The idyllic warm summer evening of Thursday, June 14, 2018 is a day which will be etched in the mind of 22-year Paul Connaughton forever. The newly-qualified secondary school teacher from Glasson had spent the day with his best friend, Kieran Cleary, showing a group of foreign students from the Shannon Academy in Athlone around Belvedere House in Mullingar.
On what was an otherwise unremarkable day, the two friends headed off that evening to play in a Buccaneers tag rugby league in Dubarry Park in Athlone and Paul says that was when “the living nightmare” began when his fit and healthy friend suddenly collapsed on the sideline and has been left with life-changing obstacles to overcome.
“Myself and Kieran did everything together, we grew up and went to school together, socialised and played sport together and I worked alongside him for three years in the Shannon Academy, he was like a brother to me,” says Paul “and he was his usual self on June 14 last, laughing and joking and in the whole of his health.”
After playing the first of two games, 22-year old Kieran Cleary, from Cartron Drive, complained of having a headache and said he would “sit out” the second match. “Nothing whatsoever had happened to him during the first game, he didn't get any knocks at all, so we were slagging him as we thought he was too lazy to play, and it was a very warm evening,” recalls Paul.
Suddenly, Kieran Carty fell to his knees on the sideline and started vomiting, and a crowd had gathered round him. “I could see he was very uncomfortable with all the onlookers so I suggested we start the second match, but we were only playing for a minute or less when the match was called off as Kieran was getting progressively worse.” An ambulance was called and frantic efforts were being made by a number of people to stabilise his condition on the sideline.
Paul Connaughton says he can still vividly recall asking his best friend if he was okay and “he just looked up at me with this blank stare and he never spoke after that, and I knew that something was terribly wrong.”
Kieran Cleary had started having seizures at this point and his jaw was locked, so Paul Connaughton tried his best to comfort him. “It seemed like an eternity before the Rapid Response medical team arrived and we had to hold Kieran down so that they could get a drip into his arm to give him fluids, and I remember that being so hard,” he says.
“It was only when he was in the ambulance and it didn't go anywhere for ages that it all hit me....the shock and I remember one of the physios from Buccs tried to comfort me, and I could swear I heard Kieran calling my name from the ambulance,” says a clearly emotional Paul.
From that day on, Kieran's family, his mother Sinéad Kerrigan, his two brothers, Conor and Keelan, and his extended family and friends have endured a rollercoaster nine months of dark days and sleepless nights as they faced an uphill battle for his very survival.
“His mother, Sinéad, and his brother, Conor, were told in Dubarry Park by the paramedics to call all the family to Tullamore Hospital, where he was being brought, so myself and another one of his friends, Michael Burnell, headed to the hospital too and we were still in our rugby gear,” says Paul.
Things began to go drastically downhill within a short time, and Paul and Michael, along with Kieran's two brothers, Conor and Keelan, were told to go into the room to say goodbye to him.
“I'll never forget walking into that room and hearing the sound of machines beeping and seeing the wire coming out of him everywhere” recalls Paul, as he struggles to fight back the tears “there was blood coming out of his eyes and ears, his whole body was shaking and he was was white as a sheet, and we were telling him how much we loved him and begging him to hang in there.”
Kieran Cleary was transferred to Beaumont Hospital for the first of two brain operations, the first of which necessitated him having to have part of his skull removed. The medical team had to stop the first operation midway as the young Athlone man was losing too much blood, so they were unable to replace the piece of skull which had been removed until the second operation some days later.
“He had already lost 13 pints of blood before the operation, so we were given very little hope that he would survive, and all we could do was sit and wait in a small private room in Beaumont for news, and all I can remember was family members breaking down crying one by one” says Paul Connaughton.
The talented rugby player remained in a coma in Beaumont Hospital for almost five months, during which time the medical team instructed family and friends “on at least three occasions” to prepare to say goodbye to him as he was not expected to survive.
Paul Connaughton was one of a close group of friends, including Michael Burnell, Mattie Darling, Ian Rosney and Ciarán Porter, who used to visit the hospital regularly, and Paul says “you have no idea how many friends Kieran has, and how many lives he touched, everybody was willing him to get better, even though the Doctors had told us that if he came out of the coma he would not be the same Kieran anymore, and we would never get back the old Kieran that we knew and loved so much, and that was very difficult for his family and friends to hear and to accept.”
Bit by bit, Kieran Cleary began to show slight improvement when he woke from his coma, and Paul Connaughton says that every achievement, no matter how small, was a cause of major celebration. He was transferred back to Tullamore and Paul remembers going to see him one day and he lifted his arm “about two inches off the bed, and that was the most fantastic thing.”
He also laughs when he recalls how excited Kieran was to be able to eat food again, and he said the sweetest sound he ever heard was his beloved friend's voice again once he had a tracheostomy removed from his neck which had helped him with his breathing.
“We take everything for granted” says Paul, adding that the sudden collapse of Kieran had “a very profound effect on all of his friends, as well as his family.”
Paul Connaughton and all of Kieran Cleary's friends accept that he is never going to have the same life again, and that he will never be the same person, but they are willing to “walk every step of the way” to support him as works to overcome life-changing obstacles in his future.
The young Athlone man has been in the Rehabilitation Institute in Dun Laoghaire since January 3 where he has been undergoing gruelling sessions of physiotherapy, as well as occupational and speech therapy and it is the goal of his mother, Sinéad, to bring him home in the coming weeks.
“Kieran is like family to me...I spent every weekend in his house from Transition Year on and his mother, Sinéad, is like a mother to me, so myself and all his friends are prepared to do whatever it takes to support him and his family in the future, because we know Kieran would do the same for us if we were in his situation” says Paul Connaughton.
Meanwhile, family and friends of 23-year old Kieran Cleary have set up an energetic fundraising committee to provide the necessary equipment and care needed to maximise the chances of his recovery.
While Kieran has been taking small and important steps towards recovery at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire his mother, Sinéad Kerrigan, acknowleges that the road ahead will be tough.
“Kieran now has life changing obstacles to overcome, his life as he knew it has changed forever, he will never walk again unaided, his cognitive ability has been dramatically reduced and he will need life long care,” admits Sinéad.
Since her son first collapsed, Sinéad Kerrigan says her “only ambition” from that moment on was to bring him home. “He still hasn't come home since June 14 last, and to see him fight every step of the way since then has been overwhelming, but he is still fighting.”
A major fundraising campaign called “Bring Kieran Home” has now been launched to assist Sinéad Kerrigan and her family to adapt and equip their home to cater for the needs of Kieran, and to provide for his on-going care. The campaign group have set up a Facebook page and to date they have been overwhelmed with the generosity of the local community in raising over €31,000 in just nine days through a wide variety of fundraising activities.
Member of the fundraising committee, Angela Carty McCormack said “the sky is the limit” with regard to fundraising, as Kieran Cleary will require life long care, and the Committee are hoping to organise “one major fundraiser” each year, as well as smaller events during the year.
“The support shown to Kieran's family so far has been beyond incredible, and we are appealing to everyone to get behind the campaign to Bring Kieran Home and to provide for his on-going care needs into the future” says Angela, who adds that “every donation, no matter how small, will make a difference to his future care.”
Further details on how to organise a fundraising event, or to make a donation, can be had by contacting Angela Carty McCormack (086 2618141); Rhona Quigley (086 3211500); Aisling O'Kane (085 1758866) or Helen Coffey (087 1258306) or by sending a message by e-mail to: Bringkieranhome@gmail.com