Anguish banished by the fortitude of hurling's family
Cormac Ryan explains to Damian Lawlor how it feels to be told you'll never play again
IN 2011, Cormac Ryan kept goal for a Dublin minor team that went all the way to the All-Ireland final. An emphatic defeat by Galway took the fizz out of a season that had promised much.
Dublin hurling needed an All-Ireland at some level to maintain progress, and though Cormac Costello, Ciaran Kilkenny, Eric Lowndes, Emmet ó Conghaile and company looked like the men to make history, Galway brushed them aside by 10 points.
A month later, clouds of disappointment still hung over the Dublin hurling fraternity, but for Ryan a county minor football semi-final against St Anne's offered hope. Making a final with Whitehall Colmcille would, if nothing else, shorten the stretch to Christmas.
But far from providing solace, that semi-final would prove the catalyst for a brutal interruption to Ryan's playing career and a traumatic upheaval in his life in general.
"I felt dizzy in that game, kept going down," he remembers. "But because we were a few points ahead, the Anne's lads thought I was taking the piss, running down the clock. They didn't take it well, and after I went down the fourth or fifth time they literally dragged me off the ground, roared at the referee to get me up, and their sideline went nuts too."
Ryan felt he was starting to lose consciousness. "I was just lucky the ref copped that something was up. I heard him saying, 'you need to get out of here'."
From the crowd, Gerry Ryan hurried to his son's side. An ambulance was summoned. Cormac was brought to Tallaght Hospital but a series of tests suggested there was nothing to be alarmed about. And so, having regained his composure, he was let home that evening.
In his absence, Whitehall had lost the semi-final, and so the 2011 season fizzled out. Ryan's focus now turned to the Athletic Therapy and Training degree course he was starting at DCU. A few weeks passed in college without interruption and then, with another season looming, he resumed training with club and college.
But something was seriously amiss. Every time Ryan exerted himself he would struggle to breathe. Twice he collapsed and twice more ambulances were called. But tests again showed nothing and time after time he was assured that all was OK. At home, Gerry and his wife, Carol, were desperately anxious - or as Cormac puts it, 'freaking out'.
"Dad was on to a respiratory specialist at Beaumont who he knew from the GAA club. The doctor was making the point that if there was anything seriously wrong with the heart it should have shown up in screening. But eventually, after Dad nagging him, he brought me up to the hospital for further tests."
They attached a monitor, to be worn 24-seven. He did as he was told, returned the equipment when the time was up and thought little more of it. That Friday he was in town when he noticed a missed call. Moments later his dad rang and told him to get home quick. On the bus, his phone buzzed again; it was the hospital urging him to come in ASAP. A cardiologist spelled out the gravity of the situation: "You're going into heart-block - your heart-rate is irregular and slowing down, especially at night. Come in now."
Arriving with his dad at the hospital, Cormac was fast-tracked into the system: "When we hit A&E, normally you're waiting there hours, but we were rushed straight into triage. I was admitted to a ward and told I was staying there for two weeks while they explored the condition further."
From his hospital bed, Ryan saw that he was the youngest patient by about 50 years. The other men were in their 60s and 70s.
The fortnight passed slowly, although there was a humorous respite on the first day when he flatlined because he went to the shop, dragging his monitor out of range; staff saw the flatline on their tracking monitors and rushed to his aid only to find Ryan returning to his bed after buying a newspaper. They gave him an earful, the concern on their faces reinforcing the seriousness of his situation.
A few days later, as he munched a bowl of cereal, his heart stopped beating for five seconds. His pulse, which should have been registering 50 beats or more per minute, would drop alarmingly to the mid-20s. At 19 years of age, and just five months after playing in an All-Ireland final, he heard himself described by a consultant as "a ticking timebomb" - perhaps an irregularly ticking timebomb might have been more appropriate.
The doctors said that although they knew what the problem was, they still needed to establish its cause. To that end, the whole family would have to be tested. Ryan himself found the medical details a turn-off; his only concern was to get back on a hurling field.
But when he said as much to the specialist he was shocked by the response: "Never mind playing hurling again. You're lucky to be alive. You could have died at any stage over the past few weeks. Especially had you taken any alcohol. In fact you should be dead . . ."
For his entire hospital stay, Ryan was besieged by visitors, so much so that nurses instructed him to receive his guests in the lounge rather than overcrowd his bedside. Ironically, he was alone when the triple whammy was delivered: no more hurling, pacemaker needed, lucky to be alive. He lay back on the bed and burst into tears.
While Cormac lay upstairs in the specialist cardiac unit, his 90-year-old grandfather was on a trolley in A&E for three days. John Killeen, a Portumna man, had lived with the Ryans for as long as Cormac could remember. "A second dad," Cormac says. "I don't ever remember him not being there." It hurt bad that he couldn't go down to visit, especially as John never left the hospital. A lung infection deteriorated and six weeks later he passed away. In that time, Ryan had been in isolation upstairs, then had the pacemaker fitted, and was more or less house-bound while recuperating.
"I only got to see him once in those six weeks," he says, the pain still raw. "After being with him every day of my life, that was hard. The one time I got to see him I could only stay a half-hour because I was getting dizzy spells."
After going through all the cardiac tests, Cormac was fitted with his pacemaker, the doctors warning him it would initially feel like an alien thing in his chest. He couldn't have put it better himself. It took over a year to get to grips with it.
"Then we looked for research that could help me get back playing again," he said. "They weren't happy with that."
Case histories of combining pacemakers with elite sport were hard to find, because most people with this condition were 50 and older. Eventually, though, one such case history was found. Reluctantly, the medics agreed to position the pacemaker under Cormac's pectoral muscle. Provided he wore a chest guard, he could attempt to resume playing.
The road back was far from smooth. Only one per cent of patients have technical problems with their pacemakers, but Ryan drew the short straw. He found himself back in hospital after the lead became detached. He would have to go under the knife again.
Hours after getting that news, he had to sit an anatomy exam at DCU, but his head was all over the place. In his hospital ward, patients were encouraged to sleep in the afternoon. Lights were turned off and Ryan would doze off even though he wasn't tired. At night he struggled to sleep again.
The pacemaker refitted, he then decided to attend to a shoulder injury he had carried for years.
"I got the injury playing in the Arrabawn Cup years back and when I was told I was out of sport for the foreseeable future I decided to get the shoulder operated on as well. So from November 2011 to August 2012 I was basically in and out of hospitals. My body was adjusting to the pacemaker and not adjusting well, my energy levels were gone, my sleep patterns were all over the place and without realising it, my confidence levels dropped too."
He was home recuperating from surgery when a text landed inviting him to Dublin under 21 hurling trials. It only reminded him of what he was missing, and in pure frustration he flung the phone across the room.
"At this stage the doctors had decided not to let me back to college for second year either, they reckoned I wouldn't be able for it with all the trauma I'd gone through."
His hurling career hung in the balance, the two operations to fit the pacemaker were like hammer blows, the shoulder surgery was only marginally less invasive and then there was an enforced break from college and the death of his beloved grandfather. Not many could handle that.
Ryan didn't anyway - he piled on weight and saw little reason to leave his room. He makes no bones about what hit him next: "All I could feel was sorry for myself but I was actually depressed for two years, and a fucking nightmare to live with."
* * * *
RYAN was never an extrovert to begin with, but when his body was knocked out of kilter and the gruesome train of events kicked off, he was dragged to some dark places. Gerry knew his son was depressed and, as most fathers would, tried to help without making a song and dance. His way of lending a hand was to ring Dublin County Board CEO John Costello, a family friend, who arranged for Cormac to work at Parnell Park for a year.
"John did that for me and I was useless," Cormac reflects. "I was 19 and just spent the whole summer in bed. Everyone tried to help. John Costello tried. My friends and family tried. And I just snapped at them all. I went to a dark place. Dad spent the whole summer calling in sick for me. He would come up and plead with me to get out of bed but I'd have been lying awake until five and wouldn't be able to move.
"I ignored texts and calls from the lads, my friends. Fed up with me ignoring them, one of the lads called around on a particular evening and came up to my room. 'Get to fuck out of that bed,' he said. 'And enough feeling sorry for yourself.' We nearly fought but he got me out of bed, at least for a few hours.
"My relationships with people, friends and otherwise, suffered. They couldn't say anything to me at home either, because I didn't talk. My mam, my dad, Sean, Orla and Cathal got the brunt of it. They'd ask me how I was. Nothing. Mam might ask me to take my bike out of the hallway. I'd storm out of the house.
"I would go to the seafront in Clontarf and just stare out at sea for hours and then I'd come home, go to the room and not be able to sleep."
The Christmas of 2012 brought a watershed of sorts. He broke down in front of his parents and told them what they already knew - he was deep in depression. A steely family bond tightened further as he elaborated on what was going through his head: weariness, darkness, guilt.
"I just kept thinking of Cormac McAnallen and what happened him. Then a month after my operation Ciaran Carr, the under 21 footballer, passed away from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS). The words of the people in the hospital never left my mind: 'you are lucky here, you should be dead.'
"I was riddled with guilt and I had a new-found resentment towards hurling and football, the two things I loved more than anything. Did I ever consider doing something stupid like taking my life? No. Not even in the darkest moments. Deep down I knew I was lucky to be alive; it was just dealing with it."
He tried to turn things around - he set up the Cycle for Life to raise money for SADS. "I'll be totally honest about this," he says. "The cycle raised €35,000 and all sorts of praise was heaped on me. But I only did it for a selfish reason. To cope with my guilt. To feel better about still being alive when the boys had died."
The cycle was an intimate experience involving himself, Kevin Conway and three others. It started in Eglish, Tyrone, and took in the coastline of the country. Ryan was introduced to the McAnallen family, and brought to Cormac McAnallen's grave. He broke down at the graveside.
"Everything just hit me there and then," he said. "I could still see the grief on the faces of Cormac's parents and staring at his headstone . . . I just didn't know how to process things."
Prophetically, Gerry warned that the cycle would lead to an incredible high and then a deadening low and he was right. For 10 days Ryan rolled around the Irish coastline and the goodwill was massive, but for two months after he sank into a hole deeper than ever.
In early 2013, Shay Boland became Dublin under 21 manager and called Ryan offering a return to the fold. Ryan had played one junior game, at centre back, and decided he'd go back with Boland and played one challenge game in goal, under lights. He did fine but at half-time he told Mick Connolly to take him off.
"What do you mean?" the selector asked.
"Just get me off and I'll talk to you after," he replied.
Afterwards he told Connolly he had lost confidence in his goalkeeping, but Connolly reassured him that he'd get that back. Looking back, Ryan suspects Connolly and Boland knew they were dealing with a troubled soul, because they kept faith in him throughout 2013 when they had no reason to.
"There were three keepers around, and the team had played nine challenge matches before I came back, but I still got in as sub-keeper and I don't know how because I just took the piss with Shay. How he stuck with me I will never know. I was acting the fuck."
Later that summer, things started to settle. He played outfield for his club, shed the excess weight and got the all-clear to go back to college. He was hurling out of his skin for Whitehall and they reached the Dublin intermediate final, but were beaten by Setanta of Ballymun and to compound the pain, Cormac took a knock that left him momentarily unconscious. Soon after, he made the DCU Fitzgibbon Cup team at half-forward and all was going well until they travelled to Antrim for a challenge match and the regular keeper broke a finger. At half-time Paul O'Brien, the manager, told Ryan to go into goal.
'I can't, Paulie," Ryan blurted, flush with fear.
"Cormac, I don't want a drama. Just think of the team."
"It's not that, Paulie. I just can't go in."
And he burst into tears again. Sensing there was more than just positional preferences at play, O'Brien relented. Team-mates looked on and wondered what was up. Johnny McGurk, another of the backroom team, spent the second half quietly chatting with Cormac. They agreed he would see a DCU counsellor. On the way back south, he pulled up the hoodie and slumped in the back of the bus. Ryan made an appointment with the counsellor but never turned up. "I didn't want to talk to anyone," he explains. "I just had a fear of going in goal. Being out for 18 months had drained the belief out of me. The thoughts of making a mistake ate me up."
Ryan was lucky. He was surrounded by people who wouldn't take no for an answer. Before long the new Dublin under 21 manager, Joey Fortune, summoned him for trials. Ryan asked could he play outfield - Fortune told him to prepare for both outcomes.
Family and friends cautioned him against going back and risking another breakdown. But the phone kept beeping, so he went to trials and played outfield. They threw him in goal now and again and he survived.
He asked Fortune would he make it outfield and was told he'd be in the 30-man squad but not in the match-day 26. He would make it, however, as back-up goalkeeper to Conor Dooley. Ryan declined. Fortune said fine, but never gave up on him. Instead, he called, texted and showed enough interest in Ryan's personal development for the youngster to open up to him completely. Fortune listened, told him to come along with the team, and insisted they would jump every hurdle together.
They became firm friends. Ryan eased back into goal and regained some of his mojo before his left knee gave in. Three months' rest was prescribed but Fortune didn't allow him to slink away. For 12 weeks he oversaw Ryan's recovery, literally on the sidelines during matches; while team-mates played, he pursued his rehab just yards away. It was there he started banishing the demons that had plagued him for two years.
In tandem, Fortune arranged several sessions with the boxer Bernard Dunne. "Bernard definitely has something. He breaks it down for you, spells out what is ahead. People think 'mental-performance coach' and raise their eyebrows but Bernard was a huge help. I still get the odd text from him - 'well, how are you doing?'"
Ahead of their 2014 championship opener with Laois, Fortune huddled the team together and told them they owed it to Ryan to get a win and help him fight for his place on the next match-day squad. He said here was a team-mate who was fighting a battle not just with injury but also with deeper issues.
"A lot of the lads would have known I was struggling but maybe didn't realise the full extent of it," Ryan says. "After that training session, though, everyone knew what was happening."
Not for the first time on an extraordinary journey, Ryan was reduced to tears as Fortune, speaking for several minutes, told the team how brave Cormac had been. It was like a pressure valve being released. Ryan didn't make the squad for Laois, but they won it for him and he got back for Westmeath. He stayed in the squad for the rest of the year.
Fortune was just the latest in a line of people to help Ryan on the road to recovery. Gerry, Carol, his siblings, Kevin Conway, Bernard Dunne, the McAnallens, John Costello, Shay Boland, Mick Connolly, Paul O'Brien. It's a strong list and they all have one thing in common - they never gave up on him.
Life has moved on. Ryan is back in college, has overcome his fear of goalkeeping, and is preparing for another Fitzgibbon Cup campaign and for round two of the Cycle For Life next July.
This time he's doing it for different reasons. "We'll raise more money but that's not the issue," he says. "The issue here is to educate people about what SADS can do to you and your family - whether you survive an attack or not. It's a much more holistic thing than just the physical thing of having heart trouble. It changes your life completely, and if you're lucky enough to survive, it's 90 per cent a mental battle."
A battle that took two years to win. A battle that took a young man with everything going for him right to the precipice and back again. A battle that he could never have won alone. A battle no-one can win alone.
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