Aussie dad's 'traumatic' brush with death days before Christmas

An Australian dad has recalled the terrifying moment he almost died while visiting a beach with his wife and children just days before Christmas.

Three years ago, John Duenzl and his family trekked from Melbourne, where they were living at the time, to Newcastle to celebrate the holidays with relatives. Finishing up his last day of work for the year, the then-37-year-old put up his 'out of office' message and headed to the beach for a swim with his wife Trudi and their four children, who were aged from two to 11 at the time.

Describing the day as “normal”, Mr Duenzl told Yahoo News Australia things took a turn for the worse as he paddled out into the ocean to retrieve a ball he had thrown too far for his kids to reach.

John Duenzl who suffered a stroke days before Christmas in 2019.
John Duenzl almost drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming at a beach with his family. Source: Supplied

“When I got the ball, I turned around and started swimming back and I could actually see myself going blind,” he said, describing the unnerving moment his surroundings appeared to sway like he was on a boat. “The black dots got bigger and bigger until I couldn’t see any more.”

Trying not to panic, Mr Duenzl attempted to swim back to shore but eventually lost the use of his arms and legs and yelled for Trudi, who was watching their children on the sand, to help.

Bystanders who saw the dad struggling to stay above water swam out and dragged him to safety. “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t drown but I came very close to it,” he told Yahoo.

Dad suffers stroke minutes after starting Christmas holiday

Paramedics treated Mr Duenzl at the scene before rushing him to a nearby hospital, where multiple tests revealed the “traumatic” reason behind his body’s sudden failure.

“Within 20 minutes of arriving [at the beach] to start our holiday, I was having a stroke,” the health-conscious dad, who visited the gym five times a week, said.

Doctors revealed a tear in the arterial lining in Mr Duenzl’s neck had caused it to collapse, creating a blood clot that entered his brain and damaged the left side of his cerebellum, which helps with balance and coordination.

“I had some CAT scans which found that my cerebellum — the left hemisphere — was missing,” he said. Although his eyesight started to return in the ambulance on the way to hospital, nothing came back 100 per cent, the dad said, and he struggled to walk properly for months.

John Duenzl with his wife and four children.
After his traumatic health scare, John Duenzl and his family moved from Melbourne to Newcastle. Source: Supplied

In the days following his stroke, Mr Duenzl said “excruciating pain” in his head left him fearing he would suffer another. “In the hospital bed I could feel the electricity across my brain going nuts. It was intense…that was my brain rewiring itself, finding new pathways,” he said.

After returning to Melbourne, it wasn’t long before Covid ripped through the city and the 40-year-old was made redundant.

“My wife was working full time [as a nurse]. I was working on myself at home and teaching the kids,” he said, explaining that he would sit on his skateboard and push himself up and down the driveway to try and regain his balance.

Family seeks change after 'traumatic' health scare

Seeking additional help from relatives and a change of scenery following his “really traumatic” health scare, the family decided to pack up and move to Newcastle as soon as the state border opened in 2021.

Since being there, the dad has taken further steps to lower his blood pressure and risk of a second stroke, including quitting coffee cold turkey earlier this year and taking up surfing.

“I wish we had done it sooner, but my stroke was the catalyst for change. My stroke has made me more aware of the need to focus on my family and the things that matter most,” Mr Duenzl said, adding that he has learnt to “live with more gratitude and more appreciation”.

“It’s not just Christmas that means more to me, every day of my life is better. I thought I was doing a good job at looking after myself before, but that was my lesson to do better. I now look at life through fresh eyes, I’ve gone through the emotional trauma and appreciate life much more now.”

What are the signs of a stroke?

The Stroke Foundation encourages everyone to learn the F.A.S.T signs of a stroke, which could help save someone’s life.

They are:

  • FACE – has their mouth drooped?

  • ARMS – Can they lift both arms?

  • SPEECH – Is their speech slurred?

  • TIME is critical. If any of these signs appears, call 000 immediately.

Mr Duenzl said people don’t need to be an expert on the signs, but need to show compassion and be quick to help others who appear to be struggling so professionals can do the rest.

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