Friday 9 December 2016

'Without the doctors I was gone' - Meet the Derry footballer who came back from the dead

It has taken the Derry man a long time to get used to the end of his playing career - but working with The Cormac Trust which helped save his life is now making a difference to others

Declan Bogue

Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30

Former Derry captain Kevin McCloy has revealed how close he came to 'being a statistic'
Former Derry captain Kevin McCloy has revealed how close he came to 'being a statistic'

When you ask Kevin McCloy about his built-in defibrillator, he tells you to touch it.

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No time to be squeamish. You reach out and touch him on the breastplate and there it is. A protrusion the size of a matchbox. There to keep him alive after the events of a sunny August Wednesday in Owenbeg, 2014 when he was temporarily lost to the world, before being revived.

A defibrillator that was at the ground got his heart going again, and now another one resides within him, where the surgeons scraped out a packet of muscle to house it.

Two leads emerge from it, travel down through a vein into two different chambers of the heart. Should his heart stop, a power surge is poised to give it a shock. In 12 years time, he will get the battery changed.

Sometimes, he catches people stealing looks at it in the changing rooms of the local leisure centre. That's his reality.

At night when he sleeps, a modem beside his bed downloads his heart readings, sending them to the City Hospital. Should they note any abnormalities, they would act instantly.

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"If I go anywhere to train, say the Leisure Centre in Magherafelt, I have to tell them first and foremost that I have it fitted," he explains.

"If anything happens and I am on the running machine say, then it's a priority one ambulance you want. It leaves life a bit difficult at times, maybe explaining this to somebody who knows nothing about it!"

Back to that night in Owenbeg. He had never felt fitter when his Lavey side met Magherafelt in the Derry Championship. His manager John Brennan understood how to get him right, avoiding the "Heavy plundering" of years past, allowing him to train more often in the pool to protect his knees and back.

Lifted

"After ten minutes I tackled Emmet McGuckin and knocked the ball. He lifted the ball off the ground and the free went against him. I went to throw the ball onto my foot to take the free and I was gone."

Lifting the Division 1 NFL trophy in 2008 Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Lifting the Division 1 NFL trophy in 2008 Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

He dropped on the spot. Utter panic spread through the ground until three doctors revived him with an external defibrillator, there because of The Cormac Trust.

The words that came back to his wife Cathy, sitting at home, went through the mangle of Chinese Whispers. She heard he had taken an asthma attack.

She learned more when she passed Owenbeg on her way to Altnagelvin, knowing that matches are never abandoned for asthma attacks.

"Mine was more of, let's say a mechanical or electrical failure, from your head to your heart," explains McCloy.

"That night, your heart would be up to 130, 140 beats per minute (playing a match). Mine started racing up to 200 bpm and it caused the heart to shake, rather than pump. The blood stopped going to your brain and you go unconscious, and then you go down."

It was touch and go for a couple of days. His mother Marie had been through enough tragedy in her life when Kevin's father - Michael - died at only 28 through cancer. Kevin, the youngest of four, was only three months old.

When he did come round, naturally he asked after his wife and children. But before long, he asked how the game went. By the time Lavey were to meet Ballinderry at a later stage, he wanted to put on the jersey again. He had already shipped a scolding or two from the nurses for his constant lapping of the ward.

"The first four weeks was a bit of a whirlwind," he begins.

"Tiredness… I just spent a lot of time sleeping for the first three or four days. I was put into an induced coma and went in and out of consciousness.

"Then they explained to me what had happened and I wasn't accepting it, to be quite honest with you. If I wasn't being truthful, it wasn't until five or six months down the line that I truly accepted what had happened."

He explains, "There was the… madness… of 'why me?' Why has this happened to me. Any person that I seen walking around the hospital, overweight or anything like that, I thought, 'why not him? Why me?' You are nearly grieving a death.

"I know my playing days were nearly at an end, but somebody had still taken that away from me. That might have come at a different stage anyway, six or seven months down the line.

"I didn't know where I was at. It wasn't until I had a realisation of coming back to work in January, everything starts to fall back into place a bit. You are back to work, you do a bit of training again. And you make the realisation here that, 'this is life.'"

His county days began with hurling for Derry. He was lucky to play in a Golden Age of Derry hurling as they ended 92 years without an Ulster title, beating Antrim in the 2000 final, McCloy at wing-forward.

Before long, Eamonn Coleman came calling for the footballers. A different age.

He recalls a pre-Christmas league game against Clare and an overnight stay in Ennis. Coleman let them off the leash. They acted like a stag-do for the night.

"And the day after?", McCloy laughs.

"Ah, schoolboy errors! The goalkeeper dropped one between his legs, I dropped one through my hands into the net."

Coleman said he was that embarrassed he wanted to walk back up the road to Derry, and left them with this ringing in their ears; "If you want to play club football, go and play club football, but ould weemen with straw arses could play club football."

His most recognizable moment as a player came in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin, when he rattled Croke Park with a thundering shoulder on Mark Vaughan.

"I couldn't have caught him any better, but it cost me a year and a half of my football career," he explains.

"All the muscles from my shoulder, right into my groin, diagonally across, the way we hit each other coming from two different directions at top speed tore all the muscles across my chest.

"I had to lie on the flat of my back all the way home on the bus because of the pain of it."

Physical pain is one thing. Emotional pain like in the hospital is another.

Little moments helped him get through it. A local girl Edel Henry compiled all the nice things people wrote about him on social media and presented him with them in a book.

Tentative

Getting back to work in January 2015, at first a tentative three-day week brought normality. But as he says himself three days a week doesn't work well on building sites. His employers, T Valley, were exceptionally kind to him.

Last summer, he felt the chord being cut with football.

"The lads and the management of Lavey asked me would I like to come back on board, even just to be along the line or in the dressing room for the presence," he recalls.

"Let's say last year I found it very hard to be there. The first time they walked out past me to play Slaughtneil… It nearly took the feet from me to pat every man going out that door on the back.

"It reminded me of when the Chairman used to stand at the door and patted the lads as they headed out. That was a realisation that did really strike. I mean anyone can play a league match. But the first Championship match? It was a killer."

His favourite memory of all was a knife-edge Championship match in Ballinascreen against Glenullin, and his direct opponent a young and hungry Eoin Bradley out to devour reputations.

"You knew that when he got turned he was going to go at you. Not left or right, but through you. I was in my prime and it was the best game of football I ever had." He glows with the memory of it, the concentration needed. Mind, body and reflexes all in harmony.

Life is about other things now. Work. His own family. Cathy understood what football mean because she is from a football household in Dromore, Co Tyrone herself. A year younger than Kevin, they met in Jordanstown when they were both doing their Engineering Degree. He jokes that she was only into him in the first place to get a look at his coursework.

His children are Michael (4), Cassie (3) and Cillian, who arrived just four months ago.

There is the Cormac Trust work. Something wonderful that came out of something tragic with the death of Cormac McAnallen, his family continue to spread awareness of defibrillators.

Next month, he will be appointed as a Trustee. Earlier this month he was in Stormont with the Trust lobbying Education Minister John O'Dowd to put more defibrillators into schools and introduce widespread training.

He says with conviction: "There wouldn't have been many defibrillators around Gaelic pitches only for the work that the Cormac Trust has done. Nearly all the pitches have it now because of the awareness they have brought about.

"If any club hasn't one, they are only kidding themselves. Imagine for all the price of it, and what it takes to run a club in a year, for £1,000 to buy one? If one of the youngsters dropped, I wouldn't like that on my shoulders."

And as he points out: "I would maintain that without the three trained doctors there on the night, I would have been a statistic. I would definitely be gone."

It's not just about defibrillators either.

"The Cormac Trust is a hell of a lot more than that. There is a project with the Mater Hospital in Dublin about Genetics research.

"Half the stuff that they are involved in, people would not know."

He is sustained by hope and faith.

"I would have my own religious beliefs, I wouldn't think I have a really strong faith, but I have a faith.

"Prayers do help. I don't think I would be here without them, to be honest."

He adds, "I came to the realisation is that the three kids are more important than getting out and playing a bit of football. It was only this year that I have begun to realise how much time I spent at the football field. It was my life.

"I played 17 years in a Lavey jersey, 11 years for Derry and how much time did I not spend away from my wife and family, but that comes with a certain love for the game."

And was it worth it?

"Oh aye. I think the camaraderie, the friends that you have met, it's worth it."

No regrets.

Irish Independent

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