How Derry and Sallyanne Clark are trying to heal their broken hearts
It has been a difficult two years for L'Ecrivain's Derry and Sallyanne Clarke, having lost their son Andrew to suicide, when he was 16. Derry also had a triple heart bypass last year. Now, he and Sallyanne talk to Andrea Smith about how they have coped with both illness and loss.
There are two kinds of broken hearts. There's the heart that is physically damaged, and can hopefully be repaired with medical treatment, and then there is the heart that has been broken through sadness or grief, for which there is no known cure. Michelin-starred chef, Derry Clarke, has unfortunately had experience of both kinds, as he lost his 16-year-old son Andrew to suicide at the end of 2012, and also had a triple heart bypass in 2013 to address a long-standing arterial problem.
Sitting in their award-winning restaurant, L'Ecrivain, on Lower Baggot Street, Derry and his lovely wife Sallyanne are charming and welcoming. They met in the bar of the Westbury Hotel when she was 22 and he was 27, and Derry was attracted to "her beauty, her style, her energy, her good humour and her kindness." They got married in 1987, and opened L'Ecrivain in 1989. Their gorgeous daughter, Sarah May, 24, was born the following year, and their funny, gregarious son Andrew came along six years later in March 1996. Derry and Sallyanne have been a winning combination at the restaurant for the past 25 years, as her warm front-of-house manner perfectly complements his innovative, acclaimed menus.
Derry, 57, was aware that he needed to keep an eye on his heart, as his dad, Dermott, suffered with heart trouble, and sadly passed away when he was 67, having already had a bypass. The chef didn't anticipate that his own heart issues would manifest quite so early on, however. "I was over in the States at the World Cup '94, and I didn't feel good," he recalls. "I was tired, had a heavy feeling in my left side, was short of breath and had a sore back. I came back and went for a check-up, and although they said I was fine, I knew there was something wrong. A doctor friend, Ross Ardill, advised me to go to a cardiologist, where it was discovered I had a blocked artery, and it was hereditary. I was only 33, which is young for a bypass, so I was put on medication. I had to come back every six months for stress tests and an angiogram to keep an eye on it."
While Derry and Sallyanne knew that a heart bypass would eventually becoming necessary, it was the death of their son Andrew that was the impetus for having the operation. On December 27th, 2012, Sallyanne found their 16-year-old son unconscious following a suicide attempt, and while family and medical staff worked on him and successfully restored his heartbeat, Andrew's brain had been deprived of oxygen and he passed away on New Year's Eve at Tallaght Hospital. His death was a devastating blow to the Clarkes, especially as their popular, six-foot-five, racing-mad boy knew how dearly loved he was by them.
A couple of weeks earlier, Andrew attended a Kairos retreat through his boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, where they were given letters that their parents had been invited to write. Andrew laughed to classmates when he saw how many pages Sallyanne had written describing to him how much he meant to her. Talking to his dad later, he was still on a high from the experience, and said that he had gone away with his classmates, and they had come back "as brothers."
In the aftermath of losing Andrew, the Clarkes made the courageous decision to donate his organs, and three people benefited from them. Both heartbroken and confused, they found it hard to sleep at night. Derry would often get back up and read a book when sleep eluded him, and Sallyanne says she still "roams around." "You never get over it," she says. "We work around it and that's all you can do. We ran away from Christmas as some things are too hard to celebrate, but there are other things you just can't avoid. Andrew will always be here with us, but it's hard when you see his pals coming up to their 20th birthdays, and know that they are in first year of college now. A good few of them still keep in touch, and they message us or come in to the restaurant for a cup of tea, which is lovely."
Since Andrew died, Derry and Sallyanne both had to deal with health issues. In her case, it was a knee replacement last April and a couple of surgeries on the other knee, as years of running up and down the stairs at L'Ecrivain have taken a toll. In Derry's case, it meant that the time had come to have a triple heart bypass. "We always knew that Derry had to have his heart done one day, but Andrew's death escalated things," says Sallyanne. "You are not minding yourself the same way, and Derry's doctor, Ross Ardill, was worried, because he knew that the grief could destroy Derry and exacerbate the heart problem."
Sadly, Ross then died of a heart attack himself, and Derry's cardiologist, Brian Maurer, decided that he didn't want to see another guy die from a heart problem. Brian also passed away four weeks after Derry's operation, and they were two great guys, says Sallyanne, who kept Derry going between them for twenty years. Cardiologist Rory O'Halloran took over Derry's case, and the chef had his triple bypass operation under surgeon James McCarthy at Blackrock Clinic on December 12th, 2013. He says that while he didn't know much about the procedure, he wasn't really nervous about it. The ever-practical Sallyanne had prepared by watching a bypass operation online. The surgery involved taking veins from Derry's leg to bypass the blocked areas of the heart, and the operation went well, although Derry developed an infection afterwards.
"It's a big operation, because they take your heart out of your chest, put it on a machine beside you and work on it," he says. "I was lucky in one way, because I hadn't had a heart attack, so my heart wasn't scarred. What I wasn't prepared for was the recovery, as I was very down and had no energy. I had no appetite at all and ended up losing lots of weight. They get you out of the bed pretty fast, because they have to, but I couldn't get up and walk to the door that first week - it nearly killed me. Sallyanne was incredible throughout it all though."
When Derry was in the hospital, he was highly medicated, or as Sallyanne puts it, "doped up to the nines." This made him hilarious, and they had great fun with him as he threw out the killer one-liners (Derry is witty and entertaining at the best of times, anyway.)
After the op, the Clarkes went down to their little bolthole in Courtown and stayed there for a month, while Derry recuperated. He passed the time by reading and watching box sets, but looked dreadful, as his eyes were sticking out of his head, and the weight just dropped off him.
"He was a terrible patient," says Sallyanne. "It was so hard to get him to relax and to eat, and while he wasn't tempted to drink, he just wanted to get up and go. He wasn't used to being cooped up. We went to Morocco for a week, and it really helped his recovery. Maybe it was the heat, but he went from being really weak going over to coming back practically as the man he was before. He was back on his feet within six weeks. He wouldn't take off his T-shirt, and is still quite conscious of the scar that runs down the middle of his chest, but it has healed well."
Derry was back in the kitchen by March, but what got him back to his old self, mentally, was focusing on getting fit enough to do the Paris 2 Nice cycle, which involves covering 750km over six days to raise money for Irish charities. He was determined to get fit, instead of going back to his old ways of rushing around, not exercising, and eating and drinking the wrong things. He was a smoker all of his life, but he gave up a year before the operation. He feels he owes it to everyone who worked on him to take care of himself now.
Derry says that guys need to go and have things checked out if they are in doubt in any way. Your left arm becoming heavy and numb is a good indicator of heart trouble, he says, although there are lots more.
In his quest for fitness, Derry bought a bike and all the gear (he doesn't look half bad in lycra, Sallyanne laughs) and after a couple of weeks of cycling around, he joined the gym at Icon Health Club on Camden Street to get cardio fit. "I didn't do hard workouts, but they helped and I enjoy it now," he says. "I changed my diet too, and don't really eat carbs unless I am doing a long cycle. I went in for my post-op check-up and told the cardiologist about my plan to do the cycle, and he joked, 'I've fixed you up and now you are doing this. Could you not just walk down the pier in Bray instead?'"
The Paris 2 Nice cycle took place in September, and Derry and his team of nine, which included Chapter One's Ross Lewis, raised over €140,000 between them for the suicide charity, Console. An amazing figure, and one that will help the charity with its dedicated suicide prevention, intervention and postvention service. He will also be taking part in Mental Health Ireland's Smiley Pancake Campaign later this month.
"I had an awful year after losing Andrew, and still go through lots of downs, but the cycle last year gave me a real healing because I did it for him and it was great to earn that much for a mental health charity," he says. "I didn't enjoy cycling for months, and had a few nasty falls, dislocating my shoulder and chipping my collarbone, but I stuck with it and now I love it. I get up early in the morning to cycle, and while I hate getting out of bed to do it, I feel great once it's done, and I recommend it as you get a lovely workout, it's fun, and it clears your head."
Sallyanne says that another benefit to cycling was that it helped to build back the muscle tone in Derry's legs, after the veins were taken from there for the bypass. It also built his confidence and self esteem back up again. They still have their ups and downs, and the pain of losing Andrew will never go away, but she notices that when Derry comes back from a cycle, his head is a little clearer and he can tackle anything.
While Sallyanne was always interested in the issue of men's mental health, and kept a watchful eye on her staff to ensure that they were in a good place, she has an increased interest in the area since Andrew's death. She held a fantastic ladies lunch at the restaurant last week, which raised over €11,000 for TeenLine, a charity that has become very dear to her heart. As well as its helpline, it operates a free text service, where teens can seek help by texting TEEN to 50015.
"Four out of five young people who call TeenLine are girls," she says. "Now there's a text service available, more of the texters are boys. It's great that all of these lines are confidential, because you can tell your darkest secrets and no one judges you or even knows who you are. This is the start of a movement to get boys and men to talk about their problems, so people should tell their sons or grandsons that it's okay to talk and it's okay not to feel okay."
In Andrew's case, there was no history of clinical depression or self-harm and his death came completely out of the blue to his shocked family and friends. Traces of cocaine and benzodiazepines were subsequently found in his urine, which prompted the coroner Dr Brian Farrell, to return an open verdict at the inquest, as he felt their presence may have had an impact on the question of Andrew's intention at the time.
"I don't know what happened with Andrew, I can only hope that some day someone will tell me," says Sallyanne, sadly. "He came to the races with us, had dinner and seemed fine, but the next day he was gone. It all happened so fast, so we don't know what upset him or what the course of events were. He was so sunny and mischievous and was always up to something as a child. I told him I would write a book called, What Andrew Did Next, about his antics, and he was so witty that he could have been a stand-up comedian."
Derry and Sallyanne feel very strongly that teenagers sometimes don't realise that suicide is a very permanent solution to what is usually a temporary problem. They would love those who are upset or worried to call TeenLine and seek help, rather than opting to end their lives as a "solution" to a problem that has cropped up. "I would love to go into schools and talk to kids that age about the devastation that they would leave behind, and the effect suicide will have on their family," says Andrew's devastated mother. "To vulnerable young people, it can seem almost like you are a celebrity when you commit suicide, because everyone cares and people make tribute pages on social media. The kids need to be exposed to the other side, and hear about the devastation and the ripple effect that is left behind forever. Andrew's death didn't just affect him, it affected his family, cousins and friends. I think people should sit their kids down and tell them how wonderful they are, how meaningful their lives are, and how lost people would be without them."
Sallyanne feels that men in particular need to talk more about the things that are bothering them. It doesn't matter how old you are, it's okay to talk and look for help, she says, as a problem shared is a problem halved and men are not as good at doing it, compared to women. "Men feel like it's not macho to discuss their problems, but nobody is invincible," she says. "Andrew was a typical boy because while he would talk the house down about anything and everything, if there was a problem, he would withdraw and it would take him days to tell me what had gone on. And by that stage, he would have worked himself up so much in his head. Andrew was a worrier, and he worried about all of his pals."
Andrew was a great guy for bringing friends home with him for Sunday lunch, and if Derry was making it, the numbers swelled, his parents laugh. He always wanted to help anyone having a problem, and when he died, they got lots of letters from students in the years below him at school, saying how he helped them settle in and took the new boys under his wing.
"One boy wrote that he had been terribly stressed about his Junior Cert," recalls Sallyanne. "Andrew put his arm around him and told him that by that time the following year, no one would remember how he had done, and he would be in transition year having a ball. The boy said Andrew really helped him and made him feel better, which was lovely to hear."
"I always considered what happened to Andrew, and people like him, as a mental heart attack," she adds "Something clicked and they're gone. It could be a combination of things rather than one big thing, but TeenLine could be the bypass to stop kids from having that mental heart attack."