Andy McGovern was given five years to live - 37 years ago!
Ireland's longest survivor of motor neurone disease tells how his positive outlook has kept him alive
One man knows only too well what broadcaster Colm Murray had been going through during his three-year battle with motor neurone disease (MND) which sadly ended last week. Andy McGovern has been living with the condition for 37 years – making him Ireland's longest MND survivor. So extraordinary is this feat that, earlier this year, he published a book entitled Against the Odds to explain how he has coped over the years.
The 80-year-old Leitrim man was one of Colm's many fans. "I heard the news of his death last Tuesday morning, it was a sad day for me and the 300 other people with this disease," he says.
"A little piece of each one of us went with Colm. He was our shining light, a great advocate for creating awareness and highlighting MND. Personally, I didn't know Colm, but on the other hand who of us can say that we didn't know Colm Murray as he was in our kitchens and sitting-rooms for many years.
"In 1976, I discovered a weakness in my right arm," says Andy, who is married to Bridgie and has six children and nine grandchildren.
"While I was shaving one Saturday night, I found it difficult to get the razor to the top of my cheek and thought that one of my children was pulling at my elbow.
"Initially I ignored the signs and just changed the razor to a different position, but it kept happening and about three months later I approached my GP.
"About 12 months later I was diagnosed with MND and although my instincts told me this wasn't good news, I didn't probe any further and the word terminal was never used. But on my next visit, I queried the neurologist and received the shocking words: 'Yes, it is terminal and life expectancy is between two and five years, although you are a very healthy, strong person and I would be surprised if you didn't get longer than that.'"
"Bit by bit I got worse. I had to give up my occupation as a mechanical machine driver and I knocked everything over when eating. I was ashamed, embarrassed, frustrated, angry, bitter and infuriated as I slowly became aware of an active, alert brain imprisoned in a useless body as I lost the function of my arms and hands."
Initially, he was devastated by his condition but in time, he began to seek an alternative way to live by trying to become positive.
"During the early years with this disease, I went through hell," he admits. "I couldn't take a cup of tea or lift anything to my mouth. I felt angry, bitter, infuriated and cried – why me?
"But then I discovered my survival instincts. I looked at the abilities I had instead of the ones I had lost and realised that they were many – I can still walk, talk, see, hear, taste, touch and smell. I can laugh. I can smile to brighten up someone's day. I can love, I can write, I can enjoy fun, I can eat and I can drink – even Guinness through a straw tastes just the same.
"At my initial diagnosis, I don't think anyone thought I would be the longest MND survivor in Ireland but I think I achieved that accolade with a combination of faith in God, many trips to Lourdes, the support of my family and my own positive outlook."
After coming to terms with his condition, Andy discovered the joys of technology and put all his efforts into documenting his life journey.
"In 1996, I was referred to the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf where I met a technician who taught me how to operate a foot-controlled mouse – one letter at a time," he recalls. "It was a slow, tedious and time-consuming effort and took me a complete day to write my name. But three years later, I had completed my first book: They Laughed at This Man's Funeral – a biography of my late father.
"Last year – I wrote my second book: Against the Odds – Living with Motor Neurone Disease. I have become an expert with voice- recognition software and I can now write almost as fast as any good typist.
"I've got no magic formula or remedy to deal with MND. But my advice to anyone who has just received a diagnosis like mine would be to think positively and accept the way you are. Always remember that life is terminal for everyone.
"I posted a tribute to Colm Murray on Facebook and without any shame I will admit, that several times I had to stop staring at the computer screen because I had a lump in throat and blinding tears. Yes, Colm: 'It's Closing Time' (your favourite song). May the Lord rest your gentle soul."
Against The Odds by Andy McGovern costs €14.99 and is available from bookshops or from www.imnda.ie and www.londubh.ie. All royalties from the sale of this book will go to the IMNDA, which provides emotional and practical support to those who have been diagnosed with MND and their families.