'We were going to watch the sunrise on Copacabana Beach when I was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver' - Irish engineer tells his story
An acquired brain injury can cause cognitive, emotional and social difficulties for the person affected. Yet, Cathal McCoy says, many people don't understand just how problematic a 'hidden disability' like this can be
Sun, carnival and Copacabana are all words that exemplify the fun-loving essence of Rio de Janeiro.
And that's exactly what Cathal McCoy had in mind when he and his friend, Mark Horgan, travelled from Lima in Peru to Brazil, where they planned to meet Ciaran Reay, another friend of theirs, who was jetting in from Dublin. It was late in 2010 and Cathal, a mechanical engineer, had just completed a master's in applied computing. So he had elected to take a break from his studies, and his job at South Dublin County Council.
"The night before Ciaran arrived, we were two weeks into a two-month trip," explains Cathal. "Mark returned to the hostel, while I hung out with some Americans. Early next morning, while crossing the road to watch the sunrise on Copacabana Beach, I was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver."
Cathal has no memory of the devastating incident, or its immediate aftermath. However, it would seem that a young American woman performed CPR on him, saving his life. He was then rushed to hospital.
The following morning, Ciaran landed in Rio. Once he and Mark connected, they began looking for their missing friend. Eventually they discovered he had been injured in a traffic accident and had sustained a neck fracture, broken ribs, a broken leg, a punctured diaphragm, and a brain injury.
"Things were very serious," says Sinead McCoy, Cathal's sister. "When my parents arrived in Rio a couple of days later, he was still comatose and completely unresponsive."
Prior to his departure from Dublin, Cathal had, on impulse, bought travel insurance from a kiosk at the airport. This allowed him to be transferred from the "chaotic" public hospital to a private facility. Two weeks after his accident, Sinead, and Roddy, one of her other brothers, also arrived in Rio.
"When I saw Cathal, I was absolutely shocked," she says. "He had tubes everywhere and was completely unresponsive. But they had detected brain activity, so that was a huge cause for celebration. However, overall, the situation was very, very bleak."
Soon after, Cathal developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare, potentially fatal condition, which was caused by a reaction to medication. This resulted in extensive inflammation, blistering and the peeling away of skin from various parts of his body.
"My skin looked burnt and was scabby and itchy, so they had to strap me down," he says. "At one point, when I momentarily regained consciousness, I thought I was in a mental institution."
Things got so bad, doctors had to stop all drugs, apart from morphine, which Cathal needed to endure his many injuries. Sinead says Christmas Day 2010 was a particularly awful occasion. "There were serious concerns that he was heading towards organ failure, which could have proved fatal," she recalls. "My parents were only allowed to spend five minutes with him. I remember my dad crying - it was gutting to see."
At that time, the four of them were staying in one motel room in the "oddest" part of Rio. And while their discomfort wasn't an issue, they agreed it was essential to get Cathal back to Ireland so he could be treated in familiar surroundings. Eventually, in January 2011, he was flown to Dublin, and then taken to the Mater Hospital.
As time went on, Cathal slowly began to recover. Sinead believes that's due in no small part to his indomitable will, courage and dogged determination. "He's done it all himself," she says. "Within three weeks of being back, he was trying to walk, in spite of all the injuries."
Cathal was discharged about five months after his accident. He then spent six weeks at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. "I went in with two crutches and I left with just one cane," he volunteers proudly.
But it wasn't all good news. In 2011, Cathal attempted another master's. "I could follow the lectures and I understood the content at the time, but I found it so hard to remember the information. I dropped out," he says. "And even though I tried again in 2015, I didn't perform well in the examination setting."
Cathal says while he may appear fully recovered, there is residual damage which affects his performance and the way in which he processes information. This "hidden disability" has greatly affected his self-esteem and confidence.
Sinead agrees that while the brain injury no longer affects Cathal's logical mind, he still struggles to retain information and to process certain emotional and social situations. "However, he's making really good progress with Headway's help," she says.
Late in 2013, Cathal connected with Headway, which offers support and services to people living with acquired brain injury (ABI). He says he will always be indebted to them for the help they gave, and continue to give, him. "While they acknowledge you are changed by a brain injury, they give you tools to deal with those difficult problems," Cathal says.
Sarah Benson of Headway says, "Cathal, and others living with ABI, often struggle with issues surrounding memory and fatigue. As a result, returning to work can be enormously challenging. No one prepares them for how different they will feel. Cathal was lucky that his employer helped him make a successful transition back to work."
Cathal has received individual and group counselling at Headway and he finds the support invaluable. "It's useful to connect with people who are similarly affected by a brain injury and to discover they have similar experiences and difficulties. For example, my confidence was badly affected by what happened, but it's slowly returning, thanks to the help I'm getting."
Over the years, Cathal has had further surgery and other interventions. He's currently working as an engineer for fleet services within Dublin City Council. He has nothing but praise for the patience, concern and support he has received from his colleagues and managers in local government, who allowed him to return to work very gradually.
He also does yoga, meditates, swims, and continues to be an enthusiastic member of Headway, all of which are crucial to his recovery. In spite of a catastrophic event, Cathal is making excellent progress.
Novartis Ireland employees recently volunteered at Headway to spruce up its garden as a part of its annual community partnership day. For more information about Headway, tel: (1890) 200-278, or see headway.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine