'I wondered if I would see my wife and kids again' - Tom Dunne prepares for his radio comeback
As he prepares to make his radio comeback, Tom Dunne talks to Niamh Horan about undergoing life-saving surgery on his heart
'With these figures, you have a 70pc chance of dying within two years."
It's not the news anyone wants to hear - but that's the prognosis radio broadcaster and Something Happens singer Tom Dunne received in his doctor's surgery last November.
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"I was absolutely devastated," says Tom. "I was really shocked. And then I had to go and talk to my wife and she was stunned."
It all started 10 years ago when Tom and his wife Audrey decided to buy a new home. The Newstalk presenter had to go for a medical, which he attended "full of beans" on his way from a session at the gym.
But afterwards he learned that he had failed the medical. The discovery of a heart murmur resulted in further tests, which then led to Tom attending the clinic of cardiologist Niall Mulvihill who diagnosed him with a genetic heart condition called a bicuspid valve.
In layman's terms, the aortic valve allows blood to flow one way through the heart. It has three cusps that open and close to help the flow. Except, as Tom explains: "Two of mine were fused together. Some people have it and will live a long life. Others develop stenosis, which is a stiffening in the valve. Mine had become severe. "
The broadcaster and singer was told he would need surgery "at some point in the future" and continued to attend regular check-ups.
But, with each visit resulting in the news that surgery was years down the line, he eventually put it to the back of his mind.
It was in November that he was told by a heart surgeon that he needed life-saving surgery within weeks.
Tom says he felt "awful" telling his wife. "I could see the blood draining from her face as I said it to her," he adds.
He decided to keep the news from his children until the night before he had to go into hospital: "I tried to make it as positive as possible. I said I would be home in two weeks and I probably won't work this side of Christmas so we can make Airfix kits together and just really enjoy the time."
He says he felt "very powerless" when he went in for surgery, adding: "I was putting on the hospital gown and getting tests done and then taking a shower in this weird gel - you have to be shaved and have your body hair removed - and I felt this real sense of foreboding, like 'this is this really happening'.
On his fears for his mortality, he says: "I think the idea that I might die or that I will die at some point went through my head for the first time ever. I don't think I have ever thought about my mortality before. I did get a feeling of 'you're very close here, Tom'. And it rattled me a bit.
"But again you've no power over this. You are completely in the hands of your doctors and their skills - who were wonderful doctors - so there is no point on dwelling on it. You've no control over it."
But at his most fearful moment, he says: "I just thought of who I would miss. It almost felt selfish. I felt that 'I won't get to see my kids or my wife again'. And that feels so cruel. I thought 'God, that's what I want most in the world'."
Going down to surgery, he remembers one last moment of warmth before he went under the anaesthetic. "I'll never forget a Dr Mohammed taking me down, and he said to me: 'I will bring you down safely and I will bring you back safely'.
"My next memory is someone asking if I would like some ice-cream', except that six days had passed."
Recovering in the ICU, Tom learnt that his kidneys had failed during the operation and he had to be placed on dialysis. He also had to build his physical strength back up and learn to walk again.
"Several times I got very emotional. Apparently it's very common after the operation. You start crying for no reason. People were trying to explain to me 'your body has been through a trauma'," Tom adds.
After several weeks, he was eventually discharged from hospital and decided to surprise his kids after their gymnastics class.
"My children reacted when they saw me in a way which I wasn't expecting," he says. "They ran toward me and then they stopped and I could see them staring at me like they had never seen me before.
"They said 'you look different, Dad'. And it's only when I got home, I looked in the mirror, I saw I had lost an awful lot of weight and I had what I can only describe as a haunted look in my eyes. I was given the instructions to try and gain weight over Christmas which is probably the nicest bit of advice I've ever had. Which I did. And the haunted look went away," Tom says, laughing.
On his long road to recovery, he says: "Initially I wasn't able to walk. I would walk five minutes and then I had to lie down. But after a few weeks I was able to make it to Dun Laoghaire. I felt like a man released. I was able to go to the shop, buy my own newspaper, to not be dependent on people. Then it all went so fast and I really bounced back."
Last Thursday Tom and his wife visited his heart surgeon, Professor James McCarthy, whom he describes as "the best in Ireland", and he officially gave the radio presenter the all-clear.
But that didn't stop Audrey, in an attempt to protect her husband, from urging the doctor to give him some 'dos and don'ts' in health advice going forward.
"I think Audrey was trying to elicit a few rules. 'So what won't he be allowed to do?'" he laughs. "But he just said: 'Tom, you can do anything you want'. And he meant it. He said: 'He can run a marathon, he can live whatever life he wants at this point. He's fixed!'
"That was probably the most emotional day of the entire three-month period. I felt a sense of elation. It was like it had all been a bad dream."
Tom knows that others aren't so lucky: "I have heard stories of people who remain undiagnosed and then - it happens in your 50s - it starts to act up. So there are people who remain undiagnosed and just keel over.
"I honestly think everyone should have their heart checked, just make sure it's all fine, because there are no symptoms with this.
"I was playing football and very active and I wanted to get fitter. Four days before I got the news, I did Feile. Two gigs with the Happens and I was the MC and I was giving it socks and feeling great, which is part of the danger. You can do something strenuous and you can die."
Now back to full health, he says: "I've learnt that I value what's around me enormously and I want to stay around for it."
Speaking about his wife, Audrey, who owns the popular Glasthule restaurant the Cookbook Cafe, he says: "She went through the toughest time. I am very appreciative of everything. I have a lovely life and a lovely family. And I really enjoy my life and I want to continue to enjoy it."
Speaking about appreciating the small things, he says: "It's just the ability to do the normal everyday things in life again like walking the dog on the beach. I was out the other day, watching him chasing seagulls, and I just thought 'Aw, man, this is so great.'
The Tom Dunne Show is back on air on tomorrow night from 10pm.