THEATRE has played a major role in the life of actor, comedian and former radio personality Clifford Learmond. For over 30 years his characters have kept audiences in TT and abroad entertained through different media.
But a series of health complications has forced the once-vibrant Learmond to take a hiatus from the spotlight, unsure if he will ever return.
“I grew up in theatre and it taught me everything. It was what I lived by for a very long time and has been the one constant in my life,” he told Newsday in a phone interview.
Learmond, from Chaguanas, has been in Pennsylvania in the US since 2016, when he left TT shortly after having triple bypass surgery in July.
"I went to recover from surgery and eventually work so I could provide for my daughter, who is now ten and still lives in TT."
Learmond featured in numerous productions alongside theatre greats such as Richard Ragoobarsingh, Penelope Spencer, the late Raymond Choo Kong and comedian Learie Joseph. Among his favourites, he said, are Run for Your Wife, Norman is That You? and One of Our Sons is Missing, written by the late Godfrey Sealy.
“This is the longest I’ve ever been away from theatre,” he said, excitedly recalling the adrenaline he felt and the connection he had with his audiences when he got into character.
“The one thing I know was, when I walked on that stage, the energy was everything.
"Sadly, I am no longer capable of producing that energy, I don’t know if to say 'any more' or 'right now.' It was one of my most important theatre tools and what I will have to do is try to find a new energy and a way to channel it onstage. It will take me a while to try and figure it out.”
About a month ago, Learmond suffered a stroke, which was caused by a blood clot on the left side of his brain. And while he has no deformities, he said it has severely affected the feeling on the right side of his body.
“Sometimes it gets hot like fire and sometimes I feel nothing. Imagine I walked out in the snow in slippers, shorts and a vest a few days ago and felt nothing.
"Sometimes if a drop of water falls on my arm it feels like I’m being stabbed.
"And my legs sometimes feel like there are electric shocks going up my them. Sometimes they feel like they’re buckling.”
According to his therapist, it’s caused by nerve damage.
“Everything is so confusing right now and therapy is like a torture chamber for me, because they have to agitate all these nerves to try to get the brain to recognise what is going on and try to put the pieces back together.”
A diabetic for over 25 years, Learmond said before going to the US in 2016, he used to have to inject himself with insulin. The first doctor he saw there prescribed pills instead, which he preferred.
“I’m afraid of needles, yes,” he laughed. “The pills worked for a while – but then when I went into heart failure they started me on the pen needles. I am a coward, so a needle is a needle. Just the word 'needle' makes me run,” he said, laughing again.
The heart failure diagnosis came in April 2019 when he went to the hospital to be treated for what he thought was a cold. He was tired all the time, coughing excessively and gaining weight.
“I was experiencing those symptoms since January 2019 or maybe even December 2018. I never dealt with it, so it must have got worse. I sometimes felt weak like I was going to pass out and I just kept buying cough medicine for the coughing.”
One evening, after being tired of hearing the coughing for months, his landlord took him to the emergency room.
“I thought they would give me a shot and send me home.”
As it turned out, he was transferred to another hospital for tests.
“They took blood, did an echocardiogram, ECG, the full works.
"Next morning they told me it was heart failure and that my heart was operating at 12 per cent. They said the coughing was because I was drowning from the inside. I was retaining fluid and my heart was too weak to pump it out.
"Every hour after that they took blood to test, and you know how I am afraid of needles” – he burst out into another uncontrollable cackle reminiscent of one of his onstage personas.
Because his condition was so severe, he had to wear an uncomfortable "life vest," much like a defibrillator, for three months without taking it off, except when he took a shower.
“My doctor said my heart was so weak and advised short showers. The vest monitored my heart and if it had ever stopped beating, it (the vest) would have given me a powerful shock to get it started again. Thank God that never happened.”
But there was still more bad news. He was also diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Instead of dialysis the doctors advised he treat it with drugs and diet because of his age.
“They said I was too young to do dialysis. I’m 54, looking like 25. And if you squint you’ll see 19.”
But the health woes didn’t end there. His blood pressure was dangerously high and the doctors couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get it down.
“There were more test and a lot of meds. I spent almost a month in the hospital.”
They didn’t figure it out until they took samples of his adrenal glands for testing.
“They found that it was putting out a hormone that was elevating my blood pressure. And, as it turned out, the meds I had been taking in the past to keep my blood pressure under control would have contributed to my kidney condition.”
As if things weren’t complicated enough, Learmond was also diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, a serious disorder which causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start.
“I had to go to a hospital to do a sleep test…When you stop breathing it puts a strain on your heart. So now I have to use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine when I’m sleeping – and it works. Before using it I’d have to stop to catch my breath often, because my body wasn’t getting enough sleep. Now I can’t sleep without it.”
Learmond, a US resident, whose last job was as a senior traffic co-ordinator, said he lives alone and has not worked since April 2019 because it takes too much of a toll on him.
“I can’t walk far, sit or stand for long. I lie down for most of the day. I’m always in pain. It’s impossible for me to work, but I still send out applications because I feel I need to do something to help myself,” and keep his spirits high.
While his insurance covers some of his medical expenses, he said some recomended therapies are not covered, “and I can’t afford to pay for it.”
In order to raise funds to pay for medical expenses, friends have helped him set up a Go Fund Me account through which he has been getting contributions.
“I always try to send a thank-you note to everyone who contributes.”
As difficult as it is, Learmond has accepted that his life will never be the same and he has a lot of “maintenance” to do.
“Now I don’t have to see all my doctors as frequently, but they always have to keep monitoring me. Because I’m high risk for covid19, my doctor visits are via video chats.”
But with all that’s going on with him, he plans to return to TT as soon as he can.
“TT will always be home. You never know how much a part of a place you are until you leave it. Sometimes you have to step out of the box and look back in.
“As soon as I’m finished with this (medical treatment), I’m going back to where I’m supposed to be. I’m TT and Caribbean, I am not North American. I can’t even try to adopt this culture, because the Caribbean in me will not allow it.”
But for now, he will settle for calls and video chats from home.
“I’m like old people now. I just wait for people, especially Trinis to call so I can tell them about all my ailments” – and another peal of laughter explodes through the phone line.
Anyone willing to contribute to Clifford Learmond’s cause can visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/5ecp4a-help-me-please?utm_source=