Sunday 8 December 2019

'My mouth dropped to one side, I could just about talk'- Sligo footballer Johnny Martyn on recent stroke

Sligo footballer Johnny Martyn recalls the recent trauma of suffering a second stroke but he is confident of a full recovery

Sligo's Johnny Martyn hasn't given up hope of returning to play football (SPORTSFILE)
Sligo's Johnny Martyn hasn't given up hope of returning to play football (SPORTSFILE)
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Johnny Martyn likens the initial numbness to what might be experienced in a dentist's chair just as the anaesthetic is kicking in. Then there's the pins and needles, followed by a jaw-dropping sensation that leaves a feeling of the face tilting to one side.

He's talking through the various stages of the latest stroke he suffered in January as he warmed up on the sideline preparing to come in to the Sligo team for a Connacht League match against Leitrim.

And he's making it sound like routine business, a "small blip" that has checked his stride just momentarily.

This time he didn't panic, this time he felt in full control. When you've been through it before, as he was in the summer of 2014, you can afford to qualify it in terms of its scale.

It's just over a year since the long-serving defender, an inter-county footballer since 2003 and a panel member when Sligo won their only Connacht title of the last 40 years in 2007, had surgery to repair a small hole in the heart that was established as the cause of his initial stroke which occurred one evening on the training ground, a week before Sligo's All-Ireland qualifier with Cork in Portlaoise.

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There had been no warning sign beforehand, nothing to flag that there was anything untoward or out of sync with how he would normally feel but as he took into a warm-up lap he began to experience severe dizziness.

Beside him Adrian Marren noticed his distress and they stepped out to take a breather, to try and regain lost composure. But Johnny's condition quickly worsened. He lost his power of speech and collapsed.

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Naturally, the alarm bells rang around Markievicz Park. He came around and was quickly transferred to Sligo General Hospital where he could barely communicate what the symptoms were.

In the back of his mind there was the thought that he may have suffered a stroke. But how could that be, he wondered. Initial tests showed up nothing and for days afterwards Johnny still couldn't talk properly.

"That was the frustrating part of it. They didn't really know what it was. Even a viral infection was being mentioned," he recalls.

But on the Monday after the Cork defeat he had another scan which revealed his heart condition and clarity finally came. The hole in the heart had potentially caused a clot to trigger the stroke and he was back in Sligo General the following day for further tests.

When the full diagnosis arrived the shock to the system was palpable. He's an athlete. And these things shouldn't happen to athletes. Shouldn't they?

Last January he underwent surgery, was home within two days, back running within two weeks and had returned to action within two months, an appearance against Louth in the league bringing him the full cycle from where he was the previous July.

The speed of recovery, given the condition he had, surprised him.

"When I was originally told what had happened, I'd had a stroke and the stuff I'd have to go through, I said, 'I'm not going to be able to get back playing'.

"Thankfully, the doctors said there was a recovery route, there is no problem going back playing.

"I was mad to get back. I couldn't get back quick enough. Chatting to the surgeon (Mr Kevin Walsh) he told me to take it easy for a month but I was back running as soon as possible. The more you think about it, it can get into you and you might not want to play but I wanted to get straight back into it."

The Gaelic Players Association stepped in quickly too to provide support and foot medical bills of around €20,000.

"Without them I'd have been lost, to be honest. I wasn't working at the time, I hadn't a penny," he recalls. "They stepped in and said they'd pay for everything."

Ruptured ankle ligaments shortened his summer campaign but fuelled his determination to return again. In the meantime there was the satisfaction of a first Sligo senior title in 14 years with St Mary's.

Now he's left wondering about the source of his latest scare, though content it hasn't nearly been as serious.

The circumstances of both - warming up each time - is a curious one. Marren was on hand both times too. "He was injured for the Leitrim game and was on the bench when I went back down," recalls the veteran defender. "He got a bit of a hop himself. We've actually had a joke about it this time."

Second time around he was much better prepared.

"I had felt 100 per cent running, nothing was wrong with me. I was grand then ... bang ... it just came on me," he recalls. "I knew straight away what it was. I went back and told Niall (Carew), 'Something's not right here'.

"I didn't panic as much because I knew what was going on but the team doctor Declan Clinton was there, he came over and took my pulse and brought me around.

"I could still feel that weird feeling in my mouth, the whole right side of my face I could feel pins and needles, like something in a dentist's chair.

"I could just about talk but I could feel my mouth dropping down to one side as well. Declan brought me into the dressing room and I came around a bit more.

Sligo's 2007 Connacht Championship-winning manager Tommy Breheny, whose son Cian was playing, was on hand to take him to hospital where he spent the next week undergoing tests.

"All came back clear enough but I had a nerve scan on my brain and that showed up a small scar.

"With the previous incident I got the same scan and it was a lot larger. I knew it was going to be smaller but that recedes over time.

"They haven't established anything yet. I was referred to Professor Kelly in Dublin earlier this month and have had more tests.


"He hasn't seen anything like this before. When I had the procedure done the first time and I got stent in my heart and the chances of that happening again are one per cent. He wants to get to the bottom of it. That's (original heart problem) not the reason it happened again so they want to know why."

He's in good company as Irish rugby players Richardt Strauss and Chris Henry have both had similar scares over the last three years and have been treated successfully by the same expert.

For now he's getting back to normality again. An advertising representative with the 'Sligo Champion' newspaper, he has got back doing some light training and has taken up an offer from Carew to join the Sligo backroom team.

Professor Kelly has left him with a lot of hope that he can return to action, if not with the county then certainly with St Mary's.

He hasn't ruled out anything and takes inspiration from the decision of Kerry pair Marc ó Sé and Aidan O'Mahony committing to another season that they will both finish as 36-year-olds.

"If we get to the bottom of it and if it's good news there is no reason why I can't get back playing," he predicts. "I'm on medication now, two sets of blood thinners, I can't really do anything physical, as in contact sport. There could be internal bleeding if I got a bang.

"It sounds a lot worse than it actually is. People say, 'It's a stroke it's, time to hang them up'. But physically I feel grand, I think it's more mental now at this stage."

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