Davy Fitzgerald: 'I've had scares and I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm afraid of dying'
Exclusive extract from his autobiography 'At All Costs'
Within a few weeks of taking the Wexford job I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea. It was just the latest in what felt like a succession of psychological kicks to take. The diagnosis meant wearing a mask in bed at night connected to a small mobile ventilator. I must have looked like Darth Vader with it on and, to begin with, struggled to get even a couple of hours' proper sleep, between the noise of the machine and the discomfort of the mask.
The diagnosis pitched me into a serious depression. My heart issues were well known by now, but this was an unexpected complication. To be honest, I'd been feeling dreadful for some time, and, after two days of extensive tests in the Galway Clinic Dr Bláithín Murtagh confirmed the need for a mask and gumshield to be worn at night.
I was shattered. Essentially, your breathing repeatedly stops and starts because of, in my case, a relaxation of the throat muscles. In extreme cases the brain and other organs can become deprived of oxygen, with, naturally, grave consequences.
So just when I needed to be coming at the Wexford job with huge energy, I was on the floor. Honestly, it felt as if I'd made a terrible mistake. There were days I'd feel so jaded I could hardly lift my hands. The round trip to Wexford was always going to be an ordeal, but I was arriving into Ferns just feigning enthusiasm. I had absolutely zero energy. Worse, I had zero morale.
Here I was at 45, feeling as if my body was slowly but surely giving up on me. I felt in turmoil, forcing myself into the car for the three-hour drive to training, taking these deep breaths then on arrival, just to summon some kind of artificial energy. Forcing everything. I felt incredibly down and remember sitting up in bed one night and bursting into tears. All I could think was, "Where the f**k is all this heading?"
Sharon, my partner, was brilliant. She just kept reassuring me that things would improve and that this was just a temporary setback. Likewise my family, particularly my mother Nuala, and sister Helen. But they were absolutely united in their conviction too that, above all, I needed a break now. To be honest, they'd all been against me taking the Wexford job in the first place, given that my body now needed everything that that commitment would deny me. Rest. Relaxation. Time to myself.
Energy-wise, I'd say I was a two out of ten when I accepted the job and, looking back, it was probably nuts to do so. And yet, in a strange way, I recognised just how much I needed the hurling now. I'm not good sitting around the house, overthinking things. I need a project to keep me going. I need people around me. Trouble was, the week of my final game as Clare manager, an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway, I'd spent two days in St Vincent's Private Hospital, getting a couple of stents inserted to clear a blockage in an artery.
So every dark thought imaginable was coming into my head now. You see, I've got lucky with my heart twice. Hugely lucky. My first incident was while in charge of Waterford in '09. Just a week or so after our All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kilkenny and I felt something wasn't quite right with me. No pain as such. No obvious tell-tale signs of any trouble. Just an ongoing feeling of tightness in my chest that I knew I couldn't afford to ignore. Why?
Because there's a pretty bleak medical history on my mother Nuala's, side. One of her brothers, Pat, died from a heart attack at 27. Another, John, went in his early forties, then Conor was gone, like their father, in his early fifties. Like them, I have heart disease. I try not to think about that too deeply, because there's nothing to be gained from it. But I'm not ashamed to say that I'm afraid of dying. I think most people are. And it does come into my head that, with my medical history now, anything could happen at any moment.
In '09, I went up to Dublin, where they found a 95 per cent blockage in one artery. For some reason it was decided to send me home for a week before inserting stents. I'd say that was honestly the longest week of my life. I was so worried I couldn't sleep a wink, and Sharon would wake to find me walking around the house at two or three in the morning. Basically, I was almost afraid to close my eyes.
That sensation returned in August of 2016 when, just three days before we played Galway, I found myself in a Dublin hospital bed with what felt like a concrete block pressing down on my chest.
In that instance I'd been directing cars into a field for the wake of a dear neighbour in Sixmilebridge, Geraldine Crehan, when suddenly I felt this tightness in my throat. My dad was standing beside me as it happened and I just said to him, 'Not feeling great, might go in and eat a bit.'
Whatever way I looked, he insisted on driving me the 200 yards in from the front gate. I'd been out on the bike that morning, pushing myself really hard at times over maybe a 40km spin, so it was in the back of my mind that maybe I'd overdone it. I suppose it's ironic when I think about it now. Geraldine had died of a heart attack, and while organising the parking a few of us got to talking about the importance of regular heart checks.
Now I was about to have an incident of my own. I ate a bit, still didn't feel right, so rang Doc Quinn. He wanted me to drop down to his surgery, but I was pretty sure I needed to head straight to Galway. "Will you sort something for me?" I asked.
So he rang John Clarke in the Galway Clinic and, stupidly I suppose, I insisted on driving myself, my son, Colm, in the passenger seat and James 'Bomber' Hickey in the back. Looking back, that was madness. Dad, Sharon and Helen were all offering to drive, but I had it in my head that concentrating on the road would stop me over-thinking what exactly was now happening to me. That wasn't fair to the two lads; I realise that now. Colm was under instructions to grab the wheel and slip the car out of gear if anything happened. I can still see their faces to this day. Terrified.
On arrival in Galway, an angiogram soon identified the problem. A 98 per cent blockage. Soon as I heard that I requested a transfer to Dublin, where I could be put under the care of my regular consultant, Niall Mulvihill. Galway had been brilliant, but Niall is a man I've literally come to trust with my life. And so, in the week of what would prove my final game as Clare manager, I ended up travelling alone in the back of an ambulance to Vincent's Private.