'The ambulance crew brought Michael back two or three times, then lost him again…'
He's come close to death more than once, but Michael Lyster refuses to live in fear. He tells John Meagher about looking after his heart - and why it will always belong to The Sunday Game
Michael Lyster is like a living embodiment of the Patrick Kavanagh poem Canal Bank Walk that many of us studied in school. Just like the great Monaghan poet, Lyster feels a vigour for life that is unique to those who have come perilously close to death.
And he has had a rough innings over the past seven years. First, there was heart failure in 2012, then a stroke in 2013 and, most critically of all, cardiac arrest in 2015. "I feel so happy to just be alive," he says. "When you realise there was a strong chance that I wouldn't be here now, it makes you really appreciate all you have."
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Remarkably, the Galway native managed to keep going as host of the long-running GAA programme The Sunday Game during that period, and his retirement last year was motivated by reaching the age of 65 and not due to ill-health. Today, he is sitting with his wife, Anne (pictured main with Michael), at the table of their light-filled kitchen in south Co Dublin and talking openly about his heart.
He is working on a campaign with the Irish Heart Foundation to raise awareness of the warning signs of heart failure. "Heart failure was a process that was happening to me over a period of months," he says. "If I'd been aware of the warning signs, I would have gone to a doctor straight away. But I just didn't have that knowledge."
At first, he thought he had cancer - in part due to the rapid weight loss he experienced. He had flu-like symptoms that he couldn't shake. Then, everything changed. "I'd no idea what heart failure was," he says, "but I knew it was serious because they weren't letting me out of the hospital. The first 24 hours I was in the hospital, I had one foot out the door - they'd rush in if I so much as coughed. As bad as it was, between the medication, which is the critical part, I did bounce back to make a full recovery from it."
Anne says she has regrets about not copping what was happening. "I never joined the dots and realised that what he had were the symptoms of heart failure. I think it's really important that people know what the symptoms of heart failure are. And they can be proactive and go to the doctor."
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, shortness of breath, swollen ankles and fatigue are warning signs of heart failure that should never be ignored. And the IHF says that people with heart failure can live a full and active life if the condition is detected and treated early. "And it's not just men," Anne adds. "It's a well-kept secret that there are an awful lot of women who get heart failure."
It was Anne who saved her husband's life three years later when he suffered cardiac arrest. She performed CPR on him in the eight minutes it took the ambulance to reach their door. Lyster had been out with his friend, Irish Independent chief sports writer Vincent Hogan, and had arrived home late only to discover that he'd left his phone in Hogan's car. The journalist drove over with the phone and was the one who found Lyster collapsed in the hall.
"It was a stroke of huge fortune. If I hadn't noticed my phone missing and if Vincent hadn't come over with it…" His voice trails off. He knows he would likely have died.
"The real work was done by the ambulance crew," Anne says. "There were two ambulances there and six people working on him. I found it utterly startling and terrifying because they really go to work on you. It's very violent, aggressive, and there's this huge machine over the chest. Apparently they brought him back two or three times and then lost him again. And that went on for 15 minutes."
Lyster insists that not only has he a new-found appreciation for life but he refuses to be cowed by what happened. "The worst thing would be to go around the place afraid of yourself," he says. "That's no way to live." He cheerfully says he plans to get a chipper meal that night and he talks about enjoying pints on a trip to Dubai with Anne the previous week. He says he is more conscious of eating healthily now - and not indulging in what a nurse told him was "chaos eating" like before - but if Irish Heart Foundation executives were hoping that he would enthusiastically espouse a strict diet regime, they will be disappointed.
"Heart failure can happen to anyone, even young fellas," he says. "And it can happen to super-fit people too, if there's a genetic aspect there.
"When I joined RTÉ first, a neighbour up on Brennanstown Road, Noel Carroll - a famous runner - would drive you cracked. He'd always be going, 'Are you looking after yourself? Are you doing a bit of exercise? Why don't you come for a run?' Noel died really early [he was 56]. You could not see a fitter man - he was like a greyhound."
Lyster joined RTÉ in 1979 and for the first five years there, he worked in radio. "I did more rugby than GAA then," he says. "I was on the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1983."
The Sunday Game had been five years in existence when he got the call to present it. He jumped at the opportunity and he was the face of RTÉ's Gaelic Games coverage between 1984 and 2018. "I did 35 Championships in both football and hurling, and I loved every moment of it."
Both RTÉ's flagship GAA programme and the GAA itself took off in the early 1990s, he says. "That's when we started doing live broadcasts of the games. There had been fears from the GAA initially that it would hit attendances and we had to pay them £30,000 per match for lost revenue. I'll tell you, that didn't last very long because the exposure that live games gave the GAA meant more people wanted to go to matches. It's a bit like what happened with Sky and the Premier League back then - football really took off, and it was the same over here."
Part of the success of The Sunday Game has been due to pundits like Joe Brolly who are rarely afraid of being provocative. "Week in, week out, you'd be going to matches or maybe the shop and you'd constantly get, 'Would you tell that f***ing eejit…'" He bursts out laughing.
"They could be talking about Brolly, [Pat] Spillane, [Ger] Loughnane, whoever. But they're watching The Sunday Game and they're engaged by it, even if they're getting a bit pissed off."
He may be a passionate Galway fan, but that enthusiasm had to be kept in check on air. And yet, he says one of his happiest moments in broadcasting came in 1998 when the Galway football team bridged a 33-year gap to win the All-Ireland. "I remembered the three-in-a-row winning team [from the mid 1960s]. And in 1998, there were people from the parish back home - the Killererin club - winning an All-Ireland, Pádraic Joyce being the obvious one. They were all young fellas and you'd know their fathers and mothers, and it was extra special."
It was a tradition for Lyster to conduct interviews from the winning hotel on the night of the final and he says those counties that rarely enjoy such moments make for the best television. "There was a great atmosphere in the Limerick hotel afterwards," he says of last year's hurling champions. "Forty-five years is a very long time to wait. When Kilkenny were winning all the time, the comments would be, 'It's lovely to win it,' but there would be no buzz."
He says neutrals crave competitive championships and notes how attendances in Leinster have sharply declined due to Dublin's dominance. "I wouldn't blame Dublin for that at all," he says. "It's more that there's no real competition there for them at present. The Meaths and Kildares and Offalys have all fallen away. But Dublin will be tested in the business end of the season."
The GAA Championship begins with the meeting of Mayo and New York on May 5 before it really steps into gear the following weekend. Lyster says he has enjoyed retirement so far but is unsure how he will feel when that first ball is thrown in. "After 35 years, you feel a sense of almost ownership and connectivity that's not going to go away."
"But Joanne is great," Anne says, in reference to The Sunday Game's new presenter, Joanne Cantwell.
"Joanne will be very good," Lyster agrees. "She had a clip at Joe Brolly in that first [Allianz League] programme. Joe was so under pressure from her that he was saying, 'If you keep going on at me like this, it's going to be a very long year!' A little mark in the ground was put down there."
While he has retired from RTÉ, he says he is now able to do some of the commercial projects he had to decline when working for the national broadcaster. And he says he wouldn't rule out the possibility of broadcasting elsewhere, if the opportunity arose. "In this moment, in 2019, I've finished 40 years of broadcasting, and I'm really enjoying this bit of freedom. But never say never - I might feel different a little way down the road."
For more information and to use the Irish Heart Foundation's heart failure symptom checker, visit knowyourheart.ie