'I was a toss of a coin away from death'
A year on from the heart attack which almost killed him at 44, Paul Osam tells Garry Doyle about the difficulties of coming to terms with his own mortality
When the man walked into the bar and moved with big, imposing steps towards his table, heads turned. He had that distinguished look, that air of self-confidence which -- along with his physically imposing presence -- forced people to shift in their seats and subconsciously follow his path.
"Was that Paul Osam?" the owner asked one of his customers.
It was. At 45, and a decade on since he last appeared in the League of Ireland, Osam remains a recognisable face even here in Kinnegad, a town deep inside the GAA's heartland.
Dressed tidily and smiling easily, he is the picture of health on the outside even though he is haunted by fear on the inside.
This week marks the first anniversary of a heart attack which could have left him dead and has certainly left him scared.
"The doctors tell me I'm fine," he says. "But the biggest problem for me is losing that feeling of invincibility.
"When you are in your early 40s, you don't think this is going to come to an end soon. Yet this time last year, something arrived on my doorstep that I never expected to see.
"And that to me is the biggest hurdle, that feeling of vulnerability. Let's be honest, I was a toss of a coin away from death."
That he escaped it comes down to a certain degree of luck and the rapid response of his wife, Regina, who woke up one January morning to find her husband gasping for breath and slipping, momentarily, out of consciousness.
As Regina rang for help, Paul -- sweating profusely -- was awake again and gently chastising his wife for troubling the ambulance services, all the while knowing something was wrong.
"I felt weak, kind of sick, but that passed within five minutes. I got up, got dressed, went downstairs, walked into the ambulance and took my seat.
"That's when they took an ECG. The ambulance worker said, 'you are okay with your heart.' And that was the first alarm bell to ring. I thought, 'heart!' Why would anyone consider my heart to be a problem? I thought I was invincible."
Athletes -- even those in retirement -- tend to have an unrealistic view of the world. It's the barrier they erect to deal with the pressures of trying to master their sport -- and Osam, better than most, coped with this strain for 15 years, winning five League of Ireland titles, which would have been a sixth but for an administrative error.
Standing 6ft 4ins tall, his was a colossal presence on the park, his physical advantages aided by a sharp intelligence and flawless technique -- allowing him to consistently be one of the league's better players between 1995 and 2003, and clearly its best in the 1998-99 and 2001-02 seasons.
"When I was younger, I didn't look after myself as well as I should have and probably took things for granted," he says.
"But I can vividly remember the defining moment in my career. It came in 1995, playing for Pat's against Derry, when Liam Coyle was at his pinnacle.
"To me, he had the air of invincibility, so on this day as a ball broke into an area where the two of us were positioned, I remember thinking 'I'm not going to win this ball because this is Liam Coyle.'
"But not only did I win the 50-50, I still remember him flying into the air and saying, 'Oso, how the f**k did you do that to me?'
"From that moment on I told myself, 'I'm the man here, no one is going to knock me off a ball, no one is going to stop me, I am going to be the best player on the pitch. I am invincible'."
But last January the mask slipped and he was reminded of his mortality.
Taken to Tallaght hospital, he was immediately connected to a heart monitor and left alone for 30 or so seconds.
When the nurse tending to him returned to his bedside, the severity of his condition became clear.
"You know the saying, jaw dropped. Well, I can still see this nurse's face in my mind's eye when she saw the heart results on the screen next to my bed.
"Her jaw nearly f**king hit the ground -- and she just ran. I went into deep shock because I knew she had seen something wrong. And when she came back with two porters, they ran down the corridor, didn't engage in any small talk, didn't ask, 'are you okay?' I had no idea what was going on.
"What I saw next was a room with the word RESUS printed in big, bold letters above the door.
"There, drips were jammed into me. There was no molly-coddling, no ponderous search for a vein. The tubes were just banged in. Within seconds two doctors had arrived, followed by two nurses. It was panic stations.
"I must have been given about 20 tablets and had no idea what they were putting into me. I got a gagging feeling in my throat and panicked a bit when I heard a nurse say, 'it's happening again on his ECG.' At that moment, I thought I was on my way out.
"Then, some of the cardiology team came in. One guy looked at me, then at the charts, then back at me and said, 'you okay?' I said, 'yeah.' He said, 'no, you've had a massive event in your heart.'
"What's a massive event?"
"Your ECG says you have had a massive heart attack. Something majorly urgent is going on in your heart. We need to do surgery straight away."
Before they did so, a consent form was placed in his hands warning him that the procedure they planned to carry out had the potential to cause a stroke.
"Lying there, I remember looking at the form thinking, 'I don't have a f**king choice here because if I don't sign this I'm going to croak it anyway'."
Within minutes, a player who just 11 years ago was playing in an FAI Cup final, was undergoing surgery to save his life. "Afterwards, the surgeon told me the main artery into my heart -- the LAD -- was completely blocked. He told me I was very lucky to be alive."
A year on, he doesn't feel so fortunate, though. "The initial emotion was relief. I thought I was in a better position than everyone else around me because I was aware of what was wrong with me. But that feeling faded.
"Reality dawned, the reality that I'm 45 years of age and on medication for the rest of my life. How is that lucky? There are very few other men my age who have had heart attacks.
"Having another attack is a huge psychological fear. My paranoia is lessening but there have been some nervy days and nights because statistically, 10pc of people who have had a heart attack will have another within a year. So January 16, 2014 (last Thursday) was a major landmark. I live with a lot of fear."
Of what? He thinks, allowing 21 seconds to pass before answering, his voice low, his tone tense.
"To be honest with you, the fear I have now is that I am going to pass out, get dizzy, feel ill and not be in control.
"My most forefront fear is the feeling of being vulnerable. I frequently ask myself, 'why can't I be strong? Why is this happening to me?'
"If I could go to a doctor every Monday and ask him, 'am I okay?' and he'd say, 'yeah you're fine,' well I'd be happy with that. That would relax me.
"I need that constant reassurance because the other fear, the deeper fear is obviously death, of not being there for my wife and my son. It is not really a worry that I will never be here anymore. It is more how about how other people are going to cope.
"Now I know time is a great healer -- my own father died last November and my mother passed when she was 59 -- so deep down, I know people will be okay. But Regina, Evan (his son), I would hate to put them through the mourning period. I often say to her, 'I'm sorry for all this, for what you have had to put up with.'
"She always tells me, 'you didn't do anything wrong,' but I feel I did. Even having a heart attack, I feel I inflicted something bad on her and Evan."
The good news is that he has beaten the statistics, defied the trends which have shown how 80pc of the people who suffer the kind of heart attack Osam endured end up dead.
"It's not known as 'the widowmaker' for nothing," he says.
Better yet, it caused no long-term damage to his heart. "At my six-month check-up, my specialist told me he was amazed how healthy I was, given what I'd gone through. He'd never come across anyone who got away so lightly."
But that's physically. The emotional aftermath is an altogether different story and as he recounts his very personal tale here, he hopes it will strike a chord with other 40-somethings who are ignorant of destiny's fate.
"I was told that if I dieted on water and lettuce leaves throughout my life that I would still have had the attack," he says. "But there are things you can do. I don't mind admitting I smoked before I had my scare. That's gone now and you'd hope someone will read this, think of their family and give up the cigarettes."
He knows his words may go unheard -- that old habits can die hard. But so can middle-aged men.