Sheffield fundraisers brush with death

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EXACTLY a year ago John Burkhill lay at home shivering and delirious with no idea where he was.

He was rushed to the Northern General Hospital suffering from a suspected stroke and it looked as though The Madman With The Pram may have pushed his last.

John Burkhill

John Burkhill

But anyone who knows him or has seen him walk any of the hundreds of thousands of miles he has covered for charity over the past 45 years might have known that wouldn’t be the end of it.

And, of course, it wasn’t.

Three days later the then 74-year who had carried the Olympic Torch through Sheffield was back out on the road in a marathon with the pram raising money for Macmillan Cancer Care.

But he still didn’t feel right and a couple of weeks later he spent two days in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

Fundraiser John Burkhill, of Richmond Park.

Fundraiser John Burkhill, of Richmond Park.

In the end doctors told him he had suffered an epileptic fit and now he’s on medication to control the condition. A condition amazingly similar to that suffered by boxing trainer Brendan Ingle who was temporarily paralysed by a rare form of epilepsy called Todd’s Paresis.

But nothing can control his desire to help others, even at the potential cost of his own life.

“The doctors advised me to slow down a bit after I was ill, I had the same kind of attack that Brendan Ingle had at the weekend,” said John, known to thousands of Sheffielders by the green wig he wears while pushing a pram around the city and beyond to raise funds for charity.

“But it doesn’t really matter what they tell me to do because I won’t stop walking and trying to raise money. If they said to me: ’John you’ll die if you don’t stop’. I would still keep going because there’s still so much that needs to be done.

Fundraiser John Burkhill, of Richmond Park.

Fundraiser John Burkhill, of Richmond Park.

“I think of some of the people I meet, the children who hug me and say things like: ‘You are the man who’s going to help save my Grandad aren’t you? We are going to visit him in hospital this afternoon, we’ll tell him we’ve seen you.’

“How can I stop trying to help people like that? I’ll just keep going until I can’t go any more. I don’t care what the doctors might say.”

In a life touched by tragedy on more than one occasion John Burkhill has lost four close family members to cancer including his wife June in 1992 and he’s been raising money for charity since 1967.

“June died a year exactly a year after our daughter Karen who we lost when complications set in when she went to have an operation to remove a polyp from her stomach,” said British Empire Medla recipient John.

“She never recovered. Sometimes when I’m pushing the pram I think of Karen and imagine her as a baby in the pram and I just have to keep going. I have seen so many people who are so poorly that I couldn’t ever stop.”

So, at the age of 75 how long does he think he can keep going?

“I don’t know if I will still be going in my 80s but I will if I’m still here,” said 75-year-old John at his flat in Richmond, Sheffield.

“I’ve met loads of celebrities - Dickie Bird, Ian Botham, Bobby Knutt, Jessica Ennis, Richard Caborn and all the Sheffield mayors over the years since I’ve been walking.

“I think I’ve got a new lease of life since I was poorly last year. A few years ago I was struggling with my knees but they’re fine now and I’m walking faster than ever. Though all those miles have taken their toll - I used to be 6ft 6ins!”

Humour is a big part of John Burkhill’s character - it has to be when you spend a lot of your life in a green afro wig.

“One time I was walking past Sheffield Crown Court with the pram and there were two barristers standing outside with all their gear on having a smoke.

’Oi! “I shouted to them: ‘My wig used to be the same colour as yours before I started all this!’.

“I went over and had a chat and we had a laugh and one of them put a couple of quid in my bucket and the other a fiver. It shows they’re not stuck-up, they were nice enough.”

As indeed, is the Queen.

John met her at Buckingham Palace in 2006 and at a royal garden party or two, though he insisted on being poresented with his British Empire Medal in Sheffield.

“She’s a nice lass,” said John. “They know all about you when you get there, their researchers tell them. Prince Charles is alright too. It’s not their fault they’re royal, they can’t help it. I think they do a good job.

“I don’t know about those cucumber sandwiches though, they’re so tiny and thin.

“I’d rather have bread and dripping myself.”

Born and raised in Darnall, Sheffield, John did national service in 1958 in Ireland which interrupted a working life spent driving lorries. He’s been retired a long time now but still has plenty of miles on his own clock.

“People are fantastic to me when they see me on the road,” he said. “The police always stop to have a chat and I never worry about being in charge of money when I’m collecting. After I had been ill people were stopping me all the time to ask if I was alright - one tram driver even stopped his tram in the middle of nowhere - and I never have to pay for anything when I have that green wig on.

”Sheffield people are marvellous as they are in the rest of Yorkshire and I get a good reception when I go to London.

“Even some of the beggars and the lads living rough on the streets in Sheffield will put their money into the bucket. I stop and talk to them, just the same as I would talk to the Queen.

“One of my ambitions is to run in 1,000 marathons, I’ve done 850 now. My other ambition was to raise £250,000 for charity. I’ve done that and I’m on the way to half a million.

“I want to get to £1 million. I don’t know if I’ll get there but I won’t stop trying.

“You’ve got to have something to aim for.”