'She went out one night and never came home' - Dad lost his only daughter in tragic accident, and then became ill
In recent years Matt Colgan has had to deal with personal tragedy, as well as serious ill health. But, he tells Joy Orpen, setting goals for himself, and the inspirational words of a country song, keep him going
If there is one thing Matt Colgan (67) understands, it's the complex nature of metal. He can work with this material in almost any shape or form, which is not surprising, given he has been bending and moulding the stuff since he was 18 years old. And given that he can still manage a broad smile, even though life has thrown some curve balls his way, it would seem that Matt has nerves of steel as well.
Matt secured an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner when he left school. "We used to make spare parts for other engineering firms. It was heavy work and was all about precision engineering," he explains. Having grown up on a farm, he had been messing about with machinery since he was a lad. But it was the mechanical aspects of his rural life, rather than the agrarian that interested him. "I'd no love of farming," he says bluntly. "Because I was asthmatic, animals and hay were all out of the question for me."
Nonetheless, Matt didn't let his condition stop him playing GAA football. "I used an inhaler when I had difficulty breathing," he says, with a determined glint in his eye. Proof of this is an illustrious history which includes playing for Gracefield GAA (Portarlington), Monasterevin GFC and the Offaly U21 team. "I've had lots of pleasure from sport," he volunteers.
In 1973, Matt married Mary Harrison and they had four children. He then continued to immerse himself in the GAA movement. But he stopped being physically competitive in 2003, following the tragic death of his only daughter, Rachel, in a car accident.
"She was 18 years of age and doing her Leaving Cert. She had a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh. She firmly believed laughter was good therapy. But she went out one night and never came home. I had no interest in anything after she died," he says, his eyes a little teary. "And that, unfortunately, is when all my troubles started."
When Matt says 'troubles', he means it. It began with two accidents at work. He then developed psoriatic arthritis, which causes joint pain as well as scaly red patches, particularly on knees and elbows.
In 2012, the company Matt worked for closed. "I'd been in the engineering business for 43 years, working for a few different companies. But as I was becoming increasingly affected by the psoriasis, the arthritis, and all the [bone] breaks I'd had over the years playing sport, I passed the invalidity test [for an Invalidity Pension]."
But being able to take it easy didn't solve Matt's problems. Over time he began to suffer from severe fatigue. He went from being incredibly active to having no energy at all. "I could sleep for 16 hours, wake, and then half an hour later, I'd be ready for bed again."
By 2015, things had got so bad, Matt's haematology team at Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore decided to test his bone marrow. They discovered he was suffering from myelofibrosis (MF), one of a group of rare blood cancers -myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). All three main types are the result of abnormal cell production by the bone marrow.
According to Bloodwise (UK), when MF is present, bone marrow becomes overactive causing scar tissue (fibrosis) to develop in the bone marrow. This, in turn prevents blood cells from developing properly. So, their production then starts to take place in the liver and spleen, which aren't, in fact, good at producing blood cells. This may cause anaemia (not enough red blood cells in the blood). The spleen may also become enlarged, as it 'holds on' to red blood cells instead of releasing them into the blood.
Mary Kelly, accredited advanced nurse practitioner in haematology at the Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore, says symptoms may include repeated infections, shortness of breath, fever and night sweats, weight loss, tiredness, bruising/bleeding, and abdominal pain due to an enlarged spleen.
"While MPNs are incurable, they can be controlled for many years with effective treatment," she says. "Our goal is to maintain safe blood counts for patients so they can manage their symptoms and have a better quality of life."
Matt was given chemotherapy in tablet form, and began having blood transfusions every two weeks. This regime will continue for the rest of his life.
In March 2017, he faced yet more challenges when he began experiencing chest pains. So, he was again referred to Tullamore. Doctors wanted to do an angiogram, but following blood tests they realised the procedure could cause a serious bleed so they decided not to proceed and to treat him symptomatically.
His health issues are compounded by the fact that he now has too much ferritin (iron) in his blood. "Because of the transfusions, I have 10 times more ferritin than usual," he says. "This affects my joints, causing much pain."
According to Mary Kelly, a remedy is on the horizon. "Matt needs iron chelation to manage symptoms associated with his iron overload and he is hoping his symptoms will improve when the iron is removed," she says.
And as if all that wasn't enough, Matt lost Andrew, the youngest of his three sons, last year. He and his wife Mary were hit badly by the tragedy but they soldier on, doing the best they can under such difficult circumstances. They get much pleasure from their other two sons - one living in Kildare, the other in the UK - and seven grandchildren, three of whom are involved in horse-racing.
Currently Matt enjoys helping his brother who has five sports shops [Colgan Sports] in the midlands. "I do some deliveries and help with the structural displays," he says. "Just a few hours a day when I can. It keeps me fit and keeps my mind off things. And of course, I love the GAA and horse-racing."
Clearly, Matt needs to muster all his energy when it comes to staying positive in the face of so much ill health and personal tragedy. So, how does he do it? "I set tasks for myself, so, every morning I have a good reason to get up," he says. "I do listen to other people's opinions, but in the end, I make up my own mind, especially when it comes to my health and my life. I am immensely grateful to my wonderful GP and to the fantastic team at Tullamore, who give me such good treatment and support. And, finally, I always keep in mind these words from a country and western song:
"Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery
But today is a gift."
To learn more about MPNs, contact MPN Voice, a UK-based patient support group. MPN Voice recently held Dublin's first Patient Forum in 10 years, supported by Novartis. See mpnvoice.org.uk