Cathal Joyce

A sporting heart

An Athlone sportsman who has come through a serious cardiac arrest to return to playing club football and training others, has now become an inspirational speaker about his health and sporting journey.

Sport has always been paramount in the world of Cathal Joyce, and he has played Gaelic football for Athlone and soccer for Ballinasloe.

He was a keen horseman, and set out to become an amateur jockey, and raced successfully in many local point-to-points. Today, he trains senior soccer players in Monksland.

“Early on, I learned about the difference of winning and losing,” said Cathal.

“It’s about winning, there’s no point in taking part, and nobody remembers who came 2nd. You don’t go out to lose. You have to challenge yourself.”

Cathal is a personal trainer at his base on the Bullet Road, Athlone, where his parents, Rosemary and Gerry Joyce also live. Gerry runs his own physiotherapy clinic on- site, and Cathal’s older brother, James is also a physiotherapist for Athlone GAA, and one day in 2015 in Cusack Park, he saved Cathal’s life.

Cathal was playing with both Athlone and soccer for Ballinasloe in the period before the incident happened. He had been doing a lot of training but was not getting to the fitness level that he felt he should be getting.

On the day Cathal was playing for Athlone in the semi-final of the Intermediate Championship against Rosemount.

“I had a few pains in my chest, and thought I had a chest infection. I was kicking ball and dropping one or two, and I said to one of the other lads that I didn’t feel great. They brought me to the dugout, and a few seconds later I collapsed on the ground. James started CPR and started shouting for a defibrillator.”

Cathal gave the strange description of his cardiac arrest as being “like walking out of your shoes,” where he could hear everything, but was not able to do anything.

“The next day I was on a treadmill, with the defribulator beside me in case I went off again,” said Cathal laughing. “Then I got an echo test in Blackrock and then went to the Mater for an angiogram and was operated on to put an implantable cardiac device (ICD) in my chest. I was sent back to Mullingar and then home and never went back since.”

Cathal’s condition was diagnosed as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. “I discovered there is a big difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest, and also there is no cardiac rehab for people who suffer an arrest and nobody to talk to, but I hope to get it all changed, this outlook,” he said.

Three weeks after the incident in Cusack Park, Mullingar, Cathal was back in college and completed his personal training and fitness course.

He is beyond busy at the moment studying Social Care in AIT, but he still makes time for speaking to interested groups on his cardiac experiences and promoting the importance of CPR and AED (defibrillators).

He has built up a good reputation with the CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) unit, in Tallaght hospital, and he recently addressed more than 500 people of their gathering, and has spoken on TV3, RTE news, and visited transition year students in local schools.

“As always, prevention is better than cure, and there is ECG, stress test, angiogram, echo and cardiac MRI, and that is a full screening in my view,” said Cathal.

Cathal did a CPR stand in AIT to raise awareness, and on the day, he was happy to see the students engaging in CPR, and promoting how much the Tony Parker Foundation do for the local area. He was happy to see the student union donate some funds to this worthy foundation too.

Since his cardiac arrest, Cathal has climbed Croagh Patrick, got training Monksland Utd and, amazingly, played his first football match six months after the Cusack Park incident. Against Castletown-Finea Coole/Whitehall he scored 2-2 in his comeback match!

“I’m hoping to get the Intermediate Player of the Year of the AIT back, to clear the air, or a junior title, I’m not greedy,” he said laughing.

“Then there is college, and I want to get my degree, and for Monksland to win the league, and then to get cardiac awareness out there. For example, there are not enough defibrillators in Athlone,” he pointed out.

He is greatly concerned that 70 to 100 people under the age of 35 years in Ireland die of cardiac arrest annually.

“It’s getting more common with younger people, so why is it happening, unlike a time sixty years ago,” he said.

“I was hoping I had a heart attack, because they would have put in some stents, and I would be back on the field again, but this was the worst outcome I could have got. My heart is enlarged and I would shrink it if I could, and if I had a wand, I would say this is the morning it will be gone, but I know it won’t happen, so I have to be realistic and realise it is there.”

Cathal shows that he is living proof that CPR and defibrillator manoeuvres work.

“I just got on with it after the incident, and kicked ass, and what helps me is exercise, and there’re days that I can’t exercise because I get wrecked, but that’s normal to anyone,” he said.

One of the top questions Cathal gets asked at speaking events is: Does he look on life differently since the Cusack Park incident?

“I always say the answer is no, and whatever I wanted to do before, I did, and I do more now,” he said. “I’m not doing things as intense as I used to, but I’m getting there again, and am still achieving the goals that I set myself.”