Meath’s last All-Ireland-winning captain Graham Geraghty was struck down by a brain aneurysm last year that required life-saving surgery. Twelve months on he still suffers from fatigue but is well on the way to a full recovery. He recounts a painful and traumatic experience
On Monday evening Graham Geraghty sat on the stage in the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan, part of a panel along with former and current Meath players Colm O’Rourke and Donal Keogan convened for Meath County Council’s civic reception for the minor team that won the All-Ireland title in late August.
As much as it was right to acknowledge young custodians of a brighter future who were present with their families, for Geraghty just to be there felt like a personal celebration too.
Wind the clock back exactly 12 months to the very day and a room in Beaumont Hospital where he lay rigidly on a bed staring at a point on the ceiling, afraid to tilt his head even a millimetre because of the shrieking pain it would generate through him at that moment.
By that stage the last All-Ireland-winning Meath captain was just a few days over an eight-hour life-saving operation after suffering a brain aneurysm, resulting in a stage four bleed while at work at a social care facility in Trim.
And in those few days post-op, the emotions of relief at coming through it all and a sense of gratitude that he was alive were mixed with the “torture” of the pain he continued to experience as the blood which had dispersed took its time to self drain. It was a pain so severe that at one stage Geraghty recalls succumbing to the thought that only death could bring him the relief he craved. He pleaded with God to take him.
“I was lying there, just looking the ceiling. If I moved my head even an inch it was torture. I thought it was never going to end. It just seemed like the days were so long,” he recalls.
Everything disturbed him, from the lights of the ward to the slightest of noises that shook him with the impact of juggernaut passing close by. Sleep was almost impossible, between the pain and the constant requirement to be woken to take medication.
“The operation had gone well but the blood around the brain had to dissolve itself. The pressure was still there, that’s what gave me a lot of the pain afterwards,” he explains. “If I could settle it was fine but any move at all and it would start off again. It was hard to get comfortable.”
The procedure overseen by his surgeon Paul Brennan was coil embolisation, the placement of coils into the sac of the aneurysm, through a catheter inserted from the groin. But because of the bleed site, draining the blood wasn’t an option.
Eventually the pain subsided after five or six days and he was at least able to gather his own thoughts and prod his mind to the future.
“To think that you are going around with this bulging vessel in our head and if it bursts it can kill you. I am very lucky that I have no real side effects, usually you could be paralysed or your speech could be affected, your sight even. The only thing I have is fatigue and I hope that will eventually come right.”
It shook him, naturally. It shook those who knew him as a supreme athlete at his peak with his club Seneschalstown and Meath, a footballer who could make the game like an effortless stroll. For whom Arsenal once came calling and Alex Ferguson even name-checked after watching the 1994 Leinster football final.
How could one who glided across the ground with such ease just a few years earlier be felled by something like this? The truth is he doesn’t know. And neither do those who saved his life.
“I asked how and what caused it and they didn’t really know. It can be hereditary, it’s something that could be there for a couple of years,” he says.
“I’m relatively young. I wouldn’t say I’m fit because I hadn’t done anything in a few years but I’d be healthy, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink excessively.
“My mother said my grandmother had an aneurysm in the stomach, that’s a possible link. The thing is, if it was there for years, it could happen to anyone. You don’t know you’re living with this. Did it happen in the last year or two? I don’t know.
“I would have suffered a lot from migraine from early teens up to when I had the aneurysm and haven’t had one since so whether that was a factor? It’s something that worries me a small bit though because my son suffers from migraine as well and gets it really bad. The kids will have to be checked out.
“Is it a result of some of the bangs I got in the head? I don’t know. They couldn’t say yes or no to that.”
Geraghty’s game could be an attritional one. For all his silky movement he didn’t back away from contact and as a regular member of International Rules teams between 1999 and 2006 that contact was in regular supply, a bad concussion and removal from the field in the second Test in 2006 one of the series’ darker moments.
* * * * *
His recall of the day it happened had begun with a trip to Kilkenny before settling into a night shift at the Three Steps social care facility in Trim.
There Geraghty is a team leader where therapeutic residential service is provided to children, young people and their families with disability and disadvantage on an ongoing basis.
It was a career he gravitated to about a decade earlier, having spent much of his early life running pubs and taking up retail positions.
As he talked with colleague Ian Daly it felt like a routine night but discomfort hit him hard and sudden.
“It was just like we’re chatting here now. I got a pain in the front of my head. It came so quickly, like a spear through my head and down the back of my neck. it was just horrific. Ian thought I was having a stroke and he got me downstairs really quick. He rang an ambulance straight away.”
In Navan Hospital, he expected a quick diagnosis and outcome, something simple. But as the night wore on a picture of a much more serious condition began to emerge and within hours he was being transferred to Beaumont.
For 16 days he lay in isolation, no visitors permitted because of Covid restrictions. Contact with wife Amanda and his four children was by phone only. And even that was difficult early on with the pain he was in.
The former Meath footballer and consultant Gerry McEntee kept in touch with the family though updating them on the projected paths of the recovery. Seán Boylan’s support was also there.
But there is always perspective on a ward like in Beaumont. As bad as Geraghty knew he was, there was always going to be someone worse off.
“In hindsight it was a good thing that people weren’t coming in because I had time to rest, that was the upside of Covid for me. I knew I was in a good place and there were good people looking after me. Then I only had to look at people around me who weren’t as fortunate, that was the one positive side of it.
“On my ward there was one man, I don’t know how long he was there but he was there before me and quite a while after me, with the condition that he was in. I find myself very lucky I could walk out just over two weeks later. Many don’t.”
As the days went on there was improvement and more contact with the outside world. One phone call he made to the Kinnegad publican Tommy Scanlon, who he has struck up a friendship over the last couple of decades, stands out because of the shock his voice triggered at the other end of the line.
Geraghty has always life and sport in his stride, with almost casual acceptance of the highs and lows at either end of the spectrum.
But on leaving hospital his emotions rose up and took over. “I got into the car and started crying. Amanda asked me what was wrong with me. I didn’t know. It was just relief to be out and going home. Even when I came home it was tough, I was tired all the time. I had a few friends that would call out to see him and I’d get up for half-an-hour and go back to bed. I suppose you were trying to out up a front as well.
“For the first three or four weeks I was sleeping 16 to 20 hours a day. I might get up for an hour and go back to bed. That went on for three or four weeks. Gradually I was able to stay up longer and things have got better. I have a lot more energy than I have, especially in the last five or six weeks. But if I do anything at all I get tired still.
“If I was out and about, I’d go home to bed around two or three in the afternoon and not get up until six or seven that evening, then back to bed at nine. If there was nothing going on I could be in bed at half-eight, nine at night.”
Thus, that reception on Monday night and a minor hurling match involving his son Brandon on Tuesday night were outlets he welcomed.
“If I am at anything and the mind is occupied and you are doing stuff, it is easier. When you are restless and sitting, that’s when you get tired. You get tired doing nothing.”
He has some travel planned and in the new year is keen to get back to Three Steps and resume work.
More than a decade ago he was training Blanchardstown IT football team for third-level competition when an opportunity arose to take on a course in social and community development.
“It’s slightly different but a lot of the aspects would be the same as what I am now doing. It’s just a broader spectrum. But it’s work I enjoy with the challenges it brings, something I always probably felt would suit me.”
Commitment to football, he suggests, held him back. “That’s why I ended up where I was at the age of 37 because I sacrificed everything for football and neglected studies. Things are different now. For younger players their education comes first and they are better at managing both.”
* * * * *
Tomorrow Meath’s 1996 All-Ireland-winning team will be guests of honour at the county final, having not had the traditional gathering for the champions, 25 years on, at this year’s All-Ireland final.
It was a bruising conclusion to that championship with controversial incidents against Tyrone in the semi-final and the fight in the early stages of the final replay against Mayo that still features, to this day, as the footage of choice whenever violence is being discussed or featured. Ironically, Tyrone and Mayo contested this year’s final and Geraghty wonders, in that mischievous way of his, what the reception would have been like for some of colleagues had they waved to a full house.
“We have a WhatsApp group and that was mentioned a few times about a couple of in particular!”
Geraghty’s recall of both ’96 finals was that the better team lost. “They were six points up in both games and really should have pushed on. We were fortunate enough to get that point (Colm Coyle’s kick that bounced over) with the last kick of the game to draw. They were the worst two games I played all year, but others stood up and were counted.
“We came from nowhere that year. Carlow were being tipped by some of the papers. But I remember saying as I left the house for training one night, ‘I guarantee we’ll win the All-Ireland this year.’ There was a huge shift in the attitude between the league and the first round of the championship and we improved every game after that.”
That Mayo have failed to win any of the 10 finals they have contested since is not lost on him, especially in the context of his belief that ’96 was their best opportunity. But at least, he acknowledges, they are consistently contesting, unlike Meath who have fallen away from the top-tier counties over the last two decades since a last All-Ireland final appearance in 2001.
Earlier this year, then manager Bernard Flynn asked him to become involved as an U-20 selector but that ended controversially when Flynn stepped down after an agreement, via a charter, on the availability of senior players to the U-20 squad was broken.
“It was nice to be asked and I was enjoying it. There was no real pressure. Bernard asked me in, I think, to give me something to do, to keep me occupied. We’ve become good friends over the last number of years. Naturally I was disappointed with the way it ended, the board could probably have been stronger.”
Inevitably his outlook in life has changed since the aneurysm and the prospects of a repeat are slim, he has been told.
“The doctors said it could take up to a year, 18 months, to get back 100 per cent. I still get a couple of darts now and again. It’s a reminder, it might just come every couple of weeks. The likelihood of it ever happening again is very slim. that’s comforting. ‘You will recover and you will get back to where you were,’ they told me.
“But they also told me how lucky I was to be alive. I’ll always remember Gerry (McEntee) saying that to me as I was heading home from hospital.
“I live every day as it comes, it’s one thing I would have done anyway, but even more so now. If the kids want to do something, ‘Right OK let’s go and do it’. You don’t know what’s around the corner. It hit me like that; one minute you’re standing upright talking to someone, the next you’re crippled with pain. I’m thankful for what I have.”