'I might have died if I wasn't fit and young. It was frightening'
Published 15/10/2013 | 05:40
It was the dream that turned into a nightmare.
It was the dream that turned into a nightmare.
Sligo footballer, Tony Taylor, fulfilled a lifetime ambition when he joined a Boston GAA club for a summer of Championship football.
But within weeks of arriving to play in the States, the 29-year-old was plunged into a harrowing fight for survival.
Without warning, the healthy, super-fit player was struck by a mysterious, potentially life-threatening illness which annihilated his immune system.
He was left wondering if he would ever pull through or lead a normal life again.
"There were many dark days and nights, lying awake in a hospital bed far from home, when I feared the worst," Tony admits.
"The consultants and doctors were baffled that a fit, healthy athlete could be struck down in such a devastating fashion in a matter of days.
"And there were many people who said to me that I might have died if I wasn't young and fit.
"It was all very frightening.
"Even now, back home in the comfort of my wonderful family and friends, it's scary when I think of all I went through."
The Gurteen man travelled to Boston in June, looking forward to an exciting summer of football with Shannon Blues.
His cousin, former Sligo and Tubbercurry player Ken Killeen, is a long-established player with the Boston club while another cousin, Gary Henry, is also well settled in the American city.
His early days in Boston were all he'd hoped they'd be with no hint of the despair which was to follow.
"The lads helped me get a job with a local construction company and I quickly made a lot of new friends through the GAA club," Tony recalls.
"I trained with the team two nights a week and then had my first game with the Blues two weeks after I arrived.
"We played Connemara Gaels and I felt I had a really good game, lining out in my favourite position at midfield.
"We won the game and I thought this is great – I'm going to have a brilliant summer, enjoying life in Boston, working hard, making some money and playing the game I love."
The match against Connemara was on a Sunday and Tony and his team mates met up again for training the following Tuesday.
The next day was July 3rd, the eve of Independence Day.
Boston was in party mood.
"It's funny the dates that become etched in your memory when something awful happens," says Tony.
"A few of us got together on the night before Independence Day. We had the following day off so we went out for a few beers.
"At one point during the evening, I went to lift a bottle of beer and my hand started shaking.
"Not too bad at first but it got worse and worse. Then it began shaking violently. I just didn't know what was happening.
"It was weird. I couldn't understand it but I knew something was wrong.
"I just told the lads I wasn't feeling very well and I went home."
He assured himself that the sensation would pass.
But when he woke up the next morning with an excruciating pain in his lower back and a raging hot temperature, he knew he was in trouble.
Over the following days, the pain got worse, spreading from his back down his legs and piercing every muscle in his body.
The Eastern Harps midfielder explained: "I've played a lot of football and had my fair share of knocks and injuries but I never experienced anything like this.
"It was unbearable. I was just wiped out. I couldn't stand up, never mind walk. I couldn't go to the bathroom or have a shower.
"I went out to Boston fit and well. I trained hard and played a full match. And, now without warning, I was utterly helpless.
"It was frightening."
For four days, he persevered through the pain barrier but it got to the stage where he couldn't take any more.
He said: "I contacted the manager of Shannon Blues, Brian Kennedy, and he brought me to the emergency department at a local hospital.
"I was in agony and I couldn't move a muscle.
"Brian had to get a wheelchair to bring me from his van into the hospital."
Tony was detained in hospital, undergoing a series of tests and scans and going on courses of strong pain killers and antibiotics.
"They eventually diagnosed the symptoms as MSSA, a serious bacterial infection," Tony explains.
"I stayed in that hospital for a week before I was transferred to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
"The first few days in hospital are still a blank. I was on so much medication and undergoing so many tests that I remember very little of it.
"I lost nearly two stone in weight. I couldn't do anything for myself – not even get out of bed to go to the bathroom.
"I was just totally helpless – that's the only way to describe it."
What he does recall are the intravenous drips, the countless X-Rays, the scans and the long, lonely nights.
And what he describes as "a sort of pipe inserted into my groin to drain the infection out of my body".
"I was in hospital for 18 days and I don't think I slept on any of those nights. Despite all the medication, I found it impossible to sleep.
"Those were the real low points – the nights lying awake wondering if I would ever get better.
"It would have been bad enough if I was at home in Sligo but to have to go through all that so far away from home was really difficult."
His mother, Margaret, travelled to Boston to be with him.
"I know my mother was worried sick, as were all my family. It was brilliant of her to come all the way to Boston.
"I was delighted to see her. She stayed for three weeks. The very fact that she was there helped my recovery – there's no doubt about that."
His sister, Karen, and his girlfriend, Lisa Mullaney, also travelled to Boston.
When he got out of hospital, he went to live with his cousin, Gary and his wife, Liz.
Even then, the rehabilitation was tough.
"I still had the drip connected to my arm and I was on a lot of medication. I was just sitting in a chair in the house, unable to do anything.
"Every day was like a week – it was very, very difficult.
"If it wasn't for my family, Gary and his wife, and people like Ken Killeen and the Shannon Blues lads, I don't think I would have got through it."
His girlfriend, Lisa, stayed with him until he was well enough to return to Ireland at the end of August.
"We didn't tell anybody we were coming home. We just arrived unannounced. Everybody was thrilled to see us. It was very emotional."
Tony is now back at IT Sligo, doing the second year of an Engineering degree course.
He's started doing some light work in the gym and hopes to be back playing football early next year.
He says: "I still have a bit of pain in my hips but I'm making good progress.
"Football is the motivation I need to get back to full fitness.
"I'm setting the Sigerson Cup and the National Football League early in the New Year as my targets.
"I've been through hell but, fortunately, I've come out the right side.
"If the experience has taught me anything it is that your health is your wealth."