Tom Dunne on life after heart surgery

As Something Happens return to the stage this summer, Tom Dunne talks to Esther McCarthy and reflects on a difficult year, as he recovered from life-saving heart surgery.

HIS family helped radio broadcaster and singer Tom Dunne to recover from major heart surgery, but he also turned to another love, the redemptive power of music.

Eight months ago, he learned that he would need the surgery for a life-threatening condition. There were tough times ahead, but solace, too: Kate Bush had just re-issued her entire back catalogue, and she was among the artists he would listen to as he began his recovery.

Last October, doctors gave him the shocking news that a heart condition, previously diagnosed, had deteriorated and that he would need major surgery within weeks.

“The doctors surprised me, that was for sure,” he says. “It went very quickly. It went from the cardiologist saying to see the surgeon, me thinking the surgeon will set an appointment for a year’s time, to three weeks later, sitting with the surgeon, and them saying: ‘You have to have surgery within the next four weeks. [There’s]a 70% chance of dying in the next two years.’ That was absolutely showstopping. When he said that, it’s like everything just went silent. I couldn’t believe I’d heard it. So that was the beginning of the very serious phase of the whole thing. It happened very quickly. I had surgery within three weeks of that conversation.”

Dunne’s medical condition was detected years ago and he was aware he’d need an operation at some stage.

“It’s my aorta, which is the main valve into your heart. It was deformed. There are three little flaps of flesh in most people’s and there were two in mine. So they weren’t doing the job properly and they were also working too hard. They were stiffening. It’s called stenosis. When I was diagnosed, 10 years ago, it was moderate stenosis. ‘Live life. You’re fine. But you have to watch it.’ And then, six months ago, I went back and it had gone to severe stenosis. I was wary of the whole thing all the time and because I knew I had it, every time anything went wrong with my health, I thought: ‘I wonder’.”

He remembers the wise words of a nurse as he was being brought into theatre. “A nurse said to me, going in: ‘You’re probably quite angry, because you’re quite well at the moment and you won’t be well in a few days’ time’, and that was the absolute truth.” He has no recollection of the six days following surgery, spent in ICU, during which his kidneys failed.

He remembers being shocked by his own image in the mirror when he came to. “I just looked sick.” But he slowly started to recover, supported by his family and friends.

“It was turning the corner from that point. You were starting to get slightly mobile, you were starting to be able to walk around. It was slow progress, but it was progress. My best friend, in America, from The End, the first band I was in, he was great on What’s App with me. He kept making me focus on little steps. And slowly but surely, it took me to a point where I could walk to Dun Laoghaire (near his home).

“That was one of the greatest breakthroughs. I was able to go and buy a paper for myself. That was December 15th. That was the first time since November the 15th that I’d been able to do that. I can’t describe what that little thing meant. It meant the world,” Dunne says.

In the past couple of months, he has felt better, stronger. “I was walking the hind legs off the dog and I started waking up very refreshed and feeling, some days, euphoric and full of energy. That’s an amazing feeling, you know. Because, at some level, you’re very kind of clear in your head that you did have a brush with death. It is in your mind, and that rattles you.” Through it all, he looked forward to returning to his great passion, music. He recently performed his first live gig with Something Happens since the surgery. Getting back to his nightly music and magazine-driven programme, ‘The Tom Dunne Show’, on radio station Newstalk, was also a highlight.

“When I came out, I couldn’t wait to get back on air. There’s something about my job that’s bringing that clarity. A lot of new stuff coming out, and cycling through it all, and putting the stuff on the table that you think is really brilliant. It makes me feel very calm. I love it. I was dying to get back to that, and that took my focus off myself.”

He was moved by the goodwill — the sheer volume of texts and emails — he received from listeners and the public, including dozens from people who had had the same condition. “I found that very uplifting. There was one person, a mother-of-three, who was going in and she was worried sick, because she had three very young kids. To be able to tell her: ‘You’ll be back, you’ll be bouncing them on your lap’, it’s nice to be able to tell people that.” While he has always been close to his Something Happens bandmates, he says he’s more appreciative now. The dynamic is the same as when he first started making music with Ray Harman, Alan Byrne, and Eamonn Ryan, more than 30 years ago.

“It’s fantastic. I met them yesterday. The rehearsal room was late opening, for some reason. We were outside and immediately looked at each other and said: ‘Is there time for a quick two-a-side game of football?’” he laughs.

“We used to play two-a-side in the rehearsal room, rather than rehearse. I don’t know what’s going on, but I find, at the moment, I’m looking at them like I’ve never seen them before. I feel almost privileged, really, to be a part of it. And even doing gigs, there’ll be little moments where you change something, or Ray will change something, and you catch each other’s eye and just go: ‘I like that, remember that.’ It’s very engaging and it’s brilliant.”

Tom Dunne of Something Happens playing at Feile 1990 at Semple Stadium. Picture: Eddie O’Hare 1990
Tom Dunne of Something Happens playing at Feile 1990 at Semple Stadium. Picture: Eddie O’Hare 1990

SOMETHING Happens became one of Ireland’s most-loved live bands, and hit albums, including Stuck Together With God’s Glue and Been There, Seen That, Done That, brought them international acclaim. Life took them all on different personal and career paths, but they never split up. This summer, they’ll play a number of gigs, including Bulmers Live, at Leopardstown, in July.

He felt there was something unique about the band since the early days, not that he thought they’d enjoy the success that they did. “I always felt there was something to the band, from the moment I joined them. We got ‘Burn Clear’ played on Dave Fanning almost immediately, the first song we ever wrote. But I also thought there were loads of great bands around and they didn’t do anything… I kind of felt you could be great, but not get signed. I thought that was probably going to be our fate: we’d be great, but not get signed. I was happy with that!” Dunne, who studied engineering, joined Something Happens after cutting his musical teeth in a punk rock band called The End, where he sported dyed blond hair, a leopardskin t-shirt, and leather jeans. He jokes that they disbanded after playing 84 gigs to 83 people.

The music industry saw the talent in Something Happens and for a time they were signed to high-profile label Virgin Records. Hits like ‘Hello’, ‘Parachute’, and ‘Forget Georgia’ became part of the fabric of Irish life, while touring in the US was also building a wide audience. By the time they parted ways with Virgin, they had amassed a large live following. They’ve always stayed together, performing live as a band, and Dunne says he still gets a buzz from the concert experience.

“When we did gigs, we were still very passionate. We still loved the songs and loved being on stage together. We kept it fresh.”

Something Happens play Bulmers Live, at Leopardstown, on July 25. Other acts playing during the summer include All Saints and Hamsandwich. For line up and details, log on to www.leopardstown.com

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