I’ve got second chance after my stroke, says wildlife photographer

I’ve got second chance after my stroke, says wildlife photographer


A WILDLIFE photographer who survived a stroke says he has been given a second chance at life.

Now 59-year-old Simon Booker, from South Stoke, is raising funds for the Stroke Association by selling calendars featuring his nature photography.

Mr Booker, who is married with three children, works in sales and management but has been photographing wildlife in his spare time for about five years.

He studied mechanical engineering and naval architecture at university and enjoys the technical side of photography.

He said: “I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and it turned me into a photography geek. If you want to get the best out of a camera, you have to get to know it.

“I can take a picture that looks okay and I can get it to something brilliant because I know what I’m doing now after three years of spending an inordinate amount of time farting around.

“I used to work with a photographer in Paris who said to me, ‘You don’t take pictures, you create them’.”

Mr Booker’s interest in photography started with his father, a keen amateur and member of Wallingford Camera Club, who converted the family bathroom into a dark room.

He said: “We always used to have these family portrait sessions with lights, where my dad would try to create black and white portraits. I used to go to the bathroom to watch him develop the photos. I would be really excited.

“When I moved here, I would take the dog for walks and take my iPhone with me, photographing anything that interested me.

“I’d just got into social media at the same time, so I’d always post the photos on there.

“Once I asked this social influencer, ‘What do you call people like me who are old farts who know how to use social media?’ She said, ‘You have a millennial mindset, Simon’ and I went, ‘That sounds cool, I’ll run with that’.

“It just means I embrace technology and love the things young people do with stuff. I love new things.

“When I put a picture on Facebook and loads of people go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had those animals just down the road’, I get a real kick out of that.”

Mr Booker had just turned 59 when he suffered a stroke on May 26 last year.

He had been previously diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat and the underlying cause of the stroke.

The stroke was a surprise but there had been warning signs.

Mr Booker said he had been working late when he noticed a “flashing polygon” in his head and felt “woozy and giddy”.

The doctors initially thought his eyesight prescription needed updating before checking his heart and discovering the murmur.

Mr Booker said he was told that he “might need to think about that at some point” but put it off and went back to work.

On the night of his stroke, he was working in his home office at about 8pm.

He said: “My wife was out in the village. I came into the kitchen and was looking at myself in the mirrored wall. I couldn’t see through one eye — it was like a blind spot.

“I thought, ‘That’s a bit weird’ and then I looked down and I had a bit of dribble on my shirt. I thought it was sweat, then I went, ‘Oh, I think I’m dribbling, actually’, so I think my face had sagged.

“Then I went ‘Oh, s***, I can’t move my arm.

“You don’t know what’s going on. I went back into the office and sat there. I meant to log into the computer and continue working.

“I stood in the corner and it felt like I was on a boat. Things felt a bit giddy for a minute and I went back to my desk. I never logged in, I just sat there. My wife came home, popped her head around the door and asked how I was. All I could do was groan. She immediately phoned 999.”

Mr Booker was taken by ambulance to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where doctors gave him a thrombectomy, which is where the head is injected with blood thinners to reduce the size of the clot.

After he had stabilised, he couldn’t speak for a few hours, which scared him as he was completely conscious.

“I knew exactly what was going on,” he said. “My brain couldn’t work out what words to use, so I just couldn’t say anything, which was really weird. It was surreal.

“I could try but all the words would come out in the wrong order. All the connections were temporarily broken.

“The next day, a nurse asked me where I thought I was. I told her that I knew the place and could drive to it but that I had completely forgotten its name.

“She pointed to the curtain and asked me to name it. Again, I knew what a curtain was used for but didn’t know its bloody name.

“We were joking about it because I had basically got back to normal by that point but it was like my glossary had been erased. I couldn’t name anything.

“On day three, everything came back.”

Mr Booker said he had been lucky. “The ambulance happened to be driving nearby, my wife is great in crisis management and the Royal Berks is the best place in the country for strokes,” he said.

“I was at home but the day before at that same time I was in the middle of a field and no one knew where I was. If it happened then, it could have been a very different story.

“My number was called but luckily I got a second chance.”

Mr Booker said that suffering a stroke made him realise that he wasn’t “Superman”.

He said: “I have been extremely fortunate in how it has worked out for me. So many people end up in a bad way. Seventy per cent of disabilities in the UK are the result of strokes and it’s the fourth biggest killer. You don’t think it could happen to you.

“All young people go, ‘You must be an old fart if you’ve had a stroke’. Well, yes, but young people have them as well and you don’t quite know what can cause them. I still don’t really know what caused mine.”

He suspects a contributing factor was his lifestyle and lack of sleep.

“I used to tell people, ‘Sleep is overrated’,” said Mr Booker. “Now I am eating my words. I would work hard, play hard. I’d go to the bar, watch the football, get to bed at 2am and then get up at 6am to do a presentation at 8am. I’d compress sleep.

“At weekends I’d start getting up at dawn, especially in the summer, because the animals are out early. I’d have a busy week and then get up at 4am to go and take pictures.

“I was getting quite tired but it wasn’t because I couldn’t sleep. I could sleep fine but just didn’t do it as I thought I didn’t need it.”

Now he tries to moderate his life, in particular his attitude towards sleep, and has improved his diet, losing two stone.

Mr Booker said: “If I know I am getting up early, I go to bed early. People say to me, ‘God, you look amazing, you look really alive’. I say, ‘Well, I’m not carrying as much weight and I’m getting seven hours’ sleep every night’.

“Sometimes as you get older, you need to just take it a little bit easier.

“I said to a stroke consultant that I had dodged a bullet. She said she didn’t like that phrase as it was a bit negative. She said, ‘Why don’t you say you’ve been given a second chance?’. It’s much more aspirational and positive. Lots of other people, sadly, don’t get a second chance.”

Taking pictures of wildlife helps him to remain calm.

Mr Booker said: “People say to me, ‘You must have incredible patience to sit for three hours waiting for a kingfisher’ but I love every minute.

“It’s not boring and it’s just me and nature. I enjoy the relaxation.

“When you watch a deer doing something and it doesn’t know you’re there and you get pictures, I just think it’s awesome.

“It’s even more awesome than when you chuck them on Facebook and people enjoy them. It’s just a win-win all the way.

“I like wildlife photography because it is as much about finding the animal as taking the perfect photograph, especially in the case of rarer ones.

“I take photos of these animals because they might not exist one day. I show the hidden world to people who might not be aware of it. I like the payback of the fact that I’m getting better at it. I’m quite good at it, allegedly.

“I got testimonials during lockdown when people couldn’t go out. There was a guy who said, ‘Just keep posting the pictures, you don’t know how much they help me’.”

Mr Booker has been producing calendars for four years and last year sold them in aid of a men’s health charity after his brother had a health scare.

To buy one of his 2023 calendars, visit https://bit.ly/3B0OZ9W

To see more of his pictures, visit https://www.stokerpix.com