How the real Downton cook almost went blind…just like Mrs Patmore
When Downton Abbey’s much-loved cook Mrs Patmore sprinkled salt rather than sugar on to the pudding, it was clear she had to face up to her failing eyesight.
In the hit ITV series, Downton grandee Lord Grantham generously sent her to see a London specialist for a cataract operation.
The storyline has uncanny parallels with events going on at the real-life Downton – Highclere Castle in Berkshire, where the drama is filmed.
Paul Brooke-Taylor is grateful for the help given to him by Highclere Castle owner Lady Carnavon. He had suffered a stroke without knowing it
For in a case of life imitating art, Paul Brooke-Taylor, head chef at the stately home, was beginning to lose his sight.
His problems started just hours after being hit in the face by a football while playing for his local team.
Initially doctors at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital sent the 36-year-old home, saying his sight would recover naturally after the shock of the impact.
But when his vision was still blurred two months later, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the owners of Highclere, stepped in and sent him to see neurology specialist Dr Ashwin Pinto, who discovered Paul had suffered a stroke.
The chef, who lives with wife Serena, 26, and their one-year-old son, Jack, a stone’s throw from the stately home, admits: ‘My wife burst into tears as we sat in Dr Pinto’s office at Southampton’s University Hospital, and I just sat there bewildered.
'We were utterly shocked, especially considering we’d been told it was just a passing problem with my eyes.
'I’m young, fit and I have a good diet – how could this have happened’
Sight problem: Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs Patmore in Downton Abbey
An estimated 150,000 people a year in the UK suffer a stroke and for 20 per cent of them, including Paul, it is caused by damage to one of the posterior vertebral arteries.
These are some of the vessels supplying the brain with oxygen-rich blood.
The vertebral arteries run each side of the spinal cord and the back of the neck, merging inside the base of the skull close to the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for sight.
Dr Peter Coleman, deputy director of research and information for the Stroke Association, says: ‘When the football hit Paul’s face, his head snapped back, injuring the vertebral arteries, and that caused a blood clot.
‘Natural movement of the head is likely to have led to the clot dislodging and travelling to the posterior cerebral artery where it caused a blockage.
'This caused parts of the brain area to die, resulting in the loss of sight.’
This type of injury is also known among medical experts as beauty parlour stroke syndrome because when the head is pushed back over a sink for washing, it can lead to over-extension of the neck and damage the arteries supplying the brain and, in the same way, lead to a stroke.
Although Paul, who has worked for Lord and Lady Carnarvon for four years, was initially seen by Dr Pinto privately, he was able to continue his treatment with the specialist on the NHS.
Paul says: ‘I spent four days in the stroke ward in Southampton having blood and eye tests and scans, including an MRA, which allowed doctors to assess damage to the blood vessels around my neck.
‘I felt a complete fraud the whole time I was there because from the outside, I looked absolutely fine.
'The stroke didn’t affect anything but my vision, whereas many of the people I met were having to learn to walk and talk again.’
In more severe cases, a stroke can cause paralysis, speech problems and even death.
Paul says: ‘I know that in that sense I was very lucky but up until the time I was diagnosed, I took a lot of my frustration out on my wife and could be really snappy.
'I’d initially been told that my sight would return, and when each day it was just as bad, it was very hard to come to terms with. I was full of self-pity at times.’
Yet Paul didn’t stop working throughout his ordeal.
‘I can drive and go about my life normally but it is like looking through a misty window,’ he says.
‘More than a year on from my stroke, my vision is still impaired. The doctors say it might never get better. No one knows if it could improve over time.’
Paul does have to make some allowances for his condition – he has to be more careful with knives, for instance – but he knows he is one of the luckier stroke victims.
‘My employers, along with my family, have helped pay for my initial private healthcare and I am so grateful to them.
‘And I still play football. In fact, I’ve just played in a 24-hour sponsored match to raise more than 5,000 for the Stroke Association.
‘I want to make people aware that strokes aren’t just something affecting the elderly or people who have led an unhealthy lifestyle.’
Paul’s message is that everyone who has an injury to their head, no matter how minor, and finds they have unusual symptoms should get properly checked – even if that means asking for a second or third opinion.
He says: ‘I didn’t have any of the typical stroke symptoms, such as facial paralysis or difficulty in moving, and that led to my diagnosis being delayed. I want to stop that happening to anyone else.’
As a precaution, Paul takes 75mg of aspirin every day, which works as a blood thinner to prevent clotting.
He says: ‘I don’t want to be worrying that every time I have a headache it’s something more serious.
'I’m more cautious about playing football and although my wife and I have a passion for scuba-diving, I’m nervous about the effect the pressure might have on my brain.’
Just like Mrs Patmore, Paul is grateful for the help and support of his employers.
He says: ‘I often watch Downton Abbey and it was bizarre to see Mrs Patmore’s life mirroring my own at exactly the same time.
‘None of the doctors I saw could give me answers.
'It was distressing and frustrating for me and my family and if it hadn’t been for Lord and Lady Carnarvon, I’d still be waiting for answers now.’
Contribute to Paul’s fundraising at justgiving.com/paulbrooke-taylor. For more information contact the Stroke Helpline from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday on 0845 3033 100 or go to stroke.org.uk.