Eric's story

Eric Knapp had been in the NZ Fire Service for 13 years when his life changed dramatically on the day before his 33rd birthday. 

An extremely fit firefighter, Eric had been aching from a blistering migraine all day and wanted to see if it would get better after working out. 

Upon leaving his fire station's gym, Eric found himself profusely sweating, despite making many attempts to cool down. 

"I went to my quarters at the station to lay down. I even started pouring cold water down the back of my neck in desperation. Fifteen minutes later, the pain in my head got so bad that I blacked out", remembers Eric gravely. 

Eric's firefighting colleagues thought he just needed some glucose because of his intense workout, never realising that he was experiencing multiple strokes at work.  

When he blacked out, however, his team started giving him oxygen and called out an ambulance. 

In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Eric went into a cardiac arrest twice, before being revived. 

Eric woke up in the ICU from an induced coma 24 hours later to find his girlfriend by his bedside, along with his extended family from Hamilton. 

"The fact that my family was there in the ICU immediately made me think, 'Damn, this is bad'. Although I couldn’t talk or move, my cognition was intact. It was hard seeing friends and family cry for me".  

"Don’t cry, I’m ok, everything is going to be ok!", Eric thought, but couldn't transmit. 

Incredibly, Eric had survived a whopping 13 strokes, occurring back-to-back, of which three were major strokes.  

Unbeknownst to anyone, Eric had a condition called Polycythaemia, where excess red blood cells cause the blood to thicken, creating blood clots. His strokes were induced by a blood clot that travelled up to his brain.  

As the condition was extremely rare in people of Eric's age, doctors initially suspected (wrongly) that he had leukaemia and plugged him onto life support machines. 

"Those first few days are so fuzzy; I was seeing hallucinations that were as clear as day. I even asked my girlfriend at the time, why there was a leprechaun in my room!", laughs Eric as he remembers. 

Two weeks later, Eric was wheeled into Christchurch's acclaimed Stroke Rehabilitation Unit at Burwood Hospital after being told that he might never be able to talk, swallow or move his left side again. 

Ten weeks later, however, Eric walked out of Burwood Hospital, albeit with the assistance of a tall walker, and was talking and eating with ease. 

"The intensity of the rehab sessions at Burwood was the real turning point for me. The team of physios, speech-language therapists and psychiatrists at Burwood did not discriminate against me, despite my disability at the time," remembers Eric with gratitude. 

"They just threw everything at me, set up a weekly plan and involved my family in meetings related to my progress. It was an incredible amount of motivation to push myself to get better," says Eric. 

Upon leaving Burwood, however, it began sinking in for Eric that he will never be able to be a firefighter again, the only job he had been trained for and done since the age of 20.  

Losing his identity and income stream in one blow caused Eric to be extremely depressed, which he said affected his relationship with his partner at the time, leading to them breaking up. 

Eric moved back to Hamilton for three years, to be closer with his family and come to terms with the losses he had suffered. 

The understanding and support of his family were highly appreciated, but Eric calls his journey back from depression a "deeply personal journey" that led to a "spiritual awakening". 

"I reflected on why I'm feeling negative thoughts, and how I can get out of it," says Eric about his battle with depression. 

Eric, who had worked part-time as a personal trainer, set up a home gym at his parent's home and began his physical rehabilitation to combat the negativity in his thoughts. 

"I was lucky that I had my family to fall back on, and that I did not have children or a partner that depended on me. I could devote myself completely to recovering, and getting better," says Eric. 

His years spent in the Fire Service as well, Eric believes, prepared him for his stroke recovery. 

"You see some ugly things in that line of work, and my way of dealing with that was to compartmentalise it and tell myself that it was my job to handle these situations," he reflects. 

Nine years later, and despite the miraculous progress he has made, Eric still won't rest on his laurels. 

"I rarely reflect on the improvements I've made so far. People who knew me from then tell me it's astounding seeing me today - working, talking, and walking". 

"But after a stroke, recovering is a 24/7 job, with no days off. Every morning I wake up and cajole myself to exercise, get to work, and add purpose to all my actions. I still have a long way to go, recovery-wise, and I need to maintain the gains I've made," says Eric with determination. 

Today, Eric Knapp works for the Stroke Foundation as a Community Stroke Advisor in Christchurch.  

"This is my dream job, I'm able to pass on really solid knowledge that could help other survivors," he says. 

"I tell clients that recovery is a marathon, not a sprint!" 

On Eric's left arm sleeve, he has a beautiful fox tattooed, which holds special meaning to him.  

"The fox reminds me that I outfoxed this condition - that I'm still standing," says Eric triumphantly. 

Why Do I Support Beanie Up? 

I’m proud to be an ambassador for the Beanie Up campaign, as my personal experience has reinforced the power of the Stroke Foundation’s services in changing the lives of stroke survivors and their families. Let’s fight stroke together! Join me and Beanie Up!