'I remember chasing lads at training up the Hill of Tara... anything could have happened. I could have keeled over'
Shane McAnarney captained Meath in the 2012 Leinster final – however, months later an angiogram revealed he needed a double by-pass. He tells Colm Keys how he feels 'blessed to get a second chance to live a full life'
Outside on the street a few floors below him, Shane McAnarney could hear the hum of a September Sunday afternoon in Dublin 3. On such a beautiful day, the windows in his ward were open and the buzz of an All-Ireland final was palpable.
As he peered out and glanced enviously towards Croke Park just a few hundred metres away where Dublin and Mayo were preparing for the seasonal climax, he couldn't escape the irony of his own situation.
Fourteen months earlier he had captained a Meath team against many of those same Dublin players, now on the cusp of more glory, in a Leinster final.
Dublin won comfortably and as his team's centre-back, McAnarney had spent the afternoon, by his own admission, chasing Bernard Brogan around the park without much success.
But as Brogan and his colleagues were delivering a second All-Ireland title in three years for their county, just down the road McAnarney was still hooked up to a heart monitor in the hi-tech cardiac unit of the Mater Private, recovering from a double bypass operation he'd had three days earlier.
Briefly a sense of resentment came over him. He had enjoyed the match – his heart rate hit the 100 mark with the excitement of the closing stages as he watched on the TV, and he was genuinely pleased for the Dubs.
That Sunday hadn't been one of McAnarney's better days, however. A little bit better than the previous day, but tough all the same.
As his mind wandered to the prospect of Dublin celebrations all around him in the city that night, the gravity of his condition hit home hard.
"Why me?" he thought to himself. "Why me?"
At 32 – he is now 33 – McAnarney wouldn't be playing football at any level again – but he could consider himself lucky to be alive. He had joined the Meath squad in early 2006, not long after the 23-year managerial reign of Sean Boylan had ended.
That summer, an appearance as a substitute against Carlow gave him the unique distinction of playing championship football for three different counties in successive years: New York in 2004 against Mayo, London in 2005 against Roscommon and then his native Meath.
He thrived under the two-year stewardship of Seamus McEnaney, becoming a cornerstone of the team, and when Seamus Kenny ruptured a cruciate ligament in early 2012, the captaincy automatically went to McAnarney. That was the esteem in which he was held.
But 2012 hadn't gone as well for the Athboy man as 2011. From a career peak level of fitness, he found himself struggling that bit more and had put it down to growing old.
Last winter he underwent a double hip operation to repair wear and tear – the left in November, the right two months later. Already time was running out to make an impression on the new management as he missed key league games. When the league ended, McAnarney was among those to be cut from the squad.
There were some loose ends to be tied up, however. Just a couple of weeks before Meath manager Mick O'Dowd had made his call, a mobile medical unit had rolled into Pairc Tailteann one Saturday to conduct cardiac screening and other related medical tests.
As part of the GAA/GPA accord, such a facility is available to all inter-county squads, and with a heart murmur from a young age, McAnarney was always conscious of the need for regular monitoring.
After discussions with the doctor present that afternoon, he was referred for an echocardiogram the following month, routine process for someone with his condition. It was a road he had travelled before. "I didn't think it would be any different this time," he reflects.
Except it was. When the nurse conducting the 'echo' a few weeks later asked him to wait until she consulted a doctor, alarm bells began to ring in McAnarney's head.
"Normally it's 20 minutes – on the bed, off the bed, out the door fit as a fiddle. But I knew then there was something there.
"The doctor came into the room and told me there was something not working the way it should be working. 'Effectively, your heart is pumping under so much pressure it could stop,' he told me. That was a serious thing to hear."
He instantly thought of the late Cormac McAnallen.
"He came into my head and has been a reference point in a lot of conversations I've had about this since. He was obviously a high-profile player, but there are young club players that it has happened to too."
But in the back of his mind he had doubts. "I just thought it was a mistake, that there was something wrong here. How could a fit 32-year-old be told something like this? I couldn't believe it.
"The doctor didn't know for sure and I was thinking, 'there could be something wrong with the machine or maybe he is just being cautious'.
"The heart murmur was fine. There was nothing wrong with that. It's still the same as it always was since I was young. But I was stunned. I didn't want to believe it. I had no symptoms. It wasn't like I scoffed down Chinese or fast food. All I wanted to do was go training that night."
His club Clan na nGael had an intermediate championship match that June Bank Holiday weekend and McAnarney disguised his prospective absence with a play on his troublesome hips.
Without any obvious symptoms, however, something in him told him he would be fine so he defied advice not to play until further notice by 'chancing' the last 15 minutes.
For six weeks he kept it to himself, choosing not to alarm his wife Stacey or his family with the details. He knew little about angiograms, never mind having to undergo one.
The outcome really shocked him and baffled his experienced cardiac team: one fully blocked artery, another almost completely blocked. McAnarney had been operating at an elite level of his sport with just one functioning artery.
"The one that was blocked completely, there is damaged tissue around the wall so I did have a slight heart attack at some stage that I didn't realise or know about," he reveals.
When the Meath team doctor Owen Clarke got the report, he too was stunned. "'Wow Shane' he said to me, 'in all my years in this business I never got a letter like I'm after getting'. When he said that to me, it kind of hit home more then.
"My surgeon Mr Brendan Doyle said none of them had come across the situation, they couldn't understand it. They just couldn't fathom how it happened.
"Now they think it linked to what is called Kawasaki Syndrome, a condition you can develop from childhood and the symptoms of which have only been established properly in the last 30 or 40 years.
"Looking back on it now, it was probably coming on a bit heavier and I was finding it harder. I wasn't as fit as I used to be and I was putting that down to old age and coming back from two hip operations. I hadn't been out doing a whole lot of cardio.
"Brendan and his team said to me, 'when you're told you have a problem, you start feeling stuff going on around the heart', and sure enough I started feeling twinges. I would walk up a flight of stairs and be panting at the top. These blockages are there at least a year and maybe even five or 10 years.
"I had been working off one artery. As Colm Brady (Meath physical trainer) said to me, 'what would you have done with three working in perfect order? We would have had to invent a new bleep test for you!'"
Reconciling with being a 32-year-old elite athlete requiring a double bypass was a challenge.
McAnarney recalled the days after driving around Dublin and north Leinster in the course of work as a carpenter with the family firm, picking up on the strangest of things.
"I'd be driving around that week thinking, 'there's a lad coming out of a chipper', or 'there's a lad standing outside the pub in the middle of the day having a smoke and a pint. Why not them?'.
"I was thinking of lads who I know who would be out drinking every night of the weekend and wouldn't be looking after themselves, wouldn't exercise. And I was thinking, 'I've done everything right. Why me? I'm 32, I'm fit, I'm healthy, this shouldn't be happening to me'."
It was an anxious time for him. He couldn't afford the cost of private care – he had dropped health cover as times in his industry got tougher – and a public waiting list would have taken months, maybe years.
"I didn't know what to do. I was still trying to come to terms with it. I was told to take it easy which I couldn't really do because I would have to be working away," he recalls.
Further contact with the Gaelic Players' Association, who he had been in touch with prior to his angiogram, would put his mind at ease.
"I got back to Dara McGarty (the GPA's national development officer) and said, 'this is going to be an expensive plumbing job!' A €30,000 job. I had no health insurance.
"I just couldn't afford it. I always felt that if anything was going to happen me playing for Meath it would be a broken leg, a broken arm, I'd be out of work but I'd be covered by insurance.
"Dara came back and said, 'get it sorted, don't worry about a thing'. It was a big weight lifted off the shoulders. I really couldn't speak highly enough of him or the organisation. They put me in the hands of a great team. 'Whatever it takes, we'll get it sorted', they told me."
So he put his faith in the hands of consultants Mr Doyle and Mr John Hurley and prepared to turn over a new chapter in his life. He didn't seek any more knowledge on what he was facing, and up to the night before admits he never really appreciated the gravity of it.
"I didn't look it up, didn't research it. I trusted them to do it. I didn't worry myself about the technical details. The night before I was briefed on what would happen. Only then did I realise how serious it was."
In hospital for six days, he had to return for a week when he felt strong pains in his stomach, but with each passing week now he continues to recover. Irregular sleeping patterns and disorientation are side-effects to be expected.
"Your sleep pattern is all over the place. That can go on for a couple of months. There would be nights when I wouldn't be able to sleep and I could go down and watch TV and wouldn't fall asleep until half seven in the morning."
It has given him a new perspective on life and made him appreciate how lucky he is. "I was lucky. I remember chasing lads at training up the Hill of Tara not so long ago, before all this happened, really pushing it trying to catch them.
"Anything could have happened. I could have keeled over. My heart could have stopped working there and then."
He implores players to take screening seriously and use the service that has been provided through the GPA.
"The GPA are paying for this, organising it, all the lads have to do is turn up. It's not a big ask, you're not being asked to fork out €300 or €400, but you wouldn't believe the amount of players who didn't turn up for their screening."
Next year he hopes to complete the Dublin Marathon and in future take on a triathlon. He thinks regularly of the late McAnallen and how he is now part of his legacy.
"I was lucky because if it was six months down the line I would have been on my own. Cormac's unfortunate and tragic death has opened the eyes of the GAA," he says.
"I've been sitting in squad meetings for years or sitting on a bus going somewhere listening to lads on about mileage, having five cent deducted or complaining about being due two pairs of boots.
"Stupid things. It never bothered me playing. It was minor then for me and it's even more minor now.
"When the surgeon told me that back in May I didn't want to hear him because as far as I was concerned he had turned my life upside down by telling me I couldn't play football. But I know I'm lucky and blessed to get this chance, a second chance to live a full life."
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