Back from the brink

“THIS case is a tragic one after a night out enjoyed by all,” wrote Detective Constable Emma Neal, as she recalled the judge’s words in the case of a young man left blind and severely disabled when a single punch rewrote his life story.

DC Neal, a member of the Anti-Corruption Unit in Nottinghamshire, Britain, had been working on Brian Hogan’s case since July 19, 2009, the date 33-year-old British man Martin Slack delivered the blow that blew Brian’s world asunder.

DC Neal had attended Slack’s sentencing hearing on February 26 last and recorded what she could for the purpose of emailing Brian’s 38-year-old sister Grainne, married and living in New Orleans.

Recalling Justice David Clarke’s words DC Neal wrote: “An incident occurred in the street where this defendant, aged 33, struck a blow at the face of Brian Hogan. It connected near the left side of his jaw, it was a punch, a single punch, not delivered with intent to do such serious injury. No one present thought it would cause such serious injury but this caused Brian Hogan to fall and bang his head on the pavement.”

Less than 24 hours later 32-year-old Brian Hogan, senior quantity surveyor, from Russell Court, Ballykeefe, Co Limerick, was in a coma that lasted three months — and given a 10% chance of pulling through.

Brian had been living in Nottingham for nine years and was working for the Bowmer & Kirkland Group, one of the largest privately owned construction and development groups in Britain. He had emigrated at age 23, having completed his studies at Moylish College in Limerick and having worked for a time for house builders Michael Lynch Ltd, in Ennis Co Clare, and Kirby’s in Limerick. He was very happy with his lot, according to his father, Brian Snr, and had made a nice life for himself in Nottingham.

On the night normality went out the window, Brian was in Nottingham city centre with a bunch of friends, celebrating, at a distance, the wedding of friends who had married in the States. They had been to a club and were returning home.

Slack had been talking earlier to a couple of girls in the group and when they were heading back to Brian’s house, asked if he could join them. At the behest of one of the girl’s, Brian said no. Slack, who had consumed nine to 10 pints, pulled Brian and punched him hard to the face. Brian fell and hit the right side of his head.

“It is clear he was unable to break his fall and fell backwards hard on to the pavement,” the prosecution said.

Brian lost consciousness for two minutes and his friends called an ambulance. The paramedics arrived, but Brian came to and insisted he felt ok. He got out of the ambulance, and went home. He did not report any pain, dizziness or nausea.

Some of his friends stayed over in Brian’s house that night, among them a doctor. He vomited during the night but nobody realised just how sick he was. By noon the next day, he was unconscious. At that point, friends called an ambulance and he was taken to Queen’s University Hospital (QUH) in Nottingham. Doctors found he had suffered bruising and bleeding in the brain and a fractured skull resulting from the fall.

Back in Ireland, Brian’s father and mother, Brian Snr and his wife Phil, were winding down at the close of a holiday in their mobile home in Spanish Point, Co Clare, when Brian Snr received a phone call. It was a friend of his son’s calling from Nottingham and advising them to return home as quickly as possible. She said there had been an incident and that a doctor would be calling them from QUH.

The call came to Brian Snr’s mobile before they arrived back to Ballykeefe. “It was a consultant. He told us Brian was in a coma. We got a fair shock,” Brian Snr said.

Brian Snr describes the period immediately after receiving this news as “a bad, bad time”.

“We contacted the rest of the family, they all rallied together and we made arrangements to travel to Nottingham. There were 15 or 16 of us and we all stayed in Brian’s friend’s house for about a fortnight, with the exception of the first couple of nights that we spent at the hospital. Everyone of us was there most of the time.”

Since then Brian Snr and Phil, and Brian’s sisters Siobhan, 40, Grainne, 39, Nevis, 37, and brothers — twins Shane and Jonathan, 27 — have taken turns to be with their son and brother. His mother and father spend half the week at home and half of it in Nottingham and when they’re not there, friends living locally pitch in. Grainne has travelled from New Orleans on four occasions to be with her brother.

Brian was victim of a most unfortunate set of circumstances on the night of July 19.

“That particular night everything went against him. He hadn’t spoke to his attacker, he didn’t know him. He was on his way home when your man threw a punch. There was a doctor in his company, but she didn’t spot anything wrong. It was too late by the time he arrived at the hospital next day,” Brian Snr says.

Perhaps the most regrettable element in the overall tragedy was the fact that Brian regained consciousness long enough to go home: had he remained unconscious and been admitted to hospital the subsequent brain damage he suffered may not have been as extensive, or indeed, may not have occurred at all.

BRIAN came out of the coma very slowly, but even the tiniest improvement was cause for celebration.

“He began by first moving his fingers, then his toes; his eyes would flicker. We celebrated all of these things. We took it as a sign that he was recovering,” Brian Snr says.

For about a month after coming out of the coma, Brian couldn’t speak.

His speech has returned gradually, but is not quite what it was. Speech therapy is an important part of his rehabilitation. Tragically, Brian remains blind. “The loss of sight is a killer for him,” his father says.

“Some days he talks about buying an Audi A4 and then you wonder if he’s forgotten he can’t see.”

Brian is aware of the incident that left him where he is now, but doesn’t remember the assault itself. Despite what his family describe as “an unbelievable sense of humour” he is getting increasingly impatient with having to stay at Lindon Lodge, a 21-bed rehabilitation unit within Nottingham University Hospital’s city campus, where Brian was transferred when he came out of the coma.

His sister Nevis talks of his frustration. He can no longer read the beloved James Herriot books of his childhood, but listens to them on CD.

“It takes him back to when he was a teenager reading and the laugh he would get out of James Herriot’s stories,” Nevis says.

“Every day he tells me how scared he is that he’ll never see again. He looks for constant reassurance that we will leave no stone unturned to get his sight back.” At one point, he tried to bribe his sister to bring him back to his house, 7km away. “He just wanted to get out of the hospital,” Nevis says. Brian was a very active young man before the assault, not so much into sport, but keen on the gym, working out three or four mornings a week before heading into work. His father believes his fitness stood to him after the assault and helped him to pull through.

Brian’s doctor at Lindon Lodge has set a release date of May 5, at which point his family must find somewhere else for him to stay and continue his rehabilitation. They have begun the process of applying for a place for him at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire.

In the meantime, they are hoping to place him in a rehab unit closer to home, in Bruree, Newcastlewest, Askeaton, Co Limerick. They are also hopeful that a Limerick-based eye-specialist — who has had success in restoring sight to patients with acquired brain injury — will be able to work his magic to improve Brian’s eyesight.

So far, progress in Brian’s overall condition has been good. “At the beginning, the doctors said the best they could do was to get him back to 70%-80% of the Brian we knew before the incident. But they seem delighted with the progress he has made. Only weeks ago he had to be lifted out of the bed with a harness. Now we can sit him up, stand him up, turn him around. The improvement is huge,” Brian Snr says. Mentally, Brian has cognitive difficulties, but his intellect is preserved. This is a blessing, but also a curse. “He knows what he has lost. He talks about getting back to work. At the moment, he spends his days doing very little and that is very hard for him. He’s a very outgoing kind of fella,” Brian Snr says.

He was the life and soul of the party, always positive, always had something going on whenever he came home to visit his parents in Ballykeefe. His father misses that energy. They caught a little of the old Brian during a recent brief outing from Lindon Lodge. “We went to a club, about 100 yards away. He had half a pint and he started a sing-song. I thought we would be thrown out,” his father says gleefully.

Brian Snr retired from the ESB this month, just slightly ahead of schedule. He had plans — to buy a camper van and travel wherever fancy took him, together with his wife of 41 years. Those plans are now on ice, but not abandoned. “Who’s to say it won’t happen?” he asks, “just not as soon as we had planned.”

This optimism is also evident in his reaction to what happened to his son.

“If the same thing happened to any of our kids in the morning, we would go along with whatever challenges it brought, and as long as we are here, we will continue to do that. We’re very positive about everything, and all of the family is united in this. There is no room for negativity.”

The family is looking forward to bringing Brian home, albeit Ballykeefe will require considerable adapting before it can cater to his needs.

Askeaton and Dun Laoghaire are likely to be home in the short term, although Brian’s sister Nevis is adamant it will eventually be Ballykeefe.

“Wherever we go, Brian will be coming with us, he’s not going to be put in a home and forgotten about,” she says.

“We are all very positive and looking forward to getting Brian home, we are very positive about the future and we think we can get Brian back to where he was,” Brian Snr says.

This positive mental attitude is key to the family’s forgiveness of Brian’s attacker. On the morning of Slack’s sentencing hearing, they hugged the accused’s father. “He was very upset. He kept apologising for his son. He cried the whole way through the hearing, for about three-quarters of an hour,” Brian Snr says.

Brian Snr had decided from the outset that anger towards Slack was a waste of energy and that his focus would be on Brian.

“Even if he [Slack] had gotten off, I don’t think it would have affected us, we weren’t focusing on that. We didn’t feel any ill-will towards him. He struck me as the kind of fellow that could easily get into a bit of bother. A lot of fellows get involved in things like that.

“I asked a police woman how bad the assault was on a scale of one to 10, and she said it was right down at the bottom.”

Slack got two years, three months for his crime, half to be spent in custody and the other half in the community. He has previous convictions: one offence of common assault in 1995 where he pushed someone’s arm, and a second offence of actual bodily harm the following year when he punched someone in the face in the street. At the sentencing hearing, Slack’s barrister described his action as “three seconds of madness”. He said Slack had read the transcript of a DVD prepared for the court, featuring Brian, which had caused him to break down in tears.

DC Neal, in her account, said the judge “continually made comment about how dignified, intelligent and balanced Brian had been in his DVD”. Brian’s father said his son was reliant on nursing staff but still had the ability to cry “giant tears from eyes that can’t see anymore”.

The judge read out one of the quotes from Brian’s DVD. “I hope the defendant is made to realise that you don’t solve problems with using violence,” he said. He also read out what Brian said about the defendant along the lines of “I’m sure he has a family that love him also”.

IN HIS summing up, Justice David Clarke said “a case of a single punch, in the street, is the course of violent incidents in city centres at night, punches that in the vast majority of cases, do not cause serious injury but, which can, as in Brian’s case, have devastating consequences”. After the hearing, Detective Sergeant Justine Wilson said: “This incident shows how one reckless and violent act can have the most devastating consequences on a life.”

As Brian’s family left court that morning, DC Neal spoke with mum Phil. “She looked over to Slack’s family and expressed that she thought she would like to speak to them. I told her that was something for her to decide on and with her usual warm and caring nature she went over and spoke to them, along with your dad,” DC Neal wrote in her email to Grainne Hogan.

“I heard Slack’s dad say how sorry he was, they spent a few minutes talking, hands were shook and it was all very good-natured. Your mum later said she was happy that she had done that and I think it made her feel a lot better. Your parents are really incredibly brave and selfless people,” DC Neal concluded.

Add to those qualities incredibly accepting. “I know what happened to Brian is really very very unfortunate but it is the type of thing that happens in the smallest of villages on a Saturday night,” Brian Snr says.

He wants parents to be aware of this, and it is his motivation behind telling his son’s story.

“You bring your kids up as best you can, but once they get to a certain age you can no longer tell them what to do — you can only advise them.

“So advise them to stay away from the city centre, or if they go there, to get a taxi home, and to take precautions and look out for each other and if someone gets a bang to the head, don’t take their word for it that they are okay. Everyone, including Brian, thought he was fine. He was not.”

* A fundraising event for Brian is being organised for June. For more details contact Nevis Hogan by email at nevishogan@gmail.com.

There are also plans to set up a Facebook page for those who would like to track Brian’s progress.


More in this Section

Bail for man, 60, accused of sexually assaulting four women in Cork

HSE to explain why it paid 600% drug price rise

River Lee’s first new bridge in decade installed

Drink driver caught for 11th time is jailed


Breaking Stories

Europe agrees no physical border between Republic of Ireland and the North, says Theresa May

Fresh appeal launched for information on 2007 murder of Paul Quinn

Taoiseach welcomes Theresa May's 'strengthened language' against physical border with North

Luas operator to conduct emergency exercise this morning

Lifestyle

Facing fears while terrifying punters at Cork's Nightmare Realm

Weathering the storm of 1961: We watched 30 large trees uprooted

Remembering the dead: Poignant reason behind Cork’s Zombie Walk

More From The Irish Examiner