'They were thinking, 'he must be dead'' - Former Galway star urges people to get vaccinated after nearly dying from a common 'flu
The lost days are a blessing to Seán Treacy now, lending his brush with death an oddly distant, even rumoured quality. The nothingness of 10 days in an induced coma protected him physically then, mentally now. While family kept fearful vigil by his bedside, all of his major organs failing, Treacy's sense of it is that he was utterly at peace. When he finally woke on Sunday, February 10, 2013, the Ireland-England Six Nations game on a TV in the corner, his first words were an almost comedic "How's that going?"
His father, Nicholas - sadly since deceased - recognised the disorientation immediately.
"Seán, do you know what day it is?" he asked.
"Friday?" replied Treacy.
"No, it's Sunday week. You've been knocked out for ten days!"
The most chilling thought now is, maybe, the most obvious one. That January Thursday he walked into his GP, Dr Brogan's, surgery in Portumna... imagine if he'd put it off another day? Imagine if he'd done what most men do when feeling under the weather. Imagine if he'd waited.
Treacy blows his cheeks out.
"Well," he says after a momentary pause, "people would probably have been lining up outside the church in Portumna, sayin' he was a great fella! Praying for me. I would have been dead, I'd say. No, I most definitely would have been dead!"
* * * * *
The shock of coming back to this world was overtaken only by that of hearing what it was that almost took him.
Influenza B. The common 'flu.
He sits now in his Borrisokane home, six foot three, over 15 stone and not conspicuously softened from the man who won two All-Stars while hurling full-back for Galway through the early nineties. Seán Treacy is alive. And that, in itself, is a miracle of sorts.
For the symptoms that sent him to Portumna that day weren't exactly red flags for what loomed. "I was breathless," he remembers. "My heart felt as if it was hopping around in my chest. And I had this croak of a cough, that seemed to be coming from the bottom of my lungs. My wife Geraldine didn't like the sound of it.
"She was saying to me, 'That's not a normal cough!'
"And I was, 'Look, it's only a cold, it'll pass!' I mean I'd hardly been sick a day in my life, but this just wasn't getting any better. That Wednesday night, I was shivering and sat in front of the fire just trying to get warm. But I couldn't.
"So I drove into Dr Brogan's surgery for a 3pm appointment the next day. Went in thinking he'd just give me a course of antibiotics and send me home. I remember walking in with this big overcoat on, still shivering.
"He got me to lie down, took out the stethoscope and, whatever he heard, his immediate response was, 'Seán, stay where you are. You're going straight to hospital!'"
The firmness of those words gave Treacy his first sense of something being profoundly wrong here. Geraldine drove him to Ballinasloe where he struggled for breath on the short walk into A&E. They handed in the GP's letter and, in the few seconds Geraldine went to fetch him a bottle of Lucozade from a drinks dispenser, Seán was taken in from reception and put on oxygen.
Soon after, he was in coronary care, his last memory being someone suggesting to Geraldine that she go home and come back in the following day. After that?
"I remember nothing," he says. "I have to depend entirely on what I was told. All of my key organs failed during the night. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. All gone. The hospital rang Geraldine, suggesting she come in straight away. When they got to Ballinasloe, I was already in an ambulance heading for Galway.
"They told Geraldine subsequently, that I had a very bad journey, that they nearly lost me twice. I don't remember any of this. They took me into the Intensive Care Unit in Galway and, when Geraldine arrived with my sister, Mary, they were told I was in a very poor state, that I might not make it.
"This is all within 12 hours of me thinking, 'This'll go away! It's just a bit of a cold!'"
Treacy is telling his story now in the hope of alerting people to the dangers of the common 'flu. To encourage them to get the vaccine. He has appeared in a jarring HSE video to that effect and admits that, sometimes, it almost feels as if he's telling somebody else's story. When Geraldine and Mary were left waiting outside ICU, their emotions became - naturally - frazzled. "They were outside, thinking 'He must be dead!'" Treacy reflects now.
But, by the time they were admitted, the first, tiny signals of recovery had begun to register on the bank of monitors now tracking Seán's condition. "Only I've just seen this for myself, I wouldn't have believed it" observed one of the medics trying desperately to keep him alive.
"The next 48 hours will be vital!"
Treacy had, by then, been put into the induced coma and the rest, essentially, became a solemn vigil.
Geraldine would visit every day and sit, holding hands and talking to her unresponsive husband. Their daughter Gráinne, only nine at the time, would write little messages "To Daddy".
When he finally regained consciousness, the severity of his predicament quickly became apparent. "I was very weak, could barely talk," he remembers. "Visitors were only allowed stay with me for a few minutes. I looked down at my body and there were pads, wires, drips, beepers, everything connected to me.
"One abiding memory I have is of this wire going into my right groin. It was for dialysis, but I had no idea what it was for at the time. My legs were huge, full of fluid. My arms, the same. That's when I looked over at Geraldine.
"'What's after happening?'
"'Sean, you've been very sick!'"
* * * * *
In total, Treacy would spend 22 days in hospital and the road back to strength and normality was never going to run in a straight line. Multi-organ failure, naturally, has long-term implications for the few who survive.
In Treacy's case, his failing kidneys required ten weeks on dialysis and, at one point, the suggestion that he might even need a transplant. Just next week, he is due in Dublin's Mater Hospital for what is called a cardiac ablation, the insertion of a diagnostic catheter to try and eradicate his irregular heartbeat.
He has already undergone a maximum of three cardioversions (the use of electricity to shock the heart) and undergoes six-monthly coronary checks to keep track of the damage now, sadly, done.
"While I didn't have a heart attack, my heart was attacked if that makes sense," he says now. By the time he left hospital, his heart function was down to 21 per cent and he remembers having to stop four times just to catch his breath on the walk through hospital reception to the car.
"All I was thinking was, 'Jesus, if I collapse here, it'll look terrible!'" he smiles.
Treacy, an officer in Limerick Prison, would be eight months out of work in total. For his time on dialysis, he was confined to a strict renal diet. "Basically cuts out everything," he remembers. "Your potatoes have to be boiled twice to take the starch out. Can't eat bananas, no potassium. No sugar.
"You're on the most basic of basic diets. No gravy. No salt. Limited in terms of fluid intake. Some people are on that for years and I don't know how they do it. Because I used get the dialysis in Merlin Park, four hours, three days a week, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
"I'd come home, eat some dinner, then go to bed for a few hours. And by God, did I sleep? For seven or eight months, I went to bed every afternoon."
It was a remarkable lifestyle change for a man whose work in Limerick Prison is gym-based and someone for whom middle-age brought no tapering of the competitive instinct.
Two years after his near-death experience, Treacy did the Malin-to-Mizen cycle for charity and has since done the Ring of Kerry too. He has been active in hurling management almost since his playing days and recently committed to training Tipperary club Kildangan next season.
Almost all of his work colleagues in Limerick have now taken the 'flu vaccine as has Treacy's daughter, Gráinne, now 15.
"I was one of the lucky ones to be honest," he reflects now. "Because I've since heard so many stories of people who didn't make it. Those deaths don't tend to be publicised, but there's probably more people dying from the 'flu in Ireland than from any other infectious disease. Yet people seem to have this laissez faire attitude to it. 'Ah, it's just a bad cold!'
"I didn't see me at my worst, but my immediate family did. They saw me on the ventilator, looking like a corpse.
"So it was way more traumatic for them than me in some ways. I mean I looked so bad, Geraldine refused to have a picture taken of me.
"It was only when I did a bit of research afterwards, that I realised how dangerous the 'flu is.
"When I was first told, my reaction was, 'How the f**k could the 'flu do that to you?' But, when you read about it, the 'flu is lethal. It's a deadly virus to get.
"Getting the 'flu jab had been the last thing on my mind. Never dreamt I'd ever need to get it. I thought it was for elderly people or people with underlying health issues. But the danger of the 'flu is that anybody can pick it up. You can get it from droplets in the air, that simple.
"But I would have been one of those ignorant people who thought I'd never need it."
The belief is that the onset of sepsis, ultimately, caused Treacy's multi-organ failure, 'flu being the trigger.
"This story can happen anywhere," he says flatly. "I was one of the lucky ones. If not worse, I might very easily have ended up on kidney dialysis for the rest of my life. I could have had really, really serious long-term health issues.
"Or, God forbid, I could be in a box!"
For more about the HSE video on the flu vaccine, check out http://bit.ly/WhygetthefluvaccineDMHG