Stevie Kirk opened his eyes as he lay in a Florida hospital bed and asked wife Kay a simple question. “Am I still here?”
Having battled through emergency heart surgery, the legendary Motherwell striker had come perilously close to dying while on holiday in America.
Even now, after the most traumatic experience of his life, the 47-year-old admits he struggles to sleep at night. Kirk is scared he might never wake up. Incredibly, the former Fir Park striker almost became the fifth member of Well’s 1991 Scottish Cup-winning squad to die at a tragically young age.
If it wasn’t for the medical staff at Orlando South Hospital, Kirk could have suffered the same fate as Davie Cooper, Phil O’Donnell, Jamie Dolan and Paul McGrillen.
But his determination and will to live saw him survive to tell the tale.
In his first interview since he suffered serious heart problems last month, Kirk recalls the moment where his life flashed in front of his eyes and how he’s coming to terms with the ordeal.
He told Record Sport: “It’s been a devastating time for me and I’m still in shock at what happened.
“It was so bad that at one point, I remember coming round in the hospital and I looked at my wife. My exact words to here were, ‘Am I still here?’
“I was looking forward to our holiday so much, we all thought it was going to be great. On October 3 I felt unwell – it was a burning sensation and sharp pains in my chest.
“I’d had the same feeling for two or three days so I went to a walk-in clinic in America. I was kept in hospital overnight. I got X-rays, scans, everything and the following morning I had an ‘episode’ on the monitor – my heart was racing.
“I was transferred to Orlando by helicopter. When they did that I realised it must be something serious.
“On October 5, they decided to cut my groin and slid an electrode up my artery to my heart. They try to replicate the beat of your heart but they couldn’t do it. The following day I had another ‘episode’ so they had to do it all over again.
“This time they thought they’d fixed it and I was released on the Friday. All the time, the doctors had told me it wasn’t life-threatening, it was the top chamber of my heart.
“But they wanted to fit a monitor. They did that and I was taking my son Stuart to the airport in Tampa the following day – he was coming home earlier than us.
“I had two ‘episodes’ in Tampa, one in a car park and the other in the shopping precinct. It was sheer pain in my chest. At the airport I was hanging on to cars in a bid to keep myself up. I just wanted into my car to cool myself down because it was boiling hot.
“In the precinct, my wife and daughter were in one of the shops when I felt it happening again. I was holding on to a railing before getting myself on to a couch, in the middle of the mall.
“I couldn’t get my breath, it was the worst one I had. It lasted 35 minutes and a young girl came up and asked if she could help me.
“I knew she was there but I couldn’t speak. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what she looked like because I had no focus.
“All I kept thinking was ‘the doctor told me it wasn’t life-threatening’. But at that point, I thought I was done. I was convinced I would die and my life flashed in front of my eyes.”
In the middle of the night, Kirk suffered more chest pains and couldn’t take it any longer.
Kay immediately took him back to the hospital where it was discovered he had suffered another ‘episode’ which had come from the life-threatening lower chamber of his heart. His arteries were almost completely blocked and the reality of what was happening to him was gradually hitting home to Stevie and his family.
He said: “They have put two stents in my heart, as the arteries were 70 per cent blocked. The stents are metal coils which will stay in there permanently.
“The doctors didn’t see it coming, it was totally unexpected. In Tampa, it had come from the bottom chamber and I know now that’s life-threatening.
“I was told I’d been very lucky. If the artery had clotted, it would have been burst and there would have been no way back.
“When I got back I visited Stewart Hillis, the former Scotland doctor, and he read my records from America. It said they’d found scarring of the heart from a previous ‘episode’ in my life. That’s a heart attack I wasn’t aware of.
“I’d led a normal, healthy life before this happened and it’s brought a lot of things home to me. It puts life in perspective and it was traumatic for Kay and the kids as well.
“They were brilliant with me but my daughter Kirsten thought I was going to die in Tampa. That says it all really.”
Kirk was working as a community coach with Motherwell before the illfated holiday in America and aims to be back at Fir Park in the next fortnight helping local kids develop their skills.
He became a hero with the Steelmen when he scored the winning goal against Dundee United at Hampden 19 years ago to help Well lift the Scottish Cup.
No one could have predicted the tragedy that would beset Tommy McLean’s squad in later life, with Cooper, O’Donnell, Dolan and McGrillen dying before reaching their 40th birthday.
Craig Paterson, another starter in the Cup Final XI, suffered a cancer scare two years ago, when he had a growth removed.
Kirk admits he’s still trying to come to terms with what happened in America and can’t understand the “bizarre” curse which has struck a number of his former team-mates.
He said: “Thankfully my problem has been fixed and it’s unlikely to happen again. I’ve still to get a monitor fixed this week to make sure my heart is beating properly.
“But I should be back in Motherwell in two weeks, doing a bit of coaching with the kids.
“I’ll take it from there but I have to be careful – I won’t be running around like a mad man and won’t be appearing in charity games any more.
“I’m struggling to cope with what happened to me. It’s hard to get over it. I find it difficult sleeping – I’m frightened in case I don’t wake up. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from medical staff but it’s a personal, psychological thing. I was sitting the other night and it hit me just how close I was to dying.
“Most professional footballers think this will never happen to them. I thought I was bullet-proof.
“But obviously I look at Davie who had an aneurism and Phil and Jamie had heart problems. We’ve also lost Paul.
“You’re not safe in life. You think you’re untouchable but sometimes you have to take stock and calm yourself down.
“It’s very bizarre what’s happened to some of the boys from the cup-winning team.
“When it’s actually happening to you, you do think about it. I just thank God I was in the right place to be treated.”
Words: Scott McDermott, Daily Record