Saturday 24 August 2019

'I was in no panic - I didn't think it could potentially lead to blindness' - Diarmuid Murtagh newly focused

Diarmuid Murtagh in action against Leitrim last season, before he learned of his serious injury. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Murtagh in action against Leitrim last season, before he learned of his serious injury. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Standing for the National Anthem in Croke Park on the first Sunday in August last year, Diarmuid Murtagh sensed something wasn't quite right.

At the other end of the field he could see blue shirts trailed out in similar formation to their own but their outline, that sharp focus he was accustomed to, was missing.

He made a mental note to have his eyesight checked out and got on with the business of a final round All-Ireland quarter-final round robin series with nothing except honour in Roscommon's case and business as usual in Dublin's case ahead of an already secured semi-final spot.

But even in the course of the game, Murtagh detected something different. Making runs from corner-forward the full clarity of the ball wasn't appearing to him until it was on top of him. The urgency to visit an optician became a little greater.

Dublin won comfortably but Murtagh still finished with six points, rounding off a decent series for him personally, if not for the team.

Some 10 days later, however, that performance shone in a different light when he was informed by a specialist that he had a detached retina and was committed to surgery almost straight away.

The most innocuous of incidents just over two weeks earlier while preparing for the Dublin game left Murtagh just one more bang on the head away from losing sight in his left eye. As he tells it now, the magnitude of what he suffered becomes apparent but without prior knowledge of diagnosis the simplicity of what happened masked the gravity of the outcome.

Slipped

Murtagh had been tracking a ball coming out of the sky when it slipped through his hands and connected with the top of his head.

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No more than that. But the consequences would last until Roscommon's last league game against Kerry in March when he finally returned to action after a seven-month absence.

"I just went up to catch the ball and it got held in the wind," he recalls. "I turned around and obviously I was battling with whoever I was marking in a training match. Somehow the ball managed to slip through my hands whatever way I went to catch it so I'm blaming myself for it. But it just hit me on top of my head, not hard at all. The surgeon I was with reckons it was probably something to do with the way my eyes were located, looking at the ball coming out of the sky, so they were at an unusual angle."

That evening driving home blurriness developed, making oncoming traffic problematic for him. "I had a headache sensation afterwards. I felt I had a migraine coming on because when the lights in the cars were coming towards me, I was just seeing black dots in front of my eyes."

He thought concussion and had the relevant tests but when they came back they were as good as those he had undergone at the outset of the season, standard for their squad as measurement if there is a concern at a later date.

"When it wasn't concussion I thought everything must be fine, just the eyesight getting worse and I don't want to accept it. I said nothing and convinced myself that I'll get used to it."

Even after the alarm of not being able to pick out faces or shapes in those blue shirts didn't bring any greater urgency. The thought of a life of glasses and contact lenses was one he was willing to put off for another while.

"I was annoyed about it but I knew that the football season was coming to an end so I was in no panic. I didn't see it as something serious, I didn't think it could potentially lead to blindness if I didn't get surgery on it."

But that changed on a visit to a local Roscommon optician who, on examination, quickly referred him to a specialist in Dublin.

"It's a very unusual injury to get. It's more common in elderly people, not for someone so young. Possibly it's more common among rugby players because of impact.

"They had dealt with it before obviously but it was an unusual one, a freak caused by a split-second movement. For all I know, there could have been a prior weakness in the retina."

The recovery left him with a new perspective on the game he had given everything to, to the point where he seriously questioned his future in it even at the age of 24.

A six-month recovery followed that involved no potential for contact, pressure or anything that could cause a rapid head movement which might compromise the reattachment.

"You give 100 per cent to football but after the surgery I was thinking to myself, 'Why am I playing football? I gave so much to it, why is it giving this to me.' The easy thing would be to not play again but you could be out watching a game and get a bang on the head. You could fall anywhere, trip out playing on the grass and hit your head and the same thing could happen. You can't just park everything because you got an injury like that."

Reasoning with it was still difficult, he admits, especially when he analysed what might have happened.

"When I was lying there for that hour or two and even the day after with an eye patch on my head and having to turn my head just to talk to my family, I asked myself, 'Is it worth it?' That's what I mean about perspective. You could probably still play football with one eye but you couldn't play at the same level."

He wore a protective shield for weeks afterwards and couldn't run or visit a gym for months.

"Anything involving exercise, even a game of golf, was out. I could put no pressure on the head. I left it about three months without putting any pressure on it. Couldn't do a thing.

Contact

"I went back and did a gym session and I felt light-headed doing that. It's six months without contact but at about the five-month mark you can go back jogging. Lifting weights over the head, that was the last thing I could do before I could go into contact."

The all-clear came at the end of February but despite their relegation peril no pressure was put on him to go straight back in for which he was grateful.

"Overall, I'd be a very positive person about everything. Football is what makes me happiest so I wasn't going to let an injury like that stop me from doing what I love. Since I've been back training I've never enjoyed football as much.

"I've got a few bangs on the head and there has been no problem. There's actually a greater chance of it happening on the other eye than the one it happened to. It's nice to know that my head can take it and my eye can take it. That gives me great confidence."

Murtagh, whose brother Ciarán has opted out for the season, can look forward to the future for both himself and the team with optimism with their Connacht Championship beginning next weekend against Leitrim.

"If you are not positive about your own team why would you be there? If you're not positive about the future why would you bother playing? The league was disappointing to be relegated from. I know I spent a lot of time watching the game in the stands and we started out very well.

"But you don't be long getting over it (relegation) when the championship is coming quickly. It's not something that should affect your championship preparation.

"I think we'll just take the positives from the league because there were many positives. Some performances we were disappointed with obviously but there's much to look forward to."

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