It is no exaggeration to say that one day, not so long ago, Kathleen Finnegan saved Gerry Ryan's life.
It all began one Sunday in April of this year, when he teed off from the 18th hole at the Tralee Golf Club. Gerry's ball landed in a bunker and after that everything is a blank for him. But he has been told that he chipped the ball back onto the fairway, and walked almost 200 yards to get to the green. Then he buckled and fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Finnegan was busy on the practise green, waiting to start her own game of golf. Suddenly the tranquillity of the scene was shattered by shouts of anguish. Kathleen ran to the scene of the commotion, where she found Gerry unconscious. "I knelt beside him, I shook him and asked him if he was alright. But I got no response," Kathleen recalls. "I checked for a pulse, and couldn't feel one. So I began CPR. I also called for a defibrillator. I was told one was on the way, and that an ambulance had been called."
Kathleen continued administering CPR, but simultaneously she began to show Gerry's golf partner how to do this simple, life-saving technique. "I needed to concentrate on getting the defibrillator going," she explains. "I counted with Gerry's friend at the beginning, to get him calm."
When the defibrillator arrived, Kathleen attached the electrodes to Gerry's upper body. The machine analysed his heart rhythm and recommended that a shock be given. Kathleen ordered everyone to stand clear of Gerry's body while the electrical charge was delivered. CPR was then resumed for the next two minutes, until the machine again analysed Gerry's heart rhythm. This time it found no shock was needed, as a pulse had been restored. Soon after, someone produced an oxygen cylinder, and Kathleen put the mask over Gerry's face, so his vital organs (especially his brain) could benefit from pure oxygen. He was now surrounded by a group of concerned golf-club members, who helped keep him in the recovery position, with his airways open. Kathleen says they did so "in a calm and controlled way".
Ten to 15 minutes after the alarm was first sounded, an ambulance arrived and emergency personnel took over. Gerry was taken to hospital in Tralee. But within minutes, he was transferred to University Hospital Limerick (UHL). He was taken there because there were no available beds in a cardiac unit closer to home. Gerry's heart attack occurred at about 1.10pm. Having been taken to Limerick, a stent was inserted to deal with a blocked artery, and by 4.30pm, he was already recovering in the intensive-care unit.
He woke up two days later and he was utterly confused. "I thought it was a bad dream," he says. "None of it made any sense. I didn't understand why I'd been taken to Limerick, and I didn't believe I could have had a heart attack when I'd been out running twice that week." But when Lisa, Gerry's wife, came to see him, she held his hand and kissed him on the cheek, and those sensations were so real, Gerry finally got it, and realised that he wasn't dreaming. Then the panic set in, because now he knew for certain that he'd been through a life-threatening experience and had very nearly died. He remained in hospital for six days before returning home. He was told by the cardiologist to stop drinking all forms of cola (of which he was overly fond), and to eat more oily fish.
He says the first few weeks were quite emotional. "I had difficulty coming to terms with the experience," he says. "I felt I shouldn't have had a heart attack because of my age, and because I was fit. Then I got quite weepy. And as a Catholic, I probably got more spiritual."
Gerry also feels this traumatic event brought his family closer together. He says he now gets a lot more loving attention from his wife and two daughters, and is clearly delighted with that. He was away from his job as a facilities manager at the Bons Secours Hospital in Tralee for six weeks following his heart attack, and has only recently found the courage to return to golf, his favourite sport.
Gerry plays off a 13 handicap at the Tralee Golf Club, as does Kathleen, a mother of two, who is a clinical nurse manager at the same hospital where Gerry works. They are both in their early 50s and have known each other for years. But their friendship has now taken on a new dimension. Gerry says he is indebted to Kathleen for saving his life. "The people involved told me she was absolutely brilliant and totally in control of the situation; she calmed everyone around her," he says. "Her instructions were completely clear and precise."
Kathleen shrugs off any attempt to portray her as the heroine she undoubtedly is. She says she has nothing but praise for whoever had the foresight to make sure there was a defibrillator and an oxygen cylinder at the golf club. Since Gerry's incident, additional defibrillators have been added, and one has even been installed on a golf cart, so if someone had a heart attack far from the clubhouse, the device can now be shuttled to them quickly.
Kathleen says she was very concerned about Gerry when the ambulance took him away, and she remained so until he woke up. "I was deeply worried I hadn't done enough," she says. "I didn't know if there would be collateral damage, because of a lack of oxygen. But when I heard Gerry had asked what his golf score was, then I knew I could relax," she says.
Naturally Gerry and Kathleen want to raise awareness about the importance of learning first aid, so that physical traumas can be reduced and lives can be saved.
Referring to CPR, Kathleen says, "It's a simple enough procedure; I was even able to teach it to someone under those very difficult circumstances. The defibrillator is also really easy to use; you switch it on and follow the instructions, which are relayed via voice messages. Everyone should go for first-aid training and learn how to do these things."
The last word must go to a hale and hearty Gerry, who says, "Without Kathleen and my good friends who so willingly helped me, I'd be dead, and I wouldn't be here to tell the story. Everyone should learn how to do CPR and use a defibrillator." Referring to the person who helped save his life, he says, "Now, all the other guys in the club want Kathleen exclusively as their golf partner," and then he laughs, most heartily.
World First Aid Day takes place next Saturday, September 12. The Irish Red Cross offers courses in first aid throughout the country. Tel: (01) 642-4600, or see redcross.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine