed that one of the first things on his agenda was to look again at his will. Flights of fancy, one suspects, could be put off for another day. 

“I’m getting my lawyer in to rewrite my will, to make sure that it’s up to date,” he said. “You never think about these things and then it can be too late. You make them when you’re young, but you forget about them and need to write them up properly.”

His aim now, he says, is to get back to work as soon as possible. Golf has been ruled out for three to four months while the chest implant settles down and driving the car is not allowed for six months.

“I hope to do a few golf days, keep working for the radio and write my column for the Sunday Post,” he said. “It’s not a great deal, but I want to get my life back to some normality.”

And what of the golf?

“I’ll have to get my strength back – I still get very tired and have to rest in the afternoon – but I’m looking  forward to getting back to playing as badly as ever.”

One thing that has clearly not deserted him is his gentle sense of humour. Long may it continue.

Peter Dixon