'I looked down and saw a big lump in the middle of my thigh – it was my kneecap' - Seán Óg Ó hAilpín
Published 21/10/2013 | 05:00
By 2001, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was a huge hurling star. But a car accident that year almost ended his career. It happened in May 2001 in the week before Cork were due to play Limerick in the championship.
On Thursday of that week Seán Óg had been in Dublin for a Guinness promotion – they were sponsors of the hurling championship at the time. After lunch he headed back to Cork for training, stopping between Roscrea and Templemore to visit a friend. He left his friend's house at 4.30pm, a little anxious about being in time for training in Cork. In this extract from his autobiography, which is published on Wednesday, Seán Óg remembers the crash – and his long battle to recovery:
I went through Templemore and made for the main road back to Thurles. I was panicking a little, because time was pushing on and you don't want to be late for training the week of the championship.
I was near Loughmore-Castleiney – close to the home place of Paul Ormond, the Tipperary hurler – and there was a car ambling along in front of me. I spent a while considering whether to overtake, and then I said to myself I'd go for it.
There was a bend up the road, and as soon as I swung out and tried to pass I knew I was in trouble. I should have just braked and come back in, but I was young and thought I was invincible, and I carried on.
I saw flashing lights as a car came towards me. Bang: a head-on collision.
After the noise, the impact, I realised the radio was still on in the car. The crash had turned my car around, and I was facing back the way I'd come, towards Templemore. The car that I'd collided with was jammed up against the ditch. When I got to my senses and realised what had happened, I started shouting and roaring.
I looked down and saw a big lump in the middle of my thigh. At the time I thought it was just a swelling from a bruise on my leg; in fact it was my kneecap. There was no pain initially: I was in shock, the adrenalin was pumping.
After a few seconds the driver of the other car came over to me. (It turned out he'd been bringing four kids to a soccer game, and the only one who was hurt seemed to be the one sitting in the middle of the back seat, who got a bit of a scrape.) Now, I'd been on the wrong side of the road, and the other driver was well within his rights to lift me out of it.
When he got close enough to see me, your man said: "Don't tell me you are Seán Óg Ó hAilpín?"
The front of my car was like an accordion, all squashed in, so the door was crushed too tight for me to open it myself, but he was able to yank it free. I tried to get out, but I couldn't lift my leg off the floor of the car.
When I eventually worked my way out of the car, my leg buckled underneath me, and the pain started to kick in. The other driver helped me over to sit down on the ditch, and garda cars, the fire brigade and ambulances started to arrive.
That's when I started thinking of the game that Sunday. It was May 24, two days after my 24th birthday, and at that point I was thinking a couple of days' rest would sort me out.
I was taken by ambulance to Nenagh Hospital and X-rayed, and the pain was excruciating. They dosed me with morphine.
The doctor explained to me late that night that your kneecap floats on top of the joint, where it's held in place by tendons.
I'd severed the tendon below the kneecap, which was like cutting an elastic band – nothing held the bone in place. My thigh muscles pulled the kneecap up my leg.
The doctor said I'd have to fast because they wanted to bring me to Limerick for an operation. I rang home to tell them I'd been in an accident but that I was okay, and then I rang Tom Cashman (the Cork manager).
At first he thought I was putting him on – 'Tell me you're kidding me' – but when he realised I was serious, his only concern was about my health. The game didn't come into it.
I rang Dr Con (the Cork medic) and he thought I was pulling his leg as well until I convinced him I was in the hospital in Nenagh. And straight away he asked to speak to the doctor and told him to send me down to Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) for an operation.
In CUMH the surgeon, Dr Kieran Barry, explained the procedure to me. I asked if I'd be okay for Sunday. He was probably thinking, 'Is this guy for real?' He said no, that I'd be out for the rest of the year and that Dr Con would talk to me after the operation.
He said the fact that I was in good shape had helped me. If I hadn't been at a peak fitness, three days out from a championship game, I could have suffered other significant injuries, he said.
But all that stayed with me was the loss of a season. That's what I fixated on as he said goodbye and left.
The tears came down my face then.
After the operation the doc came in to have a chat. "The surgery was a success," he said. "In terms of rehab, though, not many people come back after an injury like that, not to the highest level. But I know you will." Whether he believed it or not, I don't know, but it was encouraging.
I was in hospital until the following Wednesday. The tendon was stitched together with mesh and the kneecap reattached. I had had a stroke of luck in that the bone wasn't cracked, which helped in the healing process. My whole leg was in a cast, hip to ankle, and that was on until early August.
While wearing the cast at home I had exercises to do – squeezing the quad for five seconds at a time.
In the early weeks the leg was sore from the operation, but I tried hard with the squeezes – hundreds of them, over and over again.
It was awkward early on. Getting around was hard because I had to sit in the back seat of the car, manoeuvring in and out. Nighttimes were long, as you couldn't turn in the bed without pain.
But gradually the pain turned to itching. I upped the exercise regime to tying bags of sugar around my ankle, and lifting the leg up and down, up and down. That was all I could manage with the plaster still on.
I did hundreds of situps, chinups and pushups, morning, noon and evening. We had a pole mounted in the shed at home, so I got Setanta and Aisake (my brothers) to lift me up to the pole for chinups. They'd hold me while I was doing them; we'd end up having competitions with each other.
The doctors played down the chances that I'd ever get back to the level I'd been at, but I treated that as a challenge. I swore to myself that I'd play inter-county again.
When the time came for me to get the cast off, my leg was like a matchstick, all wasted away. I thought I'd been ticking over with thousands of situps and so on, but seeing my leg like that was a huge knock. It was a disaster. I felt like looking in the cast for the muscles from my leg. It was unbelievably weak, and so stiff that if I bent it more than one degree I nearly had to bite my knuckles with the pain.
I was given a knee brace to support it for a few weeks; the aim was to get me back walking. I had a different aim: to make it back playing with Cork.
By August I was in the middle of rehabilitation. I had physiotherapy up in the Orthopaedic Hospital in Cork – exercises to get the nerves stimulated because they'd been shut down for a couple of months.
First thing every morning, waking up, I'd have forgotten about the car crash; it was a case of eyes open and ready for the day, then the memory of the crash would come back. After that I'd try the leg to see if there was even a millimetre of extra movement in it.
There were little victories along the way: the first time I was able to walk on my own, without crutches, for example. But progress was slow until a friend intervened.
Jimmy McEvoy was a masseur with Cork, a friend of mine from Blarney, and he'd fallen in working with Ger Hartmann, the physical therapist from Limerick, when Ger was helping Kenyan athletes in London.
I didn't know much about Ger but I was up for anything that would help. Although he was up the walls with work, he said if I made it to Limerick he'd have a look at me.
Ger had a plastic skeleton in the room. He showed me what had happened and what would have to be done. When I hopped up on the examining table he started digging into my muscles – calf, quad, poking around, paying little attention to the knee.
It was savage sore – my leg was very soft because of the lack of physical activity, and I was sweating bullets. I was also thinking, "Why's he digging into every part of my leg bar the knee? It's my knee that's the problem."
Eventually he moved the knee, and there was a visible improvement in the range of movement. He'd loosened out the muscles completely.
The session lasted about an hour and a half. At the end, he said there was a lot of work to be done and he wasn't giving any guarantees, but we'd work away and see where it got us. He gave me a programme to follow for three weeks, building up strength in my wasted muscles – quad exercises, legraises, minisquats and balancing on my injured leg.
That was the winter. Every three weeks or so I'd go up to be assessed by him, and every time he'd improve the flexibility in the knee another bit. He said I'd never get the range of motion back to what it had been, to what it is in my left leg. But he added that I wasn't a gymnast. The deficit wouldn't affect my running and jumping.
That was positive, but sometimes in the three-week cycle the knee would react. I'd go through a heavy session and the next morning the knee would be swollen. I sometimes doubted that I was going to make it, but I continued with the programme. I always followed it religiously.
By November he had me running. It wasn't a great return. There's a soccer pitch down the road from the family home in Blarney, and one morning in November Jim McEvoy drove me down to it.
'Do one lap,' he said.
I managed one, and Jim said to try another, and I did, but then I had to stop. I hadn't run in six months and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was great to be back running, but that first attempt only showed how far I had to go. The next day I tried a third lap. A couple of days after that, a fourth lap. Building up all the time.
Ger gave me other exercises as well, quirky ones to work on my twisting and turning: hopping up and down stairs on one leg, for example. That one tormented my family as I bounced noisily while they were watching television.
I was in the pool, exercising. In the gym, lifting heavier weights. Doing balancing exercises, with the eyes closed to trigger the nerves to work.
The only downside, as I moved into 2002, was that I hadn't touched a hurley since the accident.
Bertie Óg Murphy had taken over from Tom Cashman as the Cork hurling manager, and he rang me to ask how I was going.
At the end of January I went back with Cork. Ger Hartmann had advised me strongly to focus on one code, as this would give the knee a better chance to recover. Hurling was my choice. My football career was over.
My right knee will never be as good as the left – I can bring the heel on my left leg up to touch my backside, but my right heel won't go all the way up because the knee won't bend that far.
It gets stiff in the cold and winter training in the couple of years after the accident was hard. But compared to the outlook when I was sitting on the side of the road in LoughmoreCastleiney on that May afternoon, I'll take it.
Seán Óg – The Autobiography, published by Penguin Ireland, is out on Wednesday at €22