Health

Friday 29 August 2014

They told me I'd never walk again -- now I run marathons

After cracking his skull on the pavement, doctors had little hope for Adrian O'Connor. Today, he can run 26 miles, writes John Costello

It was the night Adrian O'Connor's life changed forever. But he can't remember a thing. Life was good for the Sports Science graduate of University of Limerick. Nicknamed "Christy", he was well-known locally and was a key player on the Castlegregory GAA football team in Kerry.

He had returned to university and completed the second year of a degree in Civil Engineering in UCC while working in Enterprise rent-a-car. Then on December 15, 2004, the blossoming promise of this gifted 28-year-old came to a shattering halt.

Adrian had travelled to London with a group of friends to celebrate the wedding of a close pal. He went out on the town to kick-start the celebrations with a few pints the night before the big day. It was on the way back to the hotel when disaster struck.

Adrian tripped and fell to the pavement. It all seemed pretty innocuous. His friends bent down to give him a hand up but soon realised something was wrong. It had not been a heavy fall but their friend remained motionless on the ground.

As they knelt beside him they saw he had fallen awkwardly and cracked his skull on the pavement.

One minute Adrian was in London celebrating; the next his life was on the line. He still remembers few of the details surrounding the fall that nearly killed him.

"That's the problem with a brain injury," he says with a smile. "I know the doctors were giving me little hope of ever walking or talking again, but thankfully I was in another place at the time and wasn't listening."

Adrian had been induced into a coma to reduce the swelling in his brain and things looked grim for the sports-loving footballer. Surgeons told his mother and brother that if he survived he would never walk, let alone play football.

"I was always mentally strong and I got great encouragement from my family and friends," he says. "My girlfriend kept on reminding me that I always managed to do the opposite of what people expected, so she always had faith in me."

It took Adrian three weeks to finally wake from the coma. He then underwent surgery to repair his shattered skull. By the end of December he had the staples removed from his head while doctors spent several weeks to ensure his condition slowly stabilised.

He soon returned home from London and was transferred to Kerry General Hospital where his condition was closely monitored.

But after his homecoming, things quickly took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Fluid began building up in Adrian's brain and he was quickly moved to Cork University Hospital where a valve was used to drain the fluid and relieve the tension on his brain.

But while undergoing treatment he contracted two deadly infections -- CDIFF and MRSA.

"Luckily I was always a fighter, and I think this is what helped me most during this time and also gave my family strength," he says.

It was this inner strength that helped Adrian fight off the infections and make it out of the hospital and into a Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire in August 2005.

"My parents used to bring me out in a wheelchair and try to get me to try a few steps," he recalls.

"I nearly cried because I couldn't. But I never gave up. Even though I could not speak or walk I never gave up hope."

True to form, Adrian defied all the odds. He not only began talking again in 2006, but shocked his physiotherapists when he began taking his first steps in 2007. However, Adrian had only just begun to prove the medical world wrong.

"When I told my family and friends I was entering the Dublin City Marathon in 2008 they just looked at me," he says.

"They could not comprehend what I had just said. They all thought I was mad. I had only just begun walking again so it was like a five-year-old child saying they were going to run a marathon."

He returned to his home in Kerry and kept on pushing himself harder and harder. Every day he would push the boundaries of what everyone thought possible and after consistently increasing the lengths of his walks he stunned everyone by starting to run.

Adrian used his participation in the Dublin City Marathon as a personal test to see if he was genuinely getting physically better. When he completed it there was no doubt.

"It was an amazing feeling and it meant that all the hard work was paying off," he says. "I was always confident, but it showed everyone around me what I could achieve."

This amazing achievement was just the beginning for Adrian. He felt his overall pace wasn't as good as it could have been during his 26.2 mile trek around Dublin, so he decided to increase his training and aim to complete the Cork City Marathon in 2009.

"I live beside the best beach in the world, so it's a great place to train," says Adrian.

"The marathon is not about distance but about time. So I just make sure I put in the hours of training.

"Sometimes I get a lift to Tralee and then make my way back. I stop off in local bars along the way for a pint of water. People are always saluting me as they see me so much along the roads training. Some used to even stop in their cars and ask me if I want a lift (laughs)."

Adrian was not the only one to benefit from his driving determination. He raised €4,500 for the Rape Crisis Centre in Tralee by the time he crossed the finish line in the Cork City Marathon.

His next goal is to complete the Dingle Marathon and he is focused on raising a minimum of €5,000 for the Irish Cancer Society.

"The charity is something very close to me," he reveals. "I will be raising money and running in memory of the many people I have lost to cancer. Over the last 18 years I've lost my father, uncle and grandfather to cancer."

Adrian then pauses for a moment. "And last year I lost my girlfriend Marie to cancer."

Some 3,500 other competitors will be joining Adrian and his quest to conquer the Kerryman Dingle Marathon on September 4.

And as he takes in the beautiful scenery, idyllic villages and historical sites, Adrian will only view this as another step in his journey to recovery.

"I will be the first Irishman to complete three marathons after suffering a brain injury," he says with pride.

"But I won't be truly happy until I pull on a Castlegregory jersey and run out on to the pitch to play a game."

With his drive and determination to over come his disability, few who know Adrian would bet against him.

Irish Independent

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