Sport Hurling

Saturday 23 August 2014

'It is beyond the realms of possibility. It has just been a fairytale ending'

Christy O'Connor

Published 07/06/2013 | 05:00

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Diarmuid Corcoran
Diarmuid Corcoran

From the sitting room of Diarmuid Corcoran's home in Cluain Muillean in Nenagh, the Silvermines Mountains fill up the bay window like a picture postcard.

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From the sitting room of Diarmuid Corcoran's home in Cluain Muillean in Nenagh, the Silvermines Mountains fill up the bay window like a picture postcard.

The clear vista provides the perfect connection to home. Just below the mountains, where a phalanx of windmills protrudes from the foothills, is Corcoran's home-place in Killeen, Templederry. The Devil's Bit looms in the distance, a territory quintessentially linked with the heritage and lore of Tipperary.

Corcoran grew up enveloped in that tradition. He hurled minor for Tipperary for two years, winning successive Munster minor titles in 2001 and 2002. He never played for Tipp again afterwards, but he never gave up on the dream.

"I kept saying to the lads that I wanted to get back in the blue and gold," smiles Corcoran. "I have. It's just in a different jersey."

The call came out of the blue. A friend of Corcoran's knew Frank Browne, the Longford hurling manager. He told him about the former Tipp minor whose father hailed from Longford. Browne rang and mentioned the parentage rule. Corcoran accepted the request. Eleven years after playing in an All-Ireland minor final, Corcoran has finally made his way back to Croke Park.

Victory against Fermanagh last month secured Longford's passage to tomorrow's Lory Meagher final. For Corcoran, the day was charged with emotion. "Afterwards, it was hard to believe that this was actually happening," he says. "I wouldn't have made my case too well known to the lads and they wouldn't have known my story. I wasn't going to break down in front of them. But I was holding back the tears because it was so massive for me."

The longing to return to Croke Park initially stemmed from the heartbreak of being dropped for an All-Ireland minor semi-final in 2001 and a final a year later. Corcoran had started both Munster finals, but those regrets soon faded with the cold light of perspective, framed by the context of a whole new reality.

Corcoran's journey initially began after school. He secured the points for commerce in UCD, but he enrolled in the Army Cadets. In their first fitness test, he was in the top four out of a class of 60. By the next test, he had slipped to the middle of the pack. He developed desperate pain in his hands. When he did another fitness test after Christmas, he was at the end of the line. "I knew something was seriously up," he says.

He ended up in St Vincent's Hospital because his kidneys had been affected by lupus, an auto-immune disease. Corcoran had to leave the Cadets. He took up his course in UCD, but blood tests and hospital check-ups became a dominant theme in his life. Corcoran's kidneys were beginning to shut down.

He was taking an intravenous tablet for four hours every four months, but the treatment wasn't working. His health was gradually deteriorating. By 2005, reality was beginning to set in. "Hurling was a non-runner by then," he says. "I couldn't even do a lap of the field. There was no enjoyment. I just had to give it up."

After his degree, Corcoran took up employment with Price Waterhouse Cooper. He got through the accountancy exams, but it exacted every ounce of energy he had. He needed to look after his body. He needed to supplement it with the right fuel. He didn't.

By 2010, the red lights were flashing. For a normal person, creatinine levels – a chemical waste product of creatine in the body – is between 80-120. By the summer of 2010, Corcoran's levels were up on 600.

At that stage, he hit a crossroads. Corcoran and his fiancee Naomi had arranged a five-week trip to Australia and New Zealand in July 2010. "I knew what was coming down the tracks," he says. "I knew I was facing dialysis, but I needed to get this travel out of my system. For me at the time, my foreseeable future was going to be hooked up to a machine for the next 10 years. I needed one last blow-out."

He convinced the doctors to let him go, but Corcoran should have seen the train steaming down the tracks. He was at the end-stage of renal failure and he refused to acknowledge it. He couldn't even look at food. "When your kidneys are failing, your whole urea that is filtered out builds up from your toes to your tongue," says Corcoran. "Literally, I was tasting urine in my mouth. Food was disgusting to me."

FRAGILE

On the sitting room wall, there is a framed photograph of Corcoran and Naomi taken at the foot of a mountain in Queensland. A red and black jacket conceals his fragile frame. "I couldn't eat by the time we got to New Zealand," he says. "The only thing that would stay down was milk. I knew I had to eat, but I couldn't. I was literally gone to skin and bone."

The trip was a huge struggle. Corcoran was just existing. To tick a box, he told a pack of lies on a medical form that enabled him to do a parachute jump over Lake Wanaka. He literally fell out of the plane. He could barely breathe as he was making the 15,000-feet descent.

To round off the trip, they decided to stop off in Bali. "Of all places," he says, raising his eyes to heaven. "I was dying with cramps, but I said: 'I can do four days there.' Naomi wanted to go. I wouldn't admit to her that I wasn't able to go. That was the rock I perished on."

Corcoran's kidneys had failed. He couldn't even lie down with the pain. Headaches were knifing through his skull. His legs were constantly cramping. By the time he got to the medical centre in Bali, the staff couldn't believe he had travelled in his condition. Corcoran's creatinine levels were at 1400.

He was immediately put on emergency dialysis. The staff had broken English at best. The facilities were modest. Corcoran rolls back the collar of his polo shirt to reveal the scar on his right shoulder where they inserted a tube without an anaesthetic. "They shoved down this tube and I could feel it going in to my body, in around my back," he says. "And all they could say was, 'You'll be ok.'"

The experience was a nightmare. Corcoran spent seven days in a room without a window, in unbearable heat, in chronic pain. Naomi slept on a couch beside him. "It was the lowest of the low," he says. "We spent days just crying our eyes out."

The haemoglobin in his blood fell so low that he wasn't allowed to fly. The only way they could eventually get him on a plane was to load him up with units of blood. The risk with that procedure is that it increases antibodies and reduces the chances of being able to accept a kidney from a donor. By the time Corcoran eventually got home, he had just a 3pc success rate of getting a match.

By that stage though, dialysis was a blessing. He could eat again. He received peritoneal dialysis for 10 months, where he would hook himself up to a machine for 10 hours every night. He would insert a tube in to his stomach and pump himself full of glucose. Severe drain pains were a side-effect, but Corcoran learned to sleep through them.

Corcoran could have managed for five years on that form of dialysis before he would have had to change to another form of treatment. Long term, he isn't sure how long he could have survived. Either way, he needed a transplant.

His mother Maureen couldn't watch her son suffer anymore and she put herself forward as a potential donor. Every test imaginable was completed. The waiting began. The happiest moment of Corcoran's life was when Beaumont Hospital rang and said that they were a match.

The transplant took place on July 12 2011. Corcoran watched his creatinine levels come down to 108 on a monitor. When he walked in to his mother's room, emotion engulfed them. "It was unbelievable," he says shaking his head. "Just unbelievable."

Corcoran now has a 61-year old kidney inside him. He has never felt better. Neither has his mother. "The recipient is fortunate, but so is the donor, because they will not let you donate unless you are in perfect health," says Corcoran. "People who are in a position to donate actually live longer than your typical person. That is why 'Living Donor' is so important.

"Organ donation is so special. It really does change a life. In Spain, they have transplant co-ordinators in all the major hospitals. Those co-ordinators are trained to facilitate that process. That needs to happen more in Ireland because rates of organ donation in Spain are nearly double ours here."

Before the operation, Corcoran read about the former All Black rugby player Jonah Lomu, who had gone back playing rugby after a kidney transplant in 2004. He wanted to return to some semblance of a normal life and hurling had always been a huge part of that normality.

On the day of the operation, Corcoran put that possibility to his surgeon David Hickey, the former Dublin footballer. "David said: 'Do you want to hurl again? OK so.' I started laughing. I thought he was taking the piss, but he emphasised that this was about getting my whole way of life back. And where you want to be in life."

As a form of protection, Corcoran's kidney was transplanted under his ribcage. He pulls up his shirt to show the 12-inch scar running along the front of his torso. Ever since his return to competitive action, he has been wearing a rib-guard, an evo-shield that American footballers use.

Initially, he dipped his toes back in the water with the Templederry Juniors. His body had been so broken since he had last played that it was continually crying for mercy. He pulled his glutes and hamstrings, damaged his knee and shoulder. It was frustrating, but it never mattered. Corcoran was back hurling. Back living.

Corcoran is still on ammuno-suppression drugs. His creatinine is constantly monitored. He goes for check-ups every three months. There has always been assistance at every turn. The Irish Kidney Association and Corcoran's current employers AIB have been rocks of support. So has Dr John Holihan. Corcoran will need another kidney in time, but that is far away on the horizon. Years of happy living has to be done in the mean time. Thousands of hours of hurling have still to be played.

The journey is continuing, but Longford have taken him on a path that he thought was definitively closed off. Browne's passion for the game is absolutely infectious, his enthusiasm boundless. George O'Connor, Eddie Brennan and Ollie Canning have all recently spoken to the squad. The Longford players want this title as badly as any group he has played with before. Corcoran wants it even more.

"The Longford lads have been brilliant and I'm absolutely loving it," he says. "It's just great to be even outside playing. I spent years just sitting inside when I'd have fallen asleep in a heartbeat. If you have told me a few years back that I would be hurling in Croke Park, I would have laughed at you. It is beyond the realms of possibility. It has just been a fairytale ending."

Tomorrow is also a special day for Maureen Corcoran. She had always been her son's biggest supporter. Playing hurling again has been the ultimate way for Diarmuid to honour her organ donation. Tomorrow, Corcoran and his mother are on the field together.

When Corcoran and his fiancee were booking their wedding for next year, there was only date they had in mind – July 12.

A new chapter will begin that day but it was only fitting that Corcoran would get married on the anniversary of his organ transplant.

It was the day his new life really began.

Irish Independent

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