| 23.4°C Dublin

Garda fights back after cycling slip led to four years of medical help

Frank Howe did not realise he was suffering from a rare disorder until he collapsed and he was left paraplegic


Frank Howe says Peamount showed him how to get better. Photo: Arthur Carron

Frank Howe says Peamount showed him how to get better. Photo: Arthur Carron

Frank Howe says Peamount showed him how to get better. Photo: Arthur Carron

Four years ago today Frank Howe collapsed while out meeting friends. That St Stephen’s Day changed his life.

He hadn’t been himself for a couple of weeks, but didn’t notice all the changes others had seen.

The garda was on the beat cycling in west Dublin two weeks before Christmas when he hit black ice, came off his bike and took a blow to the head. This accident seems to have triggered a virus that ate away at his nervous system, eventually leaving him paraplegic.

After the fall he returned to Rathcoole garda station. He was shaken but didn’t initially suspect lasting damage. Others saw concerning signs in the build-up to Christmas. Colleagues would engage Frank but sometimes not get a response.

“I have no memory of getting back to the station after the fall,” he said. “I know I got progressively weaker over the next two weeks and on Christmas Day I got up, had my dinner and went back to bed. I was tired a lot.

“The lads told me around the station I wasn’t talking. They would be asking me questions, but I’d keep walking by them and I have no recollection of that at all.”

When he met up with some friends the day after Christmas, Frank suddenly collapsed and had to be taken home. Once home, his wife Mary struggled to get him to bed because Frank couldn’t move properly.

The following morning Mary had to call for an ambulance. Frank was unable to get up or dress himself.

He was taken to Connolly Hospital where, at first, doctors thought he would be back home within days or, at worst, weeks. But Frank deteriorated to such an extent he became entirely dependent on other people.

Frank was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare autoimmune disorder where the immune system damages a person’s nerves causing their muscles to weaken. Frank’s case is severe. Symptoms can last for weeks but in his case, and others, continue for years. Many people make a full recovery and Frank is hopeful now, but has not always had this sense of positivity.

When he was at his worst, he admits to feeling depressed at times. He suffered terribly at night after being put on a ventilator in ICU.

“I had constant nightmares and with the medication and everything else, I was hallucinating,” he said.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

“There is a psychological impact with it.

“Whatever about losing your legs, you can’t get around, but when you lose the power in your hands you can do nothing. You have to park your dignity at the door because everything has to be done for you. You have to be dressed, you have to be washed.”

Frank stayed in Connolly Hospital for the first six weeks of his care and ended up back there at various stages of his treatment. Mary kept a diary during the first few weeks so she would be able to tell Frank what he went through.

Mary reads from the diary: “Sunday, January 7. Frank is more alert today. He has just had physio so is in pain. The nurse increased his sedation and gave him IV painkillers. He is resting now.”

She turns the page. “January 9, Frank had a tracheostomy. Can see his face again but is heavily sedated. Met with doctor for an update. Things are much the same. Concerns about Frank’s chest infection in his lungs. Change of antibiotics. Hopefully this will improve things. After the operation Frank is sedated but this will be reduced so he will be able to interact more. A plan will be in place weekly to keep him more involved.”

Mary said “this quickly became the new way of doing things”. Frank remembers nothing of these days. Eventually, Mary had to give up her job to care for him.

In February 2018 he was transferred to Beaumont Hospital. Later, there were spells back in Connolly Hospital and the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dún Laoghaire as Frank’s care intensified. He was put on machines to get his legs moving while he was lying in bed and worked with physios to regain what was lost.

Frank was seen as a good candidate for further specialist care at Peamount Healthcare’s neurological rehabilitation unit but just as he was making steady progress, the pandemic brought everything to a standstill.

Frank’s treatment had to be postponed because of the vulnerabilities associated with coronavirus. It would be about a year before Frank would make it to Peamount for a 10-week programme last June. He has made immense progress since.

“Peamount changed my life,” Frank said. “Peamount showed me how to get better. The doctor said I can sleep this out and wait to get better, or I can work and be ready so that when my body is able to move again, I will have the muscles to do it. Until I went there, I didn’t see myself going any further.”

Within a week of starting his treatment he was able to stand on his own. About a week later he took steps by himself for the first time in three-and-a-half years. Other movement has also gradually come back.

“They set 11 or 12 goals for me, and I thought if we got to six or eight of them by the end of my time there we would be doing well.

“We got the 12, plus more. The goals were to get out of the wheelchair and transfer to bed without a hoist; be able to brush my own teeth, wash my hands, arms and face; put my shirt on and off. I was thinking they were good goals to have but didn’t think it was realistic. They knew what I was capable of.”

Now, as well as using a wheelchair to get around at home, he is able to stand and move with the aid of a walker.

He receives home care, but in recent times has been able to do more for himself. He undergoes weekly therapies and hopes eventually to return to work.

Dr Eugene Wallace, a consultant in rehabilitation medicine at Peamount Healthcare, said treatments for patients like Frank have improved in recent years, but some patients can be left with quite severe problems.

He said rehabilitation capacity in Ireland is not sufficient. UK research suggests about 60 beds are needed per one million people.

“That means in Ireland we should have about 300 beds, but we are far short of that,” he said.

This is despite a recent investment to develop 120 rooms at the NRH.

Meanwhile, Peamount wants to expand its neurological rehabilitation unit by 50pc to 15 beds in the short-term, and continue expanding.

“When you increase capacity it gives you the option to start thinking about other patients who are doing OK or improving in the community but we can do better,” said Dr Wallace.

“There are goals we can identify which if achieved gives them a better quality of life.”

Most Watched