Sport Rugby

Sunday 17 December 2017

'I don't think I'd be here if I hadn't been able to find a cure' - Ireland prospect Ryan on his health battle

John Ryan is looking forward to scrumming down in Rome after making his first Six Nations start in Murrayfield Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
John Ryan is looking forward to scrumming down in Rome after making his first Six Nations start in Murrayfield Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

John Ryan had denied reality for so long one can forgive him, even now, the occasional reel from its glare.

"I definitely don't think I'd be here if I hadn't have found a cure," says the 28-year-old softly.

The Cork native speaks of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease which is a close family relation of, and often just as exhausting as, the more recognised cousin Crohn's Disease.

Former England rugby captain Lewis Moody and current Scotland football captain Darren Fletcher were high-profile sufferers; both have spoken eloquently of how they, too, tried to mask the effects of the illness.

Ryan was diagnosed in 2011; by that stage his Munster career was being slowly revived after he had slipped out of the sub-Academy in 2009, rerouting him towards some farming, nightclub bouncing and the completion of an arts degree in UCC.

He battled, mostly against dramatic, sudden spurts of weight loss, for three years but in 2014 his immune system spectacularly imploded under the enormous pressures placed upon his colon.

He had been dabbling with medication and a variety of dietary innovations but a different, defining reality now confronted him as he sat in Cork University Hospital; he needed to address the problem head on.

The condition has medical effects but also psychological effects considering the impact the condition has on the bowels.

"I think I was in a bit of denial back then. Luckily I came out the other end. I am okay now," he says. "But the way I was thinking was 'if I don't complain, it won't be a problem'. The weight was falling off me and I had to take nearly three weeks out at that stage.

"I was denying the fact that I could be in a trouble, I thought I could keep playing through the illness. But I couldn't.

"Those three weeks off really kind of helped me. I discovered new medication through my doctor and that just seemed to do the trick.

"Luckily I was one of the people with that condition who found the right mixture of medicine to get me through it, to live a normal life.

"It is common enough for males in their early 20s, and their 30s, and it can develop into Crohn's Disease so that is not somewhere I want to be.

"If you don't get the right medicine, you will end up having to get your colon removed.

"It had a huge effect. We won't get into details - you can look it up yourselves - it is no way to live.

"As an athlete you are giving 60pc of your performance. It takes right away from your game. I am glad to see the back of it, hopefully.

"I am happy now that it is under control and is not really an issue any more, which is great."

Given all this, his was the most remarkable of comeback stories looking back at Scotland, truly contextualising the disappointment over the outcome. His is a life that has had to be managed.

"I need medication, take it every day," reveals the player whose current, consistent fighting weight is 118kg.

"I get an infusion every two months in the hospital and I was in there last week actually. So that is all under control now. Weight hasn't been an issue ever since 2014."

In his time of denial, he messed around with diet like a faddish teenager, at one stage even omitting fruit and veg. Now, barring obvious extremes, he can consume what he likes.

"That's all good now. My diet is completely gone - I can eat what I want, within reason. Watching what I ate, that didn't work out because the weight was still just falling off me."

Where once he contemplated not lasting, the unforgiving sapping of strength, appetite and sleep, the simple zest for life and confidence, now he wallows in firsts.

International cap. Six Nations appearance. Champions Cup quarter-final. Now Italy.

"Just being selected was huge for me. I was delighted when I found out. Standing for the national anthem was spectacular. I just really was able to take it and enjoy it."

Remarkably, Ireland had no scrum beyond the 46th minute in Murrayfield in the one area they were enjoying supreme confidence, with the bedraggled Scottish pack enduring a yellow card warning for their next offence.

"I was chatting to Cian Healy and he said it was the first time in international rugby he hasn't had a scrum, over half an hour. Pretty incredible.

"Look, there'll be plenty of scrums in this game. I guarantee you."

He will relish every moment.

Something, at last, he doesn't mind denying.

Irish Independent

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