Gaelic Football

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Back in the game he loves after beating all the odds

Christy O’Connor

Published 17/11/2012|05:00

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IN THE END, it was no contest. Loughrea were five points up at the break, ahead by eight at the final whistle.

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Turloughmore had legitimate ambitions of reaching a first county final in 22 years after beating Portumna in the quarter-final, but Loughrea did what Loughrea invariably do in county semi-finals – they just get the job done.

Cathal Moore only played the last 10 minutes, but there was still a value in every second of a match long gone from Turloughmore. He had played in All-Ireland finals at every level for Galway, had experienced harrowing defeats, when the final whistle often seemed to signal another disaster, another near-apocalyptic vision for Galway hurling.

Age and experience never ease the pain of losing for a fierce competitor, but Moore's disappointment was qualified coming off the field three weeks ago. He felt very disappointed for the players and management. He felt desperate for the club. Yet, there was still a sense of personal conquest concealed in the embers of the defeat for him.

Moore was conscious of having had only eight weeks' training behind him but they were the most pleasurable training days he'd ever put in. In August, he rang manager Micheal Donoghue and said he'd like to go back training. Donoghue could've said no but didn't. Before long, Moore was in his plans.

He played a few challenge games and was then selected to start against Portumna, his first competitive match in three years. When he walked into the dressing-room that day in Athenry, Moore hit a wall that he had never encountered before as a hurler. Fear.

"It really hit me when I saw the jersey," he says. "I had some time to myself where it all flashed before me – where I had been and where I had come from. You don't admit too many times in life that you're scared, but I was really scared. I was thinking of when I couldn't walk. When I had no balance. Of being told that you have a 50-50 chance of survival. You carry that around with you."

* * * * *

IN EARLY JUNE 2010, Moore returned home one Tuesday evening from a function with his wife Deirdre at 9.30. He had a headache and he took one Solpadeine tablet because it wasn't severe enough for two. When he got up the next morning, the dull ache was still there, like a haze that wouldn't lift.

Light was blinding him. When he went back to bed, Deirdre knew something was wrong. His parents drove him to the local GP and the first red flag went up during the journey. Moore couldn't keep himself upright. He had his head out the window because he thought he was going to throw up.

When they arrived at the medical centre, he was dizzy and couldn't stand up. Moore was instantly referred on to A&E in Galway with either suspected meningitis or a bleed in his brain. A contrast CT scan revealed that he had suffered a bleed, an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a tangle of abnormal and poorly formed blood vessels, which have a higher rate of bleeding than normal vessels.

When his condition deteriorated, he was transferred to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. After continual assessment and monitoring, it was decided that a craniotomy was the best option of treatment. "They basically just opened up my head," says Moore.

Sitting in his deputy-principal's office in Presentation College, Athenry, Moore reaches for an iPad and flicks to a sequence of post-operation images of the left side of his half-shaven head. A huge scar weaves its way through his skull in a horseshoe shape, the wound sewn back together with thick staples. He turns sideways and asks you to place your finger in the small hole, concealed by his hair, where the incision began.

An AVM is a congenital disorder that 3pc of the population have from birth, but not all brain AVM's are operable. "If some people suffer a bleed in their brain, they die because there are parts of your brain that they can't operate on," says Moore. "My bleed was in my speech area. If it was in a certain place in that area, they wouldn't have been able to operate because I wouldn't have been able to speak. That risk was always there anyway during the operation, but you just sign the disclaimers because they really don't know what is in there until they open your head and go in.

"Before the operation, the possibility was raised that I might never wake up. Just before I went in for the anaesthetic, I was thinking, 'Why is this happening to me? Why have I been picked out? You are feeling sorry for yourself. That is the time when you are losing it."

When Moore speaks about that time now, he frames it in black and white terms. He was sick. Powerless. Helpless. Yet that almost immunised him from the terror that was raging through the minds of his family, ransacking their thoughts and hopes for the future. Saoirse still wasn't one, but Cian was seven and was aware of what was happening. Hope was sometimes no more than mood music for Deirdre and the rest of his family's outlook.

After the operation, they had to bore burr holes in his head to release fluid which was a complication from the surgery. When the long road to recovery began, the difficulties that lay ahead were soon apparent. Deirdre read out a card one day from a work colleague of her husband and asked if he knew who that person was, in a similar way to the cognitive tests regularly carried out by the nurses and doctors. When Moore replied that it was "some randomer", she knew his short-term memory was gone.

So were other fundamental parts of his cognition. In lots of ways, Moore had to begin again. "Simple maths, multiplication, that was all gone," he says. "I was writing letters backwards, not able to spell words. I've seen the power of what this can do. I didn't have to learn to reread and rewrite from scratch, but there were elements of my thinking that were mixed up."

Inevitably, there were side-effects and collateral damage. "My personality completely changed," says Moore. "I became very aggressive. I didn't hit anyone but I wasn't very nice to the occupational therapist, who did a brilliant job. I became a bit of a smart Alec too, which isn't me. All that was very hard for Deirdre and the kids."

Moore spent over 40 days in Beaumont, where his recuperation was slow and exhausting and frustrating. His balance and co-ordination were completely gone. His occupational therapy was basically designed to teach him how to walk again. When he finally got home, climbing the stairs was a huge event in his day. And he wasn't even allowed to do that on his own.

There were obstacles everywhere he turned. The biggest risk for someone recovering from an AVM is a seizure. The anti-seizure medication that Moore was initially prescribed – Kepra – didn't agree with him. With that imbalanced equilibrium, the demons often colonised his thoughts. "It did funny things to me," says Moore. "When I got home, I was convinced that the consultant was coming to bring me back to Beaumont. That was my biggest fear."

It was a long road, with bumps. Yet his stamina grew, his morale held, his determination stiffened and his improvement continued. His medication was changed. Since he couldn't drive, he sold his car because he couldn't trust himself not to get behind the wheel. As a means of releasing the frustration, he regularly walked the eight miles to Galway from Clarinbridge and back. By February 2011, he was off his medication. He was back at school that St Patrick's weekend. He was driving by April.

Moore always believed the discipline and training he had from hurling accelerated his recovery. He can't drink (he never drank anyway) and he has to be wary of fatigue, but his life is back to normal now. All that has really changed is his outlook. Inevitably, it had to.

"You appreciate every day now," he says. "When I was lying on my back, I never thought I'd get back doing what I was doing before. At that time, you would give anything to get back. Here I was at 35 and maybe that was it. You say to yourself 'All the things I haven't done, I want a chance to do them'. Then you look across the ward and someone who was there yesterday is dead. Some of the people in that ward were younger than me and not all survived.

"I don't know why I was chosen to have an AVM that was operable and the person in the next bed wasn't. I have great faith from my two grandmothers who were very religious. There is a reason I was given a chance to recover and I definitely believe it was God and faith. There has to be something. I could easily have been the person in that ward that died. I got the second chance."

***

THERE WERE TIMES when it appeared like madness, but hurling was always going to be intertwined with that second chance. Moore doesn't remember it but one of the first questions he asked the surgeon, Danny Rawluk, when he woke up after the operation was when he could go back hurling.

Back then, his mind almost wasn't his own but he was still making sense. Hurling may have been just a dream. But it was a contractual agreement Moore had made to himself.

"I always wanted to give it up on my own terms," he says. "For me it was part of my recovery because I wanted to prove to myself that I could get back. Deirdre said that she always knew that it was unfinished business. I want to retire when I want to retire. Not because I had an acquired brain injury or a congenital condition."

Lining out for Loughrea in tomorrow's county final would have been nice and fitting, but Moore didn't need a big day out to complete his comeback. The joy now is in the journey. The discovery. The living. Because he has already won the biggest match of his life.

Irish Independent

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