Men's health special: Baz's brush with death
Five well-known faces describe health issues they have faced and explain how the conditions impact on their lives
They’re public figures who seem to live fabulous lives of adventure and fun, but when it comes to health, celebrities are just as prone to suffer with ailments and illnesses as the rest of us. Five popular personalities - Baz Ashmawy, Karl Broderick, Bryan Murray, Gerald Kean and Mark Cagney - share their personal stories of the health issues that they have encountered, and describe the toll that dealing with them took on their lives.
Baz, 41, was travelling on a flight from London to Dublin in 2011, when he suddenly found it extremely difficult and painful to breathe. “I got an awful fright,” he says, adding that he had noticed a bit of pressure in his chest when he was training in the gym before he flew to London, but had shrugged it off. “I felt exhausted when I got home, and my missus, Tanja, was in Spain with the kids. She was saying: “You’re exhausted? I’m exhausted minding six kids,” to me on the phone. Then my mum, Nancy, happened to come by the house. She was a nurse for 50 years, and she took one look at me and knew that something was really wrong.”
Baz went to hospital, where tests revealed that 98pc of one lung had collapsed. Doctors told him that if the flight had been going any further than London, he would have died. He remembers being very agitated as they worked to relieve the pressure on his deflated lung. “They were having difficulty trying to stab a tube through my breastplate, in a very Pulp Fiction-type of way,” he recalls. “It was very painful and I started to go into shock. In the end, they punctured me through the ribs and I could breathe again. Tanja arrived and she was all apologies for not taking it seriously. I like to throw it up to her every now and again in an argument that I was dying and she didn’t believe me.”
Baz is joking now, of course, but there was a very serious diagnosis of bullous lung disease made at the hospital. This occurs when bullae, or abnormally enlarged thin air sacs, form at the bottom of the lungs, which leads to a reduction in their ability to expand and contract. This adversely affects their role in passing oxygen into the bloodstream. Baz presumed that this problem occurred because he had been a smoker, but it turned out to be a hereditary condition. His late father had it, as does his sister and other family members.
Doctors advised Baz to have surgery on the other lung as well as fix it in place, as if a lung collapses, it comes away from its position. The double lung surgery was severe, and Baz had to lie on his back for four months to recover, which was very difficult. He was filming Baz’s Extreme World at the time and was due to go to Denver, and his doctor’s eyebrows raised when he asked him if he would be OK to wrestle alligators there.
“I was quite blue and depressed about it for a long time, as it took me about two years to fully recover,” he says. “I’m nearly six foot three so I’m a big guy, and I had prided myself on being strong and healthy. I love feeling alive, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to run, climb or dive any more. I’ve had to make changes in my lifestyle, like casual smoking is something I can’t do now. I have a young family, and they’re a great motivation for me to want to be around as long as I can for them.”
A consequence of the surgery to fix Baz’s lungs in place is that they don’t have the same freedom to expand and contract as other people’s do, so he can’t breathe as deeply. He trains hard to counteract this as he refuses to let it limit him. “I love diving and they told me I couldn’t do it again, but I’m a firm believer that anything is possible,” he says. “I’ve dived all over the world since the diagnosis, but I’ve trained that little bit harder for it, Baz says, adding, “My personal trainer, Anthony Lynch, at EduFit was amazing and he helped me get out of the bed and back to fitness. Sometimes it just takes someone to believe in you and push you. It is tough though, as you can’t take deep breaths to take in oxygen,” says Baz.
The problem with the bullae in Baz’s lungs is that they will grow larger and the condition of his lungs will degenerate. “It’s a deteriorating disease,” Baz explains, “and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, although you can work hard to maximise what you have. I don’t really focus on that because that’s the kind of stuff my missus would worry about, and there’s nothing I can do as that’s just the way it is. I don’t smoke, don’t drink much and try to take care of myself.”
Baz is conscious of his mortality as a lot of the men in his family died young. This includes his Egyptian dad, Mohammed Ussri Ismaill, who died at 52 of lung cancer. “I feel great at the moment, but yeah long term, you would develop emphysema with this condition,” he says, hesitantly. “You can maintain it as best you can, but it accelerates easily and there’s no great outcome to it.”
Some people with Baz’s condition have ended up having a double lung transplant. He says that the disease has fuelled his ambition to be more adventurous, and it has pushed him to try harder at things and take on new physical challenges. He doesn’t dwell on the negatives and there is nothing he won’t do, he says, as evidenced by his madcap adventures on 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy.
He jokes about his adventurous job. “You can imagine what I’d be like if I had lungs that worked at full efficiency. Look, everyone has a sad story, and you can either wallow in it and sit on your sofa getting fat and unhealthy, or you can get up off your arse and do the best with what you have. It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself for a while, but then you have to snap out of it. The condition has changed my life in a positive way, because it has made me very mature about my health. The way I look at it is that you can’t let obstacles in life beat you.”
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Songwriter and scriptwriter
When he was growing up, Karl Broderick was bullied terribly because he was gay. He was diagnosed in recent years with a general anxiety disorder, and believes much of it stems from that awful time. “The condition makes you exhausted and I was falling asleep everywhere,” he says. “I went to a doctor and did tests with a psychologist and they told me I had GAD, which could cause depression. I didn’t understand that, because sometimes I felt OK and other times I didn’t.”
The ever-thoughtful and kind Karl came to realise that as he kept going through it all and wasn’t showing people how he was really feeling, it was likely that other people weren’t coping either, despite outward appearances. “I still feel like I’m not as strong as other people,” he says. “I’m soft and sensitive and things really get to me, so I tend to beat myself up rather than just accepting that I have this illness.”
Since his diagnosis, Karl has been prescribed different antidepressants, but found that they made him extremely tired and he couldn’t function. He was hospitalised at one point, but is feeling very good now. He is off medication and goes to talk therapy, but feels that the treatment and support from the medical community has never been effective or compassionate.
“I’m incredibly shocked over how bad it is, as I have found it a minefield to actually get any proper help,” he says. “I think the number of people with anxiety and depression is huge in Ireland, but there is still this idea that we are just meant to ‘buck up’. I was stunned when one psychiatrist told me that these things get worse with age and I would just have to deal with it. The thing is that I’m somebody who can speak up for myself and I have a few bob to afford treatment, so when I find out about young people committing suicide, I want to know what help they have gotten, if any?”
Karl feels lucky to have the support of great friends and family, including his husband, TV presenter Alan Hughes, whom he says has been “amazing”. In the absence of what he feels is proper medical help, he tries to avoid stressful situations and works to understand the thoughts in his head. “When things get on top of me, I have to remember that I was here before and it got better,” he says. “For me, a healthy lifestyle helps, so it’s about exercising and really being careful with what foods I eat. I found a lot of foods were ‘bad mood’ foods, so I’m constantly trying to get the best fuel into my body and keep my blood sugar levels correct.”
Karl says that he is feeling really good at the moment, and would like to give a message of hope to others in the same situation. “You need to be a little more selfish and do what you can for you,” he says. “And always remember that it does get better.”
Read more: Dr Ciara Kelly: Reasons why men die younger
Even though he isn’t a fan of going to the doctor, Bryan, 67, who plays Bob Charles in RTE soap Fair City, decided to get regular health checks in his early 50s.
“I wasn’t a young fella any more, so I thought I’d better go and make sure everything was working the way it should be,” he says. “They take your blood and do all sorts of tests, with cholesterol and blood pressure being two big ones for men of a certain age.”
When he turned 60, a routine blood test showed Bryan’s cholesterol levels were up to 6 mmol/l, which disappointed him as he followed a healthy diet.
It transpired that there was a hereditary aspect to his condition as it also affected his dad and brother. Bryan decided to try to bring his cholesterol down through diet and exercise, initially.
“I was a great cheese man but I cut it out,” he says, adding that he also reduced his red meat consumption. “Una (his partner and Fair City colleague, Una Crawford-O’Brien) and I walk about 9,000 steps every day to get our hearts working.”
While his cholesterol level dropped under 5 temporarily, it was soon back up again. Bryan’s doctor prescribed cholesterol medication known as statins and blood pressure tablets, and he hopes they’ll stop
him suffering a stroke or heart attack.
“They get good and bad press, but overall, they do control your cholesterol and keep it down,” the talented actor explains.
“Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan are my age or older, and they’re still rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’, and I want to maintain my acting career as long as I can. I don’t want to leave the party yet because I’m only beginning to really enjoy it now. When you buy a new car, it doesn’t need to be serviced but after a couple of years, it does. We reach an age where we need to be serviced and maintained, and that’s how I look at my cholesterol and blood pressure tablets.”
Mark, 60, was crossing the road when he was 19 when a car hit him and drove off. He was told he was very lucky that he only had soft tissue and muscle damage and didn’t end up in a wheelchair. What wasn’t picked up at the time was that his pelvis had been knocked out of line. Mark began getting back spasms every couple of years and they became more frequent. MRI scans revealed he had two badly bulging discs and one that was slightly bulging,
“Up until three years ago, I was getting medial nerve blocks, which is like an epidural that’s injected down your spine to numb your back,” says the Ireland AM presenter. “It didn’t stop the problem but it meant that I could function.”
While fitness fan Mark worked with specialist trainer Mark Devoy to build up his core muscles, as the condition progressed, his health ultimately deteriorated. “On one occasion, my bladder shut down because a nerve was being pinched and pressed, and I nearly went into toxic shock,” the dad-of-four says.
To address the problem, Mark had a double lumbar fusion in 2014. He had two plates and six titanium screws inserted into his spine to keep it in place and reinforce the problem discs. “It couldn’t have gone any better and hasn’t spasmed since, although I would be a bit stiffer than I was before and am not as flexible as I should be,” he says. “The real complication was that I got pneumonia while I was in hospital, and that actually caused me more trouble long-term than the back.”
While Mark was physically very strong, he was very stiff and has found that taking up yoga and Pilates is the answer. “Flexibility is key,” he says. “I get the same endorphin rush from Pilates as lifting weights. I can bend down a bit easier, and I sleep a bit better. I always advise anyone who has the beginning of a back problem to go and sort it out early, because eventually you will get to the point where you just have to go and do something with it.”
Gerald, 59, was, at a wedding eight years ago when a fellow guest noticed he was drinking a lot of water. She asked him if he was always that thirsty and if he got up during the night to go to the toilet. He replied that the thirst was recent and he was getting up three or four times. The guest, who turned out to be a doctor, said he probably had diabetes.
The gregarious Gerald had tests, and was called immediately in to Blackrock Clinic as his sugar levels were so high. A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes was confirmed.
He was put on tablets, which made no difference, so was admitted and placed on insulin. “They taught me to inject myself and monitor the amount of insulin required to see what I needed,” he says. “I met a dietician too and was really good for about three months, but then I was useless after that. I was still eating the wrong food and was just taking more insulin to counteract it, and it got to a stage where I had so many bad habits.”
The turning point was when Celebrity Operation Transformation came along. Gerald began at a starting weight of 19st 11lb and has now lost a total of four stone and looks marvellous.
He’s going to the gym and doing press-ups and skipping, and enjoys boxing and kick-boxing.
“I was happy in myself so I wasn’t doing it for vanity reasons,” he says. “I couldn’t go up the stairs without breathing difficulties, and I was shocked that I had let myself go like that.”
Before Operation Transformation, Gerald took 20 units of insulin before each meal and this has now been reduced to four. “The night insulin has gone from 50 to 20 or 25 as well,” he says.
“I still have nice food but I make better choices. I couldn’t even bend down to tie my shoelaces before so I wore slip ons, but that has all changed now. I feel like a new man.”
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