Sunday 18 March 2018

'Deciding to amputate my leg was a very tough decision but now I'm representing Ireland in Rio'

Years after being diagnosed with bone cancer, Dr Pat O'Leary made the tough decision to have his leg amputated. The Corkman refused to be sidelined by the operation, though. Here he chats to our reporter about representing Ireland in the Paralympics

Dr Pat O’Leary with his wife Jude and sons Joe (8) and Sean (10).
Dr Pat O’Leary with his wife Jude and sons Joe (8) and Sean (10).

Áilín Quinlan

When Dr Pat O'Leary leaves for Rio to represent Ireland in the Paralympic Games next month, it will be the culmination of 25 years of sheer willpower.

The Cork-born athlete lost a knee to bone cancer at the age of 18, and later had to have his leg amputated - yet he has doggedly refused to let his health get in the way of his beloved sport.

Now a father of two and lecturer in the School of Chemistry at NUI Galway, Pat is out on the River Corrib early every morning, and again at lunchtime, training 13 times a week for the highly intensive 200-metre Para Canoe Sprint in which he will be representing his country.

Pat is 43-years-old, but his journey to the Paralympics began a quarter of a century ago when he was 18. At that stage he was already a talented gymnast and athlete who had represented Ireland at schoolboy level in international shot put and discus competitions.

In 1991, Pat, a Leaving Cert student at Coláiste Spioraid Naomh in Bishopstown, Cork, was training five times a week with the strong expectation of winning an international cap at under-19 level in shot put and discus.

However, towards the end of March, he started to notice a nagging pain in his knee cap. He went to his family GP, Dr Con Murphy, who was doctor to the Cork GAA teams at the time.

Dr Murphy examined the knee, gave Pat some cream and strongly warned him to keep a close eye on it: "He said that he was heading off abroad with the Cork GAA team, and that if it didn't clear up within a week, I was to see a consultant," he recalls.

The problem didn't clear up and, as instructed, Pat saw an orthopaedic consultant, who arranged to have X-rays taken.

"He spotted a growth under my knee cap. He told me it was probably a tumour of some kind so I went to hospital and had a biopsy taken," Pat explains.

The biopsy showed he had a malignant tumour on his femur, or thigh bone. Less than three weeks had elapsed between his visit to Dr Murphy, his consultation with the orthopaedic consultant and the subsequent diagnosis.

"It's only looking back now that I realise how worried my parents must have been at the time," says Pat, who is the middle child of a family of five.

The plucky teenager endured four gruelling rounds of chemotherapy - during which he also sat his Leaving Certificate - and underwent surgery in July, once his exams were over.

"This basically included the removal of my knee joint and the lower eight inches of my femur. These were replaced with a metal knee joint," he explains. Although the chemotherapy and the operation left him exhausted, he was able to start college as planned in the autumn.

"I was able to walk, but more intensive physical activity, such as running or shot put and discus, was off the agenda as it put too much pressure on the artificial knee."

While still in school, Pat had developed an interest in canoeing. He was able to continue with the sport in college, as it didn't exert the same amount of strain on the knee: "I kept up the canoeing in college and also played canoe polo with the Irish team from about 1994 to 2000."

Pat continued to play canoe polo after leaving college - and during the two years that he lived in Holland. However, in 2006, some 15 years after his original operation, his leg began to cause trouble again.

The metal knee joint installed all those years ago was wearing down and needed to be replaced. The operation was performed but in subsequent years, Pat suffered occasional flare-ups of cellulitis and skin infections.

Then, in April 2010, he developed a very serious infection: "I was really ill and my leg was very swollen," he recalls.

Pat was brought to hospital and, over the next 18 months, he underwent four major and five minor surgeries.

"I was almost constantly on antibiotics," he adds.

Even so, the infection kept recurring and, in 2011, he realised he had to do something. In August of that year, in consultation with his doctors, Pat decided that the leg would have to be amputated.

The operation took place the following November, and although it was a serious surgery, Pat says the benefits were almost immediate. "I actually felt better the day after the operation than the day before - physically better, which gives some indication of the effect the infection was having on my body."

In February 2012, he was fitted with a prosthesis and he got back into the canoe on April 1, 2012. It was exactly 720 days since he had last paddled.

Shortly before the London Paralympics in 2012, it was announced that Para Canoeing would be in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"That gave me something to aim for," he smiles.

Pat hasn't paused for breath since: "I've been steadily training since then - mornings and lunchtimes so that I can be there for my wife and kids in the evenings."

The unswerving support of his wife Jude was crucial throughout that difficult time.

"She was with me all through the sickness and the grumpiness, when I was in hospital," he adds.

"Support has played the most vital part in my journey. In life, illness and sport, the people you surround yourself with can make such a positive influence on your experience and the final outcome.

"The support I got from Jude when I was sick got me through a difficult time and she has been amazingly supportive throughout the sporting adventure too. Without her and my boys, it just would not have happened.

"I've also received great support from Sport Ireland, Paralympics Ireland, Flogas and Argento, all of which has made the journey that bit easier."

In preparation for his Paralympic event, Pat established a rigorous daily training regime, to which he has conscientiously adhered to over the past four years.

He qualified for the Paralympics in the World Championships in Germany last May and Jude and his sons Sean (10) and Joe (8) travelled to Germany to witness his triumph.

"Currently, my training is focussed on quality and intensity," says Pat, who is preparing to leave Ireland for Rio at the end of August.

The opening ceremony is on September 7 and he competes seven days later. "Jude, the boys and my mum, Mary O' Leary, will be in Rio to support me in September, which is great," he adds.

"I'm really excited about it. Paralympics Ireland is a fabulous organisation and although I am the only canoeist in the games from Ireland, I know the other competitors well from various Paralympic Ireland events. There is great friendship and camaraderie on the team."

It's been a tough journey for Pat, but it has also been a labour of love: "You have to enjoy the journey, and I did," he concludes. "When this all ends, I will still be getting up in the morning and going canoeing."

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