Brendan Lynch has lupus. The 38-year-old knows of only two other men living with the condition in his orbit, and, in Ireland, nine out of 10 lupus sufferers are women – most of them are aged between 15 and 45.
In the US, lupus is most likely to affect African-American women. Yet, no one really knows what causes the disease, which is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms mimic a range of illnesses.
In Brendan's case, he started to feel unwell in 2006. "I began to tire easily and got pains in my joints," he says.
"My right elbow used to lock, which made shaving difficult."
After an underactive thyroid gland was diagnosed, the medication he was prescribed seemed to help.
But, as time passed, Brendan, a trainer with Cavan company, Wellman, began to experience various aches and pains, as well as crippling fatigue.
"When we first got together, Margot [his wife] and I used to stay up late watching movies and having a glass of wine," he says.
"But it got that, by 10.30pm, I'd be gone. I also started getting pains in my soles, which made walking hard."
Brendan soon developed a swelling in his right calf. He was sure that he had pulled a muscle, but a colleague urged him to go to the doctor.
After a check-up, his GP referred him to the accident and emergency department at Our Lady's Hospital in Navan, where it was established he had a clot in his leg. It was so bad that when Brendan awoke on the ward one night, he was unable to call a nurse who was standing just a few feet away.
"The sweat was bucketing out of me," he tells me. "My body was trying to fight the clot, which had moved from my leg to my lung."
Doctors kept him in the intensive care unit for a week, during which time he was not allowed out of bed.
A battery of tests revealed that he was suffering from an autoimmune disease, for which he was put on warfarin – an anticoagulant that helps to prevent clots. Since this medication can have serious side-effects, he was monitored on a regular basis.
Brendan was told he would be on the drug for six months. He was off work at the time, and he thought his problems were solved. But, soon after, he began to feel unwell all over again.
This was followed by a serious chest infection, which landed Brendan in hospital. A month later, the situation came to a head when his hair started falling out, his weight declined rapidly and his fingers swelled up.
Doctors took a closer look and found that his lymph nodes were also swollen, after which they performed a biopsy. "I was in the hospital for 21 days under the care of the rheumatology team and, again, they did every test under the sun," says Brendan. "They also consulted with the haematology doctors at St James's." Our Lady's Hospital in Navan did not have such a specialist at that time, although it does now.
"It came down to two possibilities," Brendan recalls. "Hodgkin's lymphoma or lupus."