How a GAA documentary has helped save lives

A documentary comparing the current cardiac scoring of the Down and Meath panels that faced off in the 1991 All-Ireland final has saved a number of lives.

Set to be released late this year and produced by Gaelic Players Association founder Donal O’Neill, Extra Time discovered several players from the victorious Down squad have significant heart disease.

With good scores for calcium plaque in the arteries ranging from zero to 100, a preview of the documentary revealed eight players in each group recorded zero scores, which has been likened to a 10-year warranty from coronary vessel disease. However, Down’s average score was 264 compared to Meath’s 16 with scores as dangerously high as 3,100 coming back from at least one member of the Mourne County’s squad. Just one of Seán Boylan’s panel required a follow-up consultation compared to a massive eight among Down’s.

“I am surprised by some of the high scores,” admits preventative cardiologist Dr Alan Farrell in the production. “Your inclination is to think that these guys are superb athletes and that’s the way they’ll be when we look at their coronary vessels but some of the results have been surprising.

“The importance of an intervention or a scan like this is to offer hope and to say, ‘This is where you’re at the moment and these are the things you can do to prevent having an event over the next 10 years.” Mocked up as a doctor in scrubs, former Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney adds some levity as he greets some of the Down men before their tests. However, O’Neill was forced to take a break when some of those former players received bad news and the documentary will charter some of their experiences.

“We ended up with results that people didn’t like and nobody expected and things took a dark turn so I stopped filming for a week. I didn’t know what to do and it was a very strange experience and the craic stopped there.

“Thankfully, we didn’t get any incidental findings, which was likely when you’re testing 50-odd men in their late 40s to their early 60s. That was grand but we found some very advanced heart disease in men who would be perceived to be mighty fit and I can tell you that dropped the axe on the fun and games pretty quickly.

“It turned out to be something that it wasn’t intended to be. It would have entertaining and achieved its objective and I would have rather not found those things but on the other hand the men who have that information are now in a position to do something so we probably saved more than one life. We got some of the top experts involved and those players would have got access to that. It feels like it’s being managed now, which is the most important thing. It wasn’t great at the time.”

Inspired by his father Kevin, a two-time All-Ireland SFC winner with Down, who survived a heart attack in 2010, O’Neill has been on a crusade to make people more conscious of their health. Since then, he has made three documentaries: Cereal Killers (2013), Run on Fat (‘15) and The Big Fat Fix with British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra three years ago.

Cape Town-based O’Neill had initially intended the documentary to be focused on South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup winning team. With a working title Bok Again, he couldn’t get the financial support required.

However, with the assistance of David Bobbett, the founder of the Irish Heart Disease Awareness Charity (IHDA) and sponsor of Ballyboden St Enda’s GAA club among others, he was able to bring Extra Time to fruition.

It was with the influence of Paddy O’Rourke in Down and Gerry McEntee in Meath that the men signed up for the examinations, McEntee insisting on the entire Meath squad being tested, which proved to be a “logistical nightmare” for O’Neill but he was delighted to do so for the sake of them.

“Obviously, I’d know a lot of the Down boys personally but with Meath I was talking with Colm O’Rourke and he said, ‘Well, if it’s okay with McEntee, if he says we should be all doing it then we’re all in’.”

O’Rourke adds: “When you get to our stage in life, I think the great fear is to see some of your friends maybe dying young and thinking something should have been done about it.”

For Down, the project was personal after they lost their team-mate Ambrose Rodgers to a heart attack at the age of 39 and Gary Mason having survived one in his early 40s. The premature death of Páidí Ó Sé to a heart problem will also come to mind when the documentary is released.

“It was dreadful that it took Cormac McAnallen’s death for the screening to come in for players. The CCS (Coronary Calcium Scoring) is a scan you can get at 45 years of age and it picks up things that blood tests don’t. Why not have every inter-county player at least given the option to take this scan? Once you’ve got a baseline scan, you can track it.

“I’d love to see that programme during and after their career because, you know, Páidí could still be with us. Ambrose Rodgers died ridiculously young. It’s insane. Fitness doesn’t seem to be cutting it, but that soft tissue damaging is happening. This is a more robust look at men’s health in middle age.”

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