Defying death: 'it looked like a bomb had exploded outwards from my pelvis'
Gerald Shannon was so badly injured in an accident that he very nearly died. But as he tells Joy Orpen, he was fortunate because a highly experienced trauma surgeon was on hand to save the life of this father of two
If you would like to know what it means to be the personification of a positive person, then meet Gerald Shannon (48). He's had the book thrown at him, but he's still smiling.
Looking back at his 48 years, he believes he's had good and bad luck in equal measure. He had a happy childhood growing up near New Ross, Co Wexford. He liked sport, but wasn't always picked for the team. After school, he did metalwork in London.
Having returned to Co Wexford in the 1990s, he began building customised motorbikes. "I made all sorts," he says. But the going got tough, so he took a job with a Waterford-based company hiring out plant and machinery. Some years later, he moved to another similar company.
Along the way he met his lively, dark-haired future wife, Bridget. They married in 2005, and have two children, Leah (10) and Josh (8). So, this was a very contented and happy family. Until March 7, 2014.
Gerald's particular task that day was to get a cherry-picker loaded onto a truck at a factory in Waterford. At a critical moment, the winch snapped. Gerald was in the basket of the cherry picker at the time, which went hurtling down the ramp, slamming into a 40ft trailer and container. "I got crushed in the basket," says Gerald. Such a simple statement about such a catastrophic event.
A truck driver immediately alerted emergency services. When paramedics arrived soon after, Gerald was relieved to be in the care of such a highly trained crew. The business of extracting him from the wreck was medically risky. He remembers screaming when they lifted him out. The paramedics then rushed him to Waterford University Hospital at high speed. Fortunately for Gerald, Morgan McMonagle, a highly experienced vascular and trauma surgeon, happened to be running a clinic at the hospital that afternoon. He'd been involved in formulating policy for traumatic incidents such as this in the UK, so he really did know what he was doing.
He led the team that dealt with Gerald's horrific injuries. Meanwhile, Bridget was summoned. "I got a call to say he had broken his hip," she recounts. "So I dropped the kids off with a friend and headed for the hospital. I had no idea what to expect."
By the time Gerald was brought into A&E, he was already in deep, deep trouble because of excessive blood loss. Mr McMonagle rushed him straight into the operating suite to try to stem the bleeding. "He told me afterwards that it looked like a bomb had exploded outwards from my pelvis," says Gerald. "There was a big cavity in my lower abdomen."
According to Mr McMonagle, Gerald had "complete transection of the main arteries and veins in his right pelvis and those supplying his right leg, as well as severe damage to his bowel, which was also bleeding profusely. The bone structure of the right side of his pelvis was like a bag of smashed eggshells. He required resection of half his large bowel."
He adds, "A tube was placed in the bleeding vessels to stop the flow and to try to maintain the blood supply to his right leg. Rapid control of bleeding is what saved his life. Unfortunately, although the artificial tube in his artery stopped the bleeding, it couldn't save the blood supply to his right leg. So, he ended up with an amputation of his entire leg and the right side of his pelvis."
The next major problem to overcome was the "huge hole" in Gerald's abdomen and pelvis. "We managed to partially close this," explains Mr McMonagle. "Then he was transferred to Cork University Hospital for advanced plastic surgery to close the hole."
Gerald first learned about the amputation (which had been done in the Waterford hospital), following his transfer to Cork. At the time, he had just been taken off the ventilator and was still experiencing the effects of deep sedation. "When my father told me I had lost my leg, I turned to him and said, 'No they [the staff in Waterford] haven't lost it; it's in a drawer some place'. I wasn't really conscious," he explains, somewhat amused.
In total, Gerald had eight significant surgical procedures and suffered a number of serious setbacks. In the process, he became so weak and emaciated, he couldn't lift his arm even an inch. But with the help of nutritionists and physiotherapists, he grew stronger and learned to use a walking frame. His rehabilitation continued when he was transferred back to Waterford, and then on to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin.
Gerald and Bridget had to rent another house when they realised their own stone cottage was not wheelchair accessible. So Gerald uses the old house as a workshop, and this is where he is creating a three-wheeled motorbike for himself. "We'll see where this takes me," he says with a grin.
Did he ever get depressed about losing his leg and pelvis? "No," says Gerald decisively. "This is nothing to me; it's life, and I just get on with it." He says at the time of his accident, he was very conscious that his and Bridget's families had already endured terrible personal tragedies. His brother had died in a motorbike accident some years previously, while Bridget's sister succumbed to cancer while Gerald was in the hospital in Cork.
"I wanted to lessen the families' pain," he says, with great humility, dignity and thoughtfulness.
Gerald says that when the accident investigator told him that his ordeal had been caused by a combination of unusual, unlucky factors, he replied that the exact opposite was true when it came to saving his life.
Referring to Gerald's injuries, Mr McMonagle says: "Fewer than a dozen people have survived this type of injury [hemipelvectomy] - especially when they have experienced such severe blood loss." He says the most important factor in saving Gerald's life was that no time was wasted in getting him into the operating theatre. "This is how a modern trauma service should work," he points out, most emphatically.
Gerald has no doubts about Mr McMonagle's role in saving his life. "He had the tremendous courage to put into practice the huge experience he has gained over the years working with traumatic events here and abroad. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here today."