An Auckland man has survived not only a massive stroke, but also a controversial, high-risk surgery removing almost half of his skull, freezing it, and putting it back in six months later.

Port worker Chris Laird, then 57, was found unconscious on the bathroom floor at home in October 2014 by his wife Debbie.

He was rushed to hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery. Part of the front left side his skull was removed to relieve swelling on his brain.

The bone was frozen for six months, before being reattached.


Incredibly, 13 months later, Laird is back at work loading and unloading cars at the docks.

"I feel absolutely fantastic, the doctors and medical team did a wonderful job," said Laird, who was an operations manager at a trucking company before the surgery.

"A major thing that's changed for me is that I want to spend more time with my wife, my family and concentrate on living a good life rather than a busy life...more quality rather than monetary."

Laird said he felt 90 per cent recovered and did not have any of the physical effects associated with stroke other than one droopy eye.

A leading neurologist, who did not want to be named, said the surgery allowed for the brain to expand after the stroke. He said recovery from a craniotomy to the side of the head was not usually good, and the procedure was rarely done in New Zealand.

"It's rather controversial, because it's hard to tell whether the patient will recover."

Laird's wife said she got a call from Auckland Hospital while her husband was in surgery, warning her that he might not survive.

Chris Laird's wife Debbie found him unconscious on the bathroom floor at home in October 2014, after a massive stroke.
Chris Laird's wife Debbie found him unconscious on the bathroom floor at home in October 2014, after a massive stroke.

"He was in the operating theatre, and hospital staff rang me and told me not to be alone.

"They gave him less than 30 per cent chance of survival - and even if he did, he could be vegetative or disabled."

But as his chief carer and cheerleader, she refused to let his prognosis get her down.


"We fought the doctors and we fought the neurosurgeons, who told me he had little chance of recovery," she said.

"I had one plan, and that for him to get better. I didn't have a second plan, because if I did, that would mean I didn't believe in my first plan."

A hospice caregiver, Debbie Laird, 53, said she had seen many carers who tried to do too much for their patient. So she adopted a "tough love" policy for her husband.

"I would say, 'I'm not going to help you, I'm not going to make you an invalid or a baby - do it yourself.

"I think sometimes he hated me."

But it worked.

"Now people are like, 'Wow that's amazing' - you couldn't tell he had a stroke.'"

She likened the time after the stroke to the movie "50 First Dates".

Debbie Laird showed Chris images of his treatment to aid his memory.
Debbie Laird showed Chris images of his treatment to aid his memory.

"He couldn't remember anything, sometimes asking the same thing over and over again, and other times showering soon after he had just showered," Debbie said.

"It was frustrating and there were moments when I felt like hitting him on the other side just to see if that would get his senses back."

She dressed him in a protective helmet during the six months when he was without half his skull, and used a white board to remind him about where he was and what things that he had done.

She also compiled a slide show of family and wedding photos, and images of his surgery and time in hospital on their iPad to help with his recovery and memory.

"It isn't easy for Chris to have to learn everything again, even how to walk on different surfaces like cobble and grass," she added.

The pair say they now face a bright future, with some travel on the horizon and moving house.

"I'd like to start a stroke supporters group too, to help people in our situation," Debbie said.

Debbie Laird will be sharing her story at a Carers Day on November 2, that's been organised by the Stroke Foundation to help people deal with the aftermath of stroke.

"Sometimes when you're going through what we did, you feel like you're the only person in the world who understands- but you're not. You can talk to other people. You're not alone.

Further information on the Carers Day is available from the Stroke Foundation on 09 475 0070.

About 9000 people have a stroke in New Zealand every year, roughly one an hour, every day.

Strokes kill about 2500 people a year, second only behind heart disease and all cancers combined.

In 2009 it was estimated strokes cost the country more than $450 million every year.

About 15 per cent of all stroke survivors are institutionalised; disabilities from stroke make it one of the highest consumers of hospital beds, services and community support.

It's estimated the number of strokes every year could be halved, if people made better lifestyle choices around diet, exercise, alcohol and smoking.

There are 60,000 stroke survivors in the country.