Tuesday 17 September 2019

'We just hope that we get some resemblance of Sean back' - Martina Cox on her husband's health battle after Anfield attack


Sean and Martina
Sean and Martina
Liverpool players Georginio Wijnaldum (left) and Andy Robertson hold a banner after a pre-season friendly between Liverpool and Napoli in Dublin in August

John Greene

It's a night his family will never forget... Sean Cox went to Anfield to watch his beloved Liverpool in action in the Champions League, but ended up fighting for his life.

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you'll never walk alone

You'll never walk alone

THE game was on. Lifelong Liverpool fan Jack Cox had settled down in the sitting room of the family home in nervous anticipation of what was to come. His mother was in the kitchen, cooking dinner; one of his sisters was studying, the other was at Irish dancing.

Martina Cox Photo: David Conachy.
Martina Cox Photo: David Conachy.

His father? Well, Sean Cox was the lucky one. He was at Anfield. For the Champions League semi-final, against Roma of all teams, with all the history between the two clubs. It didn't get much better than that.

And what a game, one of Liverpool's greatest European nights. They raced breathlessly into a scarcely believable five-goal lead, ultimately winning 5-2 after conceding two goals in a nervy finale. Still, they were all but certain of reaching another Champions League final. The famous old stadium had been rocking. April 24, 2018. Truly, a night to remember.

Half an hour before kick-off, Sean Cox and his brother Martin stepped out of the Albert Pub on to the Walton Breck Road, a landmark meeting point just yards from the stadium.

The two Dubliners are avid Liverpool fans and have regularly made the trip to Anfield over the years. Sean usually planned these trips well in advance. On this occasion, Martin got two priceless tickets the weekend before the semi-final so it was a last-minute decision to travel. The tickets were much sought after and the brothers didn't need to be asked a second time.

Liverpool players Georginio Wijnaldum (left) and Andy Robertson hold a banner after a pre-season friendly between Liverpool and Napoli in Dublin in August
Liverpool players Georginio Wijnaldum (left) and Andy Robertson hold a banner after a pre-season friendly between Liverpool and Napoli in Dublin in August

But Martin's son was making his Confirmation the day after the game so they had to book the earliest flight home on Wednesday morning. It was a flying visit. But it would be worth it; a night to remember.

Only Jack never got to see the end of the game. And Jack's father, Sean? Well he never made those final few steps to Anfield.

A small group of Roma fans, known as the Ultras, had been making their way up the Walton Breck Road. They were dressed in dark clothing, some with their faces covered, some wielding leather belts as lethal weapons. They were a menacing presence on the street and there had been some flashes of violence as they marched on the stadium.

Donations to the SupportSean campaign can be made at  http://www.gofundme.com/SupportSeanCox

Sean Cox was blindsided as he stood on the street. He was struck by two rapid, savage blows to the right side of his head. He never stood a chance. He was hit with such brutal force that it's very likely he was already unconscious as he started falling, landing hard and hitting his head on the road. Martin Cox threw himself on top of his stricken brother to protect him from further blows. He was kicked several times as he shielded Sean.

The game wasn't long on, they think, when the phone rang. Liverpool might have scored their first goal, but they are not sure. Sean's wife Martina took the call. It was from her sister-in-law. Sean had been attacked; he was in an ambulance. Word spread quickly through the family and soon the house began filling up.

Martina's head was in a spin. "I had no sense of how serious the situation was," she says. "I just thought he'd been attacked, I didn't get the sense at first that it was so bad."

She then got a call from a nurse in Aintree University Hospital and that, she says, was when the reality of their situation began to hit home. "She basically said Sean had had a bleed to the brain... he needed to have surgery immediately, and they were moving him to the Walton Centre, which is literally next door to the hospital. It's a centre of excellence. She basically said the next 24 hours were crucial; make your way over to Liverpool. She just said the situation was pretty serious."

They soon became aware that videos of the violence on Walton Breck Road had been posted on social media. The atmosphere was tense and dangerous; the scenes were chilling. A man can be seen motionless on the street while scraps continue around him. Martina could not bring herself to look at them that night, and says now that she never will.

News that a man had been injured outside Anfield before the game broke quickly and as more detail was added by early morning - that he was 53, that he lived in Ireland, in County Meath, in Dunboyne, and that he was in a very serious condition after the attack - people in their circle of friends began to make contact. Please don't say it's Sean. Please say it's not Sean...

By this stage, Martina was in Liverpool, having flown there first thing with Peter Cox, another of Sean's brothers. They went straight to the Walton Centre, where Martin was waiting for them. "Martin had been there all night, just sitting in the waiting room, and Sean had gone into surgery and come back out. Martin had been in and out to see him.

"Martin was in an awful state, he was on his own, absolutely devastated, so shocked that he was hardly able to speak," she says.

"We went in to see Sean and there he was, just... hooked up, on a ventilator... it was horrific, just..."

Sean was sedated, initially for 48 hours, but his injuries were so severe that he was ultimately kept sedated for two weeks.

His family mounted a bedside vigil as the horror they found themselves living became apparent. Martina was an ever-present, with other family members all taking turns, while their three children, Jack (21), Shauna (20) and Emma (17) spent as much time as possible with their father.

The first small step forward came when the hospital made the decision to phase out sedation. "I think we probably expected him to wake up immediately but that didn't happen," she says. "We saw flickers.

"They said, he's not going to wake up immediately, he's going to take a long time. It's a slow process. We just sat through it. You just keep hoping and praying that he's going to come around. It's very hard to watch your loved one just lying there; knowing that somebody had done this to him."

* * * * * * *

Sean Cox, from Clondalkin, and Martina Bannon, from Walkinstown, were married 29 years in July and have been together since 1986. They have been, she says, "lifelong friends" having spent pretty much of their entire adult lives together.

There were times in Liverpool when she had some quiet moments at Sean's side when she would reflect on their life together and how great it had been and the fear of the unknown - of what lay ahead - would creep in. But in those difficult moments, the joy of that shared life, the memories of family holidays to Portugal, their runs together around Dunboyne, would sustain her, along with the hope of one day being properly reunited with her Sean.

"He was in Liverpool for four and a half weeks - and obviously unconscious for all of that time, so we literally sat with him day in, day out. There was nothing; there was absolutely nothing. We just sat there. We talked to him, had music playing, rubbed his arm, held his hands... just telling him things.

"But we didn't know whether he could hear... we were just there for him."

In the Walton Centre, they encourage families to keep a daily log. Martina says: "They had a really nice thing called a Patient's Diary, where you chronicle each day's events, no matter how small. We basically wrote in it every day we were there. The whole idea is that they don't give you the diary when you go, but when you're well enough you go back and you can go through it. So hopefully, maybe some day, Sean can go back to read it. It's a nice thing to read over. It just kind of documents when things happened... like if there was a flicker, or if he opened his right eye for five minutes, we documented it."

One message, from Jack, sticks in her mind. Hi dad it's my 21st birthday today, myself, mam and Richard [Sean's cousin] are going to Nandos for dinner.

"He opened his eyes in Liverpool. I think the longest was for four to five minutes, and we thought we'd won the Lotto. That was near the end, just before we moved back home. And from there on he started to sporadically open his eyes but it wasn't really until he got to Beaumont that he woke more fully; but that did take time."

The plan, always, was to move Sean back to Dublin as soon as possible. Repatriation they call it. Two things were needed for that to happen, though: he had to be strong enough to survive the journey; and he needed a bed in Beaumont Hospital under the care of the specialist unit for traumatic brain injuries. Both would take time.

The transfer finally happened near the end of May. At this stage, Sean remained in a coma but was now strong enough to cope with the stress of travel. Martina often thinks that his fitness and general good health - Sean is a runner and had dealt with back and cholesterol problems - have armoured him for battle, none more so than during the summer when he developed pneumonia. "Thankfully he recovered from it very quickly; I think his fitness and all of that really stood to him in that sense. He recovered within a week."

Sean is a proud Dubliner, and she smiles as she thinks how media reports about the attack referred to him as a 'Meathman' and how that would drive him mad if he knew.

But he is proud too of his involvement with the GAA in Dunboyne, and of the life he and his family have built in that community. Moving there, says Martina, was "probably the best thing we've ever done". Last Saturday, Jack was on the club's team which won the Meath junior championship. It was a source of pain for the family, and many in the club, that Sean was not there to witness this moment of sporting glory in young Jack's life. On Monday, Jack and the club chairman Fergus McNulty brought the cup into the hospital.

It was in Beaumont where Sean's flickers became something a little more prolonged, and with them a new sense of hope for his family. He gradually found the strength and energy to keep his eyes open for, sometimes, a couple of hours at a time until the fatigue would overwhelm him again. And as the summer progressed, and the pneumonia was consigned to the past, more progress was made. He started to move his right hand and arm, and then his right leg. Small movements but more than enough for Martina to believe that Sean has lost none of his fight.

"He can lift his right arm," she says. "It's weak, but he can lift it. He can hold a ball. If we give him the phone and if he's looking at photos he knows to flick through them; he knows what to do. Ironically he's left-handed, his strength was in his left arm, but his right arm has become the main thing. Obviously he does everything with the right arm. His right leg now is active. He can move it up and down. The left leg is probably the main problem."

Indeed, his right arm was just strong enough to proudly take hold of the junior cup with his son last Monday.

"He's not sitting up. He can move himself up a little bit, but to put him into a wheelchair they have to use a hoist so that'll tell you where he's at. You say to him 'now, Sean try and move yourself up' and he will try and push, but he's always pushing more with the right side because the left side is the weak side, because of the injury to the right side of the brain.

"He has made progress, he wasn't doing that [a few] weeks ago. He was doing nothing, he was only slightly moving his right hand and squeezing our arms. Now he can hold a ball, hold a phone, he's scratching his head... that's something he always would have done. If you give him earphones he'll put them in his ears, so he knows what to do with things."

These are all small steps, little milestones on a difficult journey for Sean and his family. There is no timeline on his recovery, there can't be. The fact that Sean cannot speak or enunciate in any way how he is feeling has put a huge strain on those who care for him most. Martina has become his voice. It has become clear he knows what's happening around him, that he can see and hear everything, even if it seems his sight has been compromised to the extent that doctors say he may be experiencing double or treble vision.

"I have to be Sean's voice. And it probably was one of the more difficult things when we got to the hospital initially because Sean was the guy in the corner who couldn't speak. I had to make sure that I had some kind of rapport with the nurses; I had to develop something so that they would give me an update, because I could go in and if nobody was talking to me then I didn't know what was happening with Sean. How was his day? What happened? Did he go to physio? Did he have speech and language? We have to be his eyes and ears.

"He's better now at expressing himself; he's definitely more alert now than he has been. He has a few words but it's very limited. Very low, almost like a whisper. He would say 'yes' and 'no', and he actually said 'sore shoulder' once. But he can't string a sentence. He is talking a bit but we don't know what he's saying because it's gibberish, which is really upsetting. I'd say it's very frustrating for Sean. He just can't get the words out.

"It's very hard to paint a picture at this stage because I really don't know. Sean is at the very beginning of his journey. When you think about it it's been five and a half months and one month of that he was asleep. It's a very long slow recovery and we really don't know what the outcome will be. Obviously he's still not talking and that is a huge concern. We really don't know how that's going to pan out. I don't know about his mobility, I just don't know... it's still too early."

Wednesday last brought the next critical step of Sean's road to recovery when he was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. The family had been waiting weeks for a bed to become available for him. But it has brought their situation into even sharper focus because there are very tough days just around the corner. The programme in Dun Laoghaire is for 12 weeks. It is exactly what Sean needs now, intensive and attentive care... but then what? That has now become the really frightening bit for Martina.

"You're on your own then. Dun Laoghaire is covered by the Government and after that it's private. You're pretty much on your own in terms of financial costs. Obviously we want the best for Sean, and we may look into Germany. We've been told that Germany is a particularly good place in terms of rehabilitation. We have to look at every option at this point because Sean deserves to get the best care.

"Suddenly the focus changes. For me, my focus has been on Sean recovering. And now all of a sudden I'm been plunged into something else."

Martina and her family are determined to keep fighting Sean's corner. As long as he is without a voice, they will be his voice. Nobody can tell them what the end looks like in this horror story, but recent progress gives them the hope to cling to that Sean will one day make some sort of return.

"They say the brain is the most complex thing and the recovery can be up to two years so you just don't know. We just hope that we get some resemblance of Sean back. I'm not saying you'd accept anything, but if he could talk and have some mobility you'd be happy. The kids just want him home; they don't want him in hospital for the rest of his life.

"They say you never get back the same person but obviously we're going to try and push him. We want Sean back as best we can so we will do whatever we have to do to get him to the optimum level."

Donations to the SupportSean campaign can be made at  http://www.gofundme.com/SupportSeanCox

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