Wednesday 22 November 2017

'My spirit was totally broken' - how former hospital GM successfully battled several forms of cancer

Donegal native Paul McLoone has successfully battled several forms of cancer. Now, this former hospital general manager, tells our reporter he's living life to the full, while enjoying travelling the world with his wife

Paul McLoone, the picture of robust good health. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Paul McLoone, the picture of robust good health. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Joy Orpen

When Paul McLoone (62) spearheaded an initiative to get a new oncology unit going at a regional hospital, he had no idea that one day it would become pivotal to his own health. But that's how it is with the vagaries of life.

His career is also no exception to the rule that anything and everything is possible. Following a happy childhood in Co Donegal, Paul moved to Dublin to take up a clerical position with the Eastern Health Board. "They recruited about 200 of us at the same time," he recalls. "We were all between the ages of 18 and 20. So we ended up having a great time. That's where I met my future wife, Marie Howe, who was also a clerical officer."

Having married in romantic Kilkea Castle near Marie's family home in Co Laois, the McLoones chose to go north, where Paul landed a job at Sligo General Hospital. The following year - 1986 - their son Ciaran was born; he was soon followed by Aisling, and then Shane.

Meanwhile, Paul was steadily moving up through the ranks, until 1995, when he was appointed general manager of the hospital. "I loved working there," he says. "Because I felt I was doing something worthwhile for our own community. One of my main challenges was to accommodate a new oncology unit. We did it on a small budget and recruited a new team."

Another exceptional challenge came Paul's way some years later, when he was appointed CEO of North West Ireland Tourism. "That, to me, was a dream job," he says, "because I was promoting a region I truly love." Naturally, Paul was expected to travel to meetings in his catchment area. In 2006, while on a visit to Monaghan, he was involved in a minor motor accident, which resulted in a painful arm. Once he got home, he went to see the family doctor. But it turned out that doctor was away, so Paul was seen by a locum.

"Having prescribed anti-inflammatories, the locum then suggested I have a full check-up, given that I was over 50," explains Paul. "We started with a colonoscopy, as I had mentioned a touch of rectal bleeding, which I'd put down to stress or haemorrhoids. Up until then, I'd been reluctant to mention it to anyone. I'm now embarrassed that I was embarrassed about that," he admits. A week later, Paul learned that some "suspicious" polyps had been discovered during the colonoscopy. Soon after, a formal diagnosis of bowel cancer was made, so he was admitted to Sligo Regional Hospital.

"The surgeon removed about four feet of intestine and then successfully reconnected the two ends," he explains. "I was able to go back to work eight weeks later. After that, I went for regular check-ups at the oncology unit I'd helped to set up." However, his sense that all was well again was soon shattered, when just a few months later, around Christmas time, he got a call asking him to return to the oncology department. During routine tests, they had discovered that the cancer had spread to Paul's liver.

Paul was referred to St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin, where they specialise in this form of cancer. In the meantime, he and Marie were so rattled, they invested some of their savings in getting second and third opinions. In the end, they became convinced that the team at St Vincent's offered the best care possible. Early in 2008, a resection was performed, which involved the removal of the part of the liver that was affected by cancerous cells.

Once he had recovered sufficiently, Paul returned to Sligo General for six months of out-patient chemotherapy. This, he says, was an incredibly daunting prospect. So he decided to return to work. "It was a distraction, but after three months I had to stop," he says. "My mind was all over the place and I was exhausted from all the side effects of the chemo."

Paul says another difficult aspect of this journey was dealing with the loss of fellow cancer patients; those who didn't make it, in spite of valiant efforts by their medical teams. "It was heartbreaking; like going to war and losing some of your buddies," says Paul.

An additional blow was the loss of Peter Mulligan, his friend and walking companion for over 20 years. "Peter died very suddenly of heart failure in 2008," says Paul. "He always insisted that, no matter what my health problems, I kept walking. His death was a terrible blow."

The following year, Paul faced yet more uphill battles when cancer cells were again found in his liver. So, it was back to St Vincent's for more surgery. This time, Paul felt absolutely and utterly defeated.

"After that surgery, my spirit was totally broken. I was at my very lowest point," he recalls. "But three days later my surgeon told me the biopsies were clear of any cancer cells." Paul was so elated, he discharged himself from hospital and went home to Donegal that very night, a decision that proved somewhat foolhardy, as he got an infection that took three months to resolve.

Four years ago, Paul had yet another skirmish with cancer when his prostate developed abnormal cells. This time, he had brachytherapy, which involved implanting 90 radioactive seeds, which slowly released radiation into his prostate gland, destroying the cancerous cells.

Nowadays, Paul is the picture of robust good health. He and Marie have become inveterate travellers and have visited, among other places, Australia, New Zealand, China, Africa, the US and South America. Throughout his many ordeals, Paul did his best to remain positive. He also prayed to his late parents and to his brother Philip, who died from cancer when he was just 26 years old.

A large part of what kept Paul going was the love and support he got from his wife, their children and extended families and friends. "Marie and the kids were like rocks to me throughout all that time. They were amazing," he says. He will also be eternally grateful for the support he got from the Irish Cancer Society (ICS). "The nurse there gave me wonderful advice and useful techniques to deal with the various issues - especially the emotional ones," says Paul. "Everyone deserves first-class treatment and the ICS tirelessly fights for that."

For further information on bowel cancer and to take the online Bowel Health Checker see cancer.ie/reduce-your-risk/bowel-cancer-awareness/online-bowel-health-checker

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