Clemency Burton-Hill on recovery from a brain haemorrhage: 'Music can be too painful and raw'

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Anita Singh
·3 min read
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Clemency Burton-Hill - Warren Allott
Clemency Burton-Hill - Warren Allott

Clemency Burton-Hill, the BBC radio presenter, has detailed her remarkable recovery from a brain haemorrhage and said she is sometimes unable to listen to music because it is a painful reminder of her former life.

The former Radio 3 host spent 17 days in a coma after collapsing last January during a work meeting in New York.

Her recovery has involved teaching herself how to speak again, and Burton-Hill called it a “miracle” that she is now able to hold a conversation.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour if music had helped in her healing, the 39-year-old said listening to it is now bittersweet. “Music has been like my love of language - the most amazing and motivating factor in my recovery. So, yes, of course, I think there’s a sort of physical benefit of music.

“But it’s actually sometimes just too painful and too raw. I’ve been someone who, my whole life, has relied on music, and not just classical music but all music.

“There was my former life and now there’s this new reality. There was no pop song or soul ballad or classical Bach that could be more than this new reality.”

Burton-Hill moved to New York with her husband and two young sons in 2018 to take up a job as creative director of a public radio station.

During a work meeting exactly a year ago, she began slurring her words. She suffered a brain haemorrhage caused by a previously undiagnosed condition, an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).

Burton-Hill was discharged from hospital in April but it is only in the last few weeks that she has been able to form sentences.

Doctors have been amazed by the speed at which she has picked up language again, and suggested that her her career as a speech broadcaster may have helped her. However, Burton-Hill said recovery continues to be difficult and “unbelievably sad” at times.

Asked for her first memory after the haemorrhage, Burton-Hill said initially she believed she had woken from a “crazy nightmare”.

She said there were no words to describe the horror of being able to understand what people around her were saying but not being able to make a sound.

Burton-Hill also described a near-death experience when she was in a coma, in which she made the choice to live.

She said: “I am someone who doesn’t have faith in terms of religious faith. But before I woke up out of my coma I had the most extraordinary experience. I can’t really explain, but I know absolutely that at that point I was given a choice: this way is going to be very hard, are you sure you want to go this way? Or if you go this one, it’s going to be very easy and it’s all going to be fine.

“And the amazing thing was that I was given that choice. I remember it more clearly than anything I’ve ever had. It sounds so weird and crazy but it is what happened.”

Burton-Hill is a violinist in addition to her broadcasting work, and has begun playing again with her friend, Nicola Benedetti, assisting with the bow.

One effect of her brain injury is increased anxiety. Speaking about her children, Burton-Hill said: “It’s not their fault, they are little boys in the playground, but like every parent your radar is always, ‘Where are they? Is there obvious danger?’ You don’t even now that you’re doing it, you’re just scanning the horizon.

“But my brain can’t filter those threats, so it’s all the time, everything’s at the same level.”

Burton-Hill is married to James Roscoe, a diplomat at the United Nations. She praised him for his support during her recovery, saying: “He’s an extraordinary human. I always knew that, but now it’s on another level of his selflessness.”