Wednesday 18 July 2018

'Everybody dies, but not everybody lives' - How 'The Great AK' became a walking miracle after two cancer battles

'The Great AK' - once the go-to physical therapist for some of Ireland's greatest sports stars - is a walking miracle having fought two life-threatening bouts of cancer by adding a steely resilience to the 'Mr Fitness' approach that once defined him

Alan Kelly enjoying the sunshine in Bushy Park,Terenure. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Alan Kelly enjoying the sunshine in Bushy Park,Terenure. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He had his own funeral planned down to the music, to the message on the grave, even to the angle they'd set his body at in the coffin.

Alan Kelly was ready. He'd been meticulous about how he lived and, now, death couldn't be met tardily.

'The Great AK' would go in a style befitting his story. Some of Ireland's biggest sports personalities knew him only as this teak-tough physical therapist with an almost evangelical positivity out of whose Tallaght clinic human miracles seemed to walk.

He was a gym-six-times-a-week man. Never smoked, never drank. Fitter than most of his clients and not entirely shy about telling them.

Alan Kelly with Dublin football manager Jim Gavin
Alan Kelly with Dublin football manager Jim Gavin

His table was no place for precious petals and when Peter Canavan was getting an ankle treated, Kelly would commence each session by inviting him to look at a signed photograph on the wall.

It was of Armagh's Kieran McGeeney lifting the Sam Maguire in '02.

"There's hard men and there's McGeeney!" he'd laugh to the Tyrone legend.

His surgery became a library of testimonials.

"Thanks for the hands." - Pádraig Harrington

"From the centre to the great." - Brian O'Driscoll

Dublin footballers Philly McMahon and Mick Fitzsimons with Alan Kelly
Dublin footballers Philly McMahon and Mick Fitzsimons with Alan Kelly

"To the great one, thanks for everything." - DJ Carey

"From Mullinahone to Tallaght, simply the best." - John Leahy

"To the 'Great', you're the man." - Ronan O'Gara.

He'd show them his physique, inviting anyone to take a shot. He looked and sounded indestructible. Felt it too. Then the unthinkable happened.

The man who kept fixing things ended up broken himself.

*****

July 25, 2014, the date registers now as the beginning of the rest of his life. Or, maybe more accurately, the day he came to realise how control is an illusion in any human story.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he remembers standing by his car outside Blackrock Clinic, the sun beating down from a perfect, cornflower sky and all his faculties frozen.

He'd been experiencing discomfort in the pelvic area for maybe 18 months, finally undergoing a trans-rectal biopsy in search of the problem.

Now, 10 days later, he had this sheet of paper in his hands, confirming the need for CT and nuclear bone scans to, as the consultant put it, "make sure the cancer hasn't spread into any of your vital organs or your bones".

Kelly's first instinct was that of the drowning man reaching for a life belt. He sought a second opinion. "Only one man I wanted," he recalls. That man was Gerry McEntee.

The scans confirmed everything he'd been told though and so he went into the care of Dr Kiaran O'Malley, noted urologist in the Mater and also doctor to the Dublin football team.

AK's choice was to have the cancer cut from his body robotically, to go to war with it. He remembers waking up post-surgery and, instinctively, attempting to reach down.

"It wasn't easy. Both arms were wired up, my legs were in vascular stockings, I had a moon bag in, a catheter in, but all I could think was, 'I'm alive!'"

The surgery had gone well and Kelly's own physiological expertise meant he was well versed in the abdominal exercises required to make a quick recovery.

Within four weeks, he had dispensed with the incontinence pads and, as his three-month check-up approached, all seemed tranquil in his world.

That check-up came two weeks before Christmas and he got his bloods done in advance through his own GP, who seemed puzzled by an almost unchanged PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) reading. When Kelly brought the results to O'Malley, the consultant seemed equally bemused.

"That must be a typo!" he suggested. "It should read something like 0.8, not 6.8." So they took more bloods, this time the reading coming in at 10.8.

A series of scans eventually traced a tumour in his left hip. A fugitive prostate cell had, it seemed, gone AWOL. Three weeks of radiation followed, Kelly working at his clinic every morning, driving to treatment in the afternoon.

"I used to visualise Kieran McGeeney in front of me, Enda McNulty behind," he chuckles now.

"They were my shields. So no matter how badly the radiation burnt me, I wasn't going to feel it. That's what I did with my head."

Seven weeks later, his bloods came back clear. The war, it seemed, was over.

"And that's when I decided, in a moment of madness, that I would embrace the $65 billion snake-oil industry which I was always very fond of growing up. I said to Anne, my receptionist, 'Get the Nutribullet out, I'm going vegan!'

"So no sugar, no meat, I wanted broccoli, spinach, kale, spirulina, I wanted tumeric, I wanted ginger, I wanted organic porridge, I wanted low GI bread, I wanted vitamin C, D and E. Everything into the blender and I drank a pint of it every day, the idea being to flush my system clean.

"The drink tasted like tomcat's piss but, every morning, down the hatch. 'I'm going to look a million dollars'!"

But more blood tests at the end of July, more bad news. "My reading was now 30, something seriously wrong going on. I looked great, but I was dying on the inside."

He was put in the care of a medical oncologist, Professor John McCaffrey - "the man I dreaded, the one who controlled the hormonal treatment programme."

Professor McCaffrey proposed he go to the University Hospital in Heidelburg where a specialist machine, unavailable in Ireland, could do a prostate-specific membrane antigen scan.

The procedure was carried out with impressive German efficiency, just a two-hour stretch between arrival at the hospital and the specialists sitting him down to hear their findings. And that was when Kelly's blood ran cold.

"I went to Germany with one tumour, they were sending me home with five more!"

*****

Another date then, all but seared into his psyche with a branding iron. October 16, 2015. The day he entered the hormonal programme. His own choice of language goes to a much starker place.

"I was castrated on my birthday," he says bluntly. "And I'll never forget it. I cried uncontrollably every night for six weeks. That was the one thing I didn't want to happen because I knew what was coming down the track. I understood it.

"I became hugely hormonal as my body changed. And I had all the physiological responses - rage, denial, blame. Why me?

"I continued to fight a battle when the war had been lost. It was ridiculous until, finally, I came to an acceptance of my condition.

"Some of my friends had gone through the same thing, so why not me? Acceptance was the only way I knew I could go on. I couldn't continue to fight. So I started to talk to my cancer. I had this picture of a skeleton in my surgery and I'd got a radiologist friend to mark the location of my tumours in a pencil.

"And every morning I'd speak to those tumours. 'Don't mess with me today lads and I won't mess with you...' They became my friends almost. It had taken me the most horrific two months after the castration to reach that resolution.

"But I finally got there..."

And for the next 18 months, The Great AK re-embraced some semblance of his old life again. But fate hadn't quite finished with this story.

*****

Some time last summer, he began feeling washed out, oddly out of kilter. He started to experience dizzy spells, had a few falls.

On a week-long break in Spain, he was watching one of the Lions Tests from New Zealand with an old acquaintance from London Irish when, inexplicably, Kelly fell off his chair. "Woke up with a crowd around me."

To begin with, he blamed silly things. Maybe he'd walked too far. Eaten too much fruit. Drank too much water.

But back home that sense of disorientation deepened. He bled badly when getting his next hormonal implant. He picked up a bad chest infection.

His next appointment with Professor McCaffrey was August 18 and as soon as he walked into the consultation room, the professor recognised something was profoundly wrong.

"You're green AK!" he told Kelly. "You look like you've fallen off a cliff."

It was discovered he had pneumonia and he was hospitalised in The Mater Private. Twenty-five bags of steroids later, the patient felt bomb-proof again and was allowed home.

He considered himself well enough to celebrate his younger son Stevie's birthday by arranging to meet for lunch in South William Street. He just had to report back to hospital that morning at 9.0am for another blood test. "Be out by midday," he promised Stevie.

But McCaffrey had ordered a bone marrow biopsy, too. And Kelly all but knew the bad news before he heard it.

"Professor McCaffrey came out with this sheet of paper in his hand and calls my name," he remembers now. "Except, it's 'Alan'. Once he called me that, I went 'Uh oh!' He'd been calling me AK for the previous 18 months.

"He sits me down and goes, 'I've very bad news for you. Your bone marrow has failed. You've acute myeloid leukaemia, a very dangerous blood cancer and I'm afraid I won't be able to look after you. The team are on the way from haemotology.'

"So you go from thinking you might have a little run in Bushy Park, then meet your son in TK Maxx to, within an hour, lying in a hospital bed, wired up."

Kelly's family was called in to be briefed on the gravity of his situation now. Over the next 10 days, he would be intravenously fed 23 bags of chemotherapy.

With his immune system already seriously compromised, the threat of infection could be fatal.

Kelly's eldest son, Anthony, would subsequently ask the Mater's consultant haemotologist, Dr Michael Fay, how long his father might have lasted without treatment. "Four, maybe five weeks at best," was his answer.

"I'd have died in my sleep," AK argues now. "And, if that happened, I'd have come back to haunt everyone. Because I'd been so fit all my life, that was the last thing I wanted on my death certificate. 'Died of a heart attack!' Mr Fitness himself.

"I remember saying to Dr Fay 'Don't put me in the ring if I've no chance!' Because I knew the severity of what was coming down the track."

His memory of the worst of it is framed endlessly by the kindness of those around him. "What really came home to me was when I'd be at my sickest during the night, vomiting, the bed destroyed, when I was all over the place, they would come and clean me. They were just so kind."

His room was on the seventh floor, overlooking Mountjoy Prison. He'd spend hours peering down into the yard, watching the prisoners do their daily walk and wondering if, even behind bars, their predicament had a freedom still escaping him. He got "a carrot cake and two bags of chemo" for his 66th birthday.

And music eased his burden.

When getting the chemo, he'd close his eyes and visualise being on a beach in Marbella, water lapping around his feet. He'd place his iPhone on his shoulder, blasting out the songs that he'd grown up to. The artists who were '50s and '60s gods. Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Manfred Mann, Bobby Darin and Bobby Vee.

And he had an extra reason to keep going, to keep fighting.

Anthony's wife, Fionnuala, was expecting and Kelly wanted, if nothing else, to live to see his grandchild. "Any way you'd give birth sooner," he'd half-joke to Fionnuala when they'd visit. "At the time, I didn't think I'd see Christmas," he reflects now.

And Darragh-Alan Kelly was duly born four weeks early.

Then Christmas morning, a huge surprise. Jim Gavin and Dr O'Malley arrived with half a dozen of the Dublin team and the Sam Maguire. Before he saw them, he could hear Bernard Brogan's voice in the corridor. "Where's the Great AK?"

He'll never forget that.

*****

The worst part, the apparent end game? That was still to come.

Over a three-month period, he reckons he had maybe 60 bags of chemo, 300 bags of antibiotics, countless transfusions.

Then, everything stopped in March. He thought the battle was won. And that was when he contracted the bug that tried to kill him.

It comes back to him in a haze now. He was trying to get out of the bed at one point to wash himself because he'd always held to this mantra of, "it's unfortunate to be sick; it's unforgiveable to look sick" and, well, not quite making it to the sink. He remembers Anthony, the health care worker, getting him back into bed.

And after that? Essentially, he remembers dying.

"I knew I was gone," he says of coming around in Intensive Care. "But it was a lovely feeling. It was that out-of-body experience they tell you about. I had no pain. The light was shining. I was just... out there. And I was aware of a huge fuss around me.

"I could hear them talking about how I had organ failure, how my blood pressure had failed, how my oxygen stats were on the floor. And I knew that my only chance was to take deep breaths as best I could. There was a tube in my mouth and a mask over my face.

"And all I'm thinking is, 'Blow, just blow with everything you have!'

"I remember the doctor at the end of the bed, writing something, shaking her head. I gave these two or three big blows and she gave me this thumbs-up sign. After that? I remember nothing."

Kelly's family were warned it was unlikely he'd make it through the night yet, somehow, he did. When he opened his eyes the next morning, he asked aloud if this was Heaven.

"No," a nurse answered. "You're a bit of a miracle!"

*****

So, three months on, he's in remission and counting every new day a blessing.

Two Father's Day cards are on the mantelpiece in his Terenure apartment, one emblazoned with the message, "Not every super-hero wears a cape!"

Last Sunday, Kelly made his first trip back to his old surgery on Old Bawn Road. His room has been rented out to a clinical psychotherapist and the sight of all his possessions boxed downstairs set him crying. The last entry in his professional diary was for the August Bank Holiday weekend.

He says it felt as if the world stood still the day he got sick and hasn't quite yet begun to spin again.

The dream is to return to work a calendar year after that first diagnosis, but only time will reveal if that's possible. On July 12, an evening will be held in his honour in the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan where old friends like McGeeney, McNulty, Dessie Farrell, Dr Martin McAleese, Tommy Dunne, Dr Liam Hennessy and RTÉ's Brian Carthy will all participate. The focus of the night will be the importance of resilience.

Kelly knows now that few can out-qualify him on that topic.

"My motto now is 'Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain,'" he says with a smile.

"So I'm dancing in the rain. I don't know, no more than anybody else knows, what's ahead. All I do know is that I'm very high-risk, that I've had two life-threatening cancers and I'm walking around on fumes today my bloods are so weak.

"My leukaemia is gone but for how long who knows? But then who knows anything? If I let my head go there, I'm fried and melted.

"And I've had a really great life. My kids are good, I've got really special friends, everything went really well.

"OK, my marriage broke up, but so do thousands. And I have a wonderful relationship with my ex-wife, totally amicable.

"There's no doubt I'm a walking miracle. I had another biopsy last week and the doctor says to me, 'You're looking great for a fella who was five minutes away from Masseys'!' The point about this is, you must fight. If you think you can overcome something, there's always a chance that you will.

"And remember this. Everybody dies, but not everybody lives."

Irish Independent

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