Thursday 14 December 2017

'At first you feel sorry for yourself. 'Why me?' Then the anger sets in'

Paul Kimmage wonders with Phil Quinlan if there is ever a good time to bang your head

A cap is left by a fan with a birthday wish for Michael Schumacher and (below) Phil Quinlan with his wife Helena
A cap is left by a fan with a birthday wish for Michael Schumacher and (below) Phil Quinlan with his wife Helena
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

One of the great stalwarts of Irish cycling, Tommy Reilly, was out riding his bike last week when he crashed on black ice near Stamullen in Co Meath. Tommy was never born -- he was carved from stone -- so it was a surprise to learn that he'd been shaken by the fall and been forced to return home. To be fair, he'll be 72 this year and, as a friend recently observed, that's "not a good age to get a bang on the head".

Which is true until you actually think about it. And I've thought about it.

What is a good age to get a bang on the head?

Phil Quinlan was seven years old when he realised there was no Santa Claus. It happened a week before Christmas, in December 1981, when he discovered the rugby ball he had requested in his letter to the North Pole on top of a bedroom wardrobe.

"Oh!"

The eldest of four born to his parents, Angela and Jim, the family had just settled in Navan after a four-year spell in Zambia, where his father had worked in the Copperbelt mines and played rugby for 'Diggers' in Kitwe.

Phil loved rugby and spent his teenage years dreaming sporting dreams: rugby for Munster (he was born in Limerick); football for Meath (he went to school at St Pat's and was taught by Colm O'Rourke); athletics for Ireland (he would model himself on the Kenyans). But it was soccer that changed his life.

The date was November 26, 1989. He was 15 years old and playing on the wing for Parkvilla, the best team in Meath, at a fixture at Kilberry against Torro United in the Leinster Senior League. Foggy morning, first half: a corner ball is flighted into the box and he is felled in a clash of heads. He staggers to his feet and tries to play on but is quickly substituted.

The game resumes. Kerr Reilly, the bus driver, is the first to notice that he has fallen asleep in the dugout and there is a trickle of blood from his ear. He picks Quinlan up, dashes across two fields, and drives him straight to Our Lady's in Navan. Forty minutes later, his parents arrive at the hospital. He's not there. "They've taken him to Beaumont."

He's still unconscious when they arrive in Dublin. A CT scan reveals a 'parietal extradural haematoma' (blood clot) on the right side of his brain and they operate immediately. He's in a coma for nine days and unconscious for six weeks before he begins to flicker his eyes.

Who am I?

Where am I?

What's happened to me?

The uncertainty lingers for days. His throat hurts. He's being fed through a tube in his nose. His right side is paralysed. He can't talk. A nurse is issuing instructions . . .

"Blink twice for 'Yes' and once for 'No'."

. . . his memory is seeping back with the speed of a dripping tap until finally, the picture is clear. He's Phil Quinlan. It's the middle of January. There was no Santa Claus this year.

"I was a terrible patient," he says. "I was bored and frustrated. My birthday was on February 7 and I promised myself I would walk again but there was never a chance. My right side was paralysed -- hemiplegia as they call it now."

He returned to Navan in a wheelchair. Exactly three months had passed since he had left that morning for the game and he spent his first weeks at home being piggybacked upstairs to bed by his dad. In March, a space opened up at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire and by the end of the summer he could stand again.

He would never kick or catch a ball again. And his walk had become a wobble that saw him bullied at school and abused on the streets: 'Look at that bleedin' spa'.

"I went through various phases," he says. "At first you feel sorry for yourself. 'Why me?' and then the anger sets in. I got back involved as secretary with Parkvilla as an 18-year-old and used to get angry at the young fellas who had talent but were drinking. I was bitter at people who looked funny at me, or crossed the road when they saw me coming, and lashed out at anybody who disagreed with me about anything.

"One day, when I was working for Lotus (computers) and living in Mountjoy Square, I walked down to the Hill 16 pub to watch Match of the Day. It's hard for me to walk downhill. I got to the bar and was sweating like a lunatic and the barman says: 'I saw you coming in. I think you've had enough'. I said, 'I'm disabled, not drunk,' and his face was a picture. But that's happened loads of times: 'Sorry, you've enough'."

Travel was the antidote. He went back to Zambia, spent a summer in the US and a year working in Australia. "I timed my visit to coincide with the International Rules team and did a bit for The Meath Chronicle. Colm O'Rourke looked after me; Trevor Giles was one of the star players and there was loads of work in Sydney leading up to the Olympics.

"I got a job at the Olympics managing central operations and was able to sneak in to watch Sonia win silver. That year really made me. I went to this old bar in Alice Springs and this cowboy was studying me as I wobbled in: 'What 'appined ye leg?' I told him I had injured it playing football. 'Rugby league or AFL?' he quizzed. 'Soccer,' I said. 'Serves you faaackin' right. What ya drinking?'"

He spent the next seven years working in computers in Kildare. The spasticity of his arm and leg continued to cause him grief and the nights were lonelier now, particularly after weddings, but sport was his saviour. He saw Alone it Stands four times, read almost every sporting biography ever published and built a shrine to Ronan O'Gara and Munster.

In August 2007, he returned home to Navan and started work as a special needs assistant at St Mary's Special School in Johnstown. Then, just when he was resigned to a life without love or companionship, he met Helena Reilly, a fund accountant manager from Oldcastle. They married in 2009 and their daughter, Eileen, was born two years later. "She terrorises me," he laughs, "because she's a runner and I can't run."

Twenty-four years have passed since his accident and he has found true contentment. He has also found some new heroes in life.

"I'd love to see kids in Transition Year coming to work for a week or two in schools like ours to watch the parents -- the mothers in particular -- and what they do. They are the heroes, especially those who have stuck together, because it's an immense thing to have a kid that's disabled."

I ask him about Michael Schumacher: Would you swap what happened to you with what's happened to him? Is it easier to bang your head when you've conquered the world or for that to happen when you still dream of conquering the world?

"It's not something I've ever thought about," he says. "It's probably easier to be injured while still young because I had the fitness and mental ability to adapt. If the same thing happens to him, he'll find it hard to come to terms with. Hopefully he'll wake up fine."

Amen.

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