Former Carlow footballer had to call time on her inter-county career prematurely and was later diagnosed with endometriosis
It wasn’t an unusual occurrence for Pamela Hayden to wake-up in pain during the night when she got her period. On one Sunday night in January last year, however, the agony was worse than usual. The following morning, she went to make toast before taking any more painkillers but she collapsed in the kitchen. Her husband, John, caught her before she hit the floor and she was later taken by ambulance to St Luke’s General Hospital, Kilkenny.
A few days previously, Hayden had trained with the Old Leighlin football club in Carlow. She was 40, feeling fit and flying it at training. She had applied to take part in TG4’s Underdogs series for women and after getting through the first screening, she went back training with the club to get fit for the trials.
Hayden’s talents as a Gaelic footballer had been spotted since her teens. She made her inter-county debut as a 15-year-old, she was named Carlow player of the year in 2004 and spent her college years on a football scholarship in Maynooth where she did a degree in science and a PhD in biochemistry. She stopped playing football with Carlow at the age of 27 for reasons she never openly discussed.
Over 13 years later, in January 2021, Hayden found herself back in a pattern she had experienced before – the fitter she became, the worse her endometriosis got.
“I only spent the day there (in St Luke’s Hospital) as there was literally nothing they can do except give pain relief,” Hayden tells the Irish Independent. “An ultrasound by my consultant the next day confirmed a burst cyst and extensive bleeding in my abdomen. My endometriosis was extensive and advanced at this stage and led to my hysterectomy in April 2021.”
Hayden suffered heavy period pains as a teenager and the pain got worse through her 20s and 30s. She underwent her first investigative laparoscopy in 2008 and because endometriosis has been known to be difficult to detect, it would be another five years before she got final confirmation from her gynaecologist that she had endometriosis.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes endometriosis as a “chronic disease associated with severe, life-impacting pain during periods” and which occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. WHO says it affects “roughly 10pc of reproductive age women and girls globally” with variable and broad symptoms.
Hayden didn’t know anything about endometriosis growing up and assumed period pains were just something she had to put up with.
As a footballer, she was always conscious of when her period was due, especially for championship games which carried the extra worry about wearing white shorts for fear of blood leaking through.
She remembers her period pains being so bad the day before one championship game against Dublin that she couldn’t walk and she had to pull out of the game.
“I know for sure, as a player, I would never have spoken to a coach or even a selector, I just wouldn’t have. I just felt so bad but I never told anybody why. I just accepted that it was one of those things. I was more disappointed about not being able to play and letting people down.”
Hayden saw a trend forming as she got older; the fitter she became, the worse the pain.
“I did my cruciate in 2003 so I had a year out and came back in 2004 and it was probably the fittest I’ve ever been. But I do seem to have a pattern in my history that the fitter – or when I was getting to that level required for inter-county football – the endometriosis would actually get worse. I would have worse symptoms. It kind of escalated in 2008 and that’s when I had my first surgery. I still had no awareness, by the way, that this was endometriosis.”
Playing football for Carlow meant so much to Hayden (nee Donoghue). She even met her husband, John, through football.
In 2004, Pamela and John both played on the Carlow inter-county teams on the same day in Tullamore and they ended up meeting that evening on a night out in Carlow.
Three years later, and after winning the Leinster junior title with Carlow in 2007, Hayden decided she couldn’t continue because her symptoms were worsening.
“I just didn’t return for the 2008 season. At this point, I knew I couldn’t be consistent with my performance and my confidence as a player was gone. It never occurred to me to talk to the management team about it,” Hayden says.
“I did make three or four attempts to go back and play with Old Leighlin. But every time I would get to a level of really strong physically and really fit, I’d end up having a cyst or I’d end up having a burst cyst or I’d end up having really severe symptoms where you’re off your feet for two weeks.
“You could wake up and you can’t stand up because you’re in so much pain. And you’re so dizzy that you can’t get your feet under you and then, because you’re so dizzy, the blood loss and the pain – you literally just pass out. You’re quite nauseous then as well.”
There is a history of hysterectomies in Hayden’s family but she doesn’t know exactly why. She’s had eight surgeries overall and last year she had a full hysterectomy including the full removal of her right ovary (she had her left ovary removed in 2020), her womb and her cervix.
“I honestly don’t know myself,” says Hayden, who works as a senior quality manager with Boston Scientific. “I never knew I had cysts until they got to a certain size (a few of her cysts were 10cm+) and they impacted my bladder. I’d be running or I’d be training and I’d have no bladder function.
“That’s when I knew I had one or had a bleed and then I’d have to have surgery to have that out. Since I’ve had the hysterectomy, my HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) is keeping the endo under control because it’s still there. I will be monitoring it into my 50s, really. It’s totally fine to be honest. I’ve such surety now when I am doing fitness and I am trying to get strong.
“I would loved to have played for longer. At the time, I definitely felt relief because of the responsibility to my team, team-mates and I felt a relief that I didn’t have to worry about that. But I would have loved to have been able to play in my early 30s because I think, without the endo, I definitely could have. Even with it, I did play to a good level.
“I do feel it hasn’t held me back massively. The one thing I would have loved is more awareness around what was going on for me.
“Even just to have that thought process; ‘oh, this is what’s happening’. I didn’t probably have that into my 30s when the fertility thing came up and I was starting a family. I do have two kids (daughter, Lill (7) and son, Paudie (5) – I did have to have help and they’re amazing. I think having that awareness for myself would have been so powerful.”
Which is why Hayden is telling her story. Two months ago, she was one of 23 graduates from the Ladies Gaelic Football Association’s Learn to Lead female leadership programme.
“Through that course, it really has helped me to find a voice on this topic and just try not to be embarrassed about talking about it because I think it’s a valuable conversation.
“I think if having this conversation can raise the awareness for a player but also for your mentors and your coaches. I know we have our female liaison officers now in women’s Gaelic football, it’s just to have that awareness that maybe there’s something going on for this player or there is an inconsistency there.
“The LGFA are brilliant, they’re such a progressive organisation. They’ve really made a concentrated effort to keep girls playing and I think this discussion should be an evolution of that.
“Even the small things like the dark shorts. A lot of clubs have them now. I think that should just be a no-brainer across the board – have it for everybody. When I went to college in Maynooth, we had black shorts and I do remember that being a relief.”
Hayden never got to play at Croke Park with Carlow but she’ll be there on Sunday as back-up linesperson for the All-Ireland junior final after becoming a referee in 2018. She also coaches her daughter’s
under-10 team. And while her playing days ended sooner than she would have liked, she’s now helping to play her part in trying to make talking about periods a more open one.
“If you do have those heavy periods and you are experiencing that back pain and fatigue, go and have the conversation with your GP or a friend. It’s so powerful that information, knowing what’s going on with your body. And I do think that we’re getting so much better with that. We can’t speak about it enough.”