MALLOW man Gerard O'Connell has spoken publically for the first time about his struggle to recover from a horrific and unprovoked attack on New Year's Eve 2011 that left him fighting for his life.
The Corkman this week spoke with Gerard and his wife Ann about the impact the attack has had on their family and of their heartfelt gratitude to the people of Mallow for the phenomenal support they received over the past 12-months. ALBERT EINSTEIN once wrote that there were only two ways to live your life: one, as though nothing is a miracle, the other as though everything is a miracle.
Mallow man Gerard O'Connell and his family are only too aware of just how true the second part of that quote is, after the 42-year-old beat overwhelming odds to survive a vicious attack that almost cost him his life.
On the morning of New Year's Day, Gerard and his wife Ann were making their way home in high spirits, having ushered in 2012 at a friend's house.
As they made their way home to their two children, the happy couple were approached by a man who asked them for a cigarette. What happened next shocked the community in Mallow to its very core.
"Looking back, it was like I was somewhere else looking at it all. Everything happened so suddenly," said Ann.
"We were unable to get a taxi home and decided that it was such a lovely night we would walk home. We were in great form, singing and humming along, as you do," she added.
Ann said that the second she saw the man approach them alarm bells began ringing in her head.
"This fella, a complete stranger, just seemed to appear. Had we seen him we would have gone out of our way to avoid him. I looked into his face and something just did not seem right. I had this terrible feeling that something bad was going to happen," she said.
"He asked for a cigarette, but did not even give us a chance to get one out. He just launched an attack on us; it was like something fell out of the sky, landed on us and just took over."
In a voice quivering with emotion, Ann went on to describe what happened in frightening detail, describing how her husband was viciously beaten in an attack that Judge Patrick Moran later described as one of the worse he had ever encountered in all his time on the bench.
"As Gerard lay on the ground I heard his head crack open and I begged with the man to stop but he just kept punching. He would lift Gerard's head and I would try to put my hand under it but he would just grab Gerard's head and jam in back into the kerb," said Ann.
"There had been no argument, no fight, not even a raised voice. I could see the light on in the bedroom of my brother's nearby house. It I had shouted my brother would have heard me, but I was physically unable to shout, I just couldn't.
"Eventually, the man just strolled away when he had finished."
After being rushed to Cork University Hospital, Gerard's life literally hung in the balance as a result of the horrific brain injuries he had suffered.
"Gerard's head was so swollen it was wider than the width of his shoulders. I remember thinking that I had to mind him but remember as much about what happened as I could for the gardai," recalled Ann.
Later on that evening, Gerard underwent surgery in a bid to bring down the swelling to his brain.
"I remember during the operation thinking that something was seriously wrong because Gerard was in surgery for so long. Every minute felt like an hour. The operation did not finish until 4.15am and even then we did not know if it had been successful," said Ann.
She recalled that in order to allow the swelling to go down doctors had to cut away part of her husband's skull, leaving his brain exposed.
"I could literally see into his head," recalled Ann.
Gerard remained in an induced coma for five weeks and spent a total of three months in hospital battling to overcome his horrific injuries which left him with a fractured skull, permanent eye damage and severe memory loss.
For his part, Gerard does not remember what happened on the night.
"I don't even remember growing up in Canon Sheehan Place. I've been back to the house four times but do not recall any of it. I don't remember going to school, getting married, the birth of my two children or any of my working life," said the former lorry driver.
His children, Luke (15) and Katie (12), did not see their father for two months as he clung to life in the intensive care ward.
"I did not know if Gerard would wake up and be able to come home. If he did not, I did not want the kids' last memory of their father to be one where he was linked up to tubes and machines," said Ann.
"I wanted them to remember him as he was the day he walked out of the door on New Year's Eve."
Ann said that she kept a near constant vigil by her husband's hospital bed, spending less than an hour with her children when she would come home each night.
"Every evening I felt like the worst person in the world to have to say to them that their father's condition had not improved. But at the same it hadn't got any worse, something that always gave us hope," she said.
"I told the children there were three things that could happen. Their father would die, he would live but only be with us in body alone or he would come home, albeit with brain damage. They were quite happy that I was upfront and honest with them throughout."
Ann spoke emotionally of the day that Gerard did finally regain consciousness, recalling that Luke was initially reluctant to go into the unit.
"But Katie just walked in; she did not care what happened just as long as she could hug her daddy. Straight away he said 'my Katie'. That was all we wanted to hear."
Gerard recalled one doctor, Mr Halloran, telling him that his recovery was nothing short of miraculous.
"He said that, at one point, I was down to a 2% chance of living. He told me that they thought I was going to die. Ann was even told on a number of occasions to get the kids because I was not going to make it."
Gerard said his family and medical staff did not initially tell him what had happened.
"I knew there was damage to my head. Ann told me that I had fallen, but I knew there was something not right about that. I knew that I had not had that much to drink, so that could not have been the case," he said.
Eventually, Ann had to tell her husband what had happened, but even though he was not at fault, Gerard was unable to shake a nagging sense of guilt at what had happened.
"About two weeks before he came home Gerard told me he was sorry, believing that in some way he was responsible