Shane O'Donnell's concussion nightmare: 'I was resigned to never playing hurling again'

A concussion suffered at trained ruled Clare star Shane O’Donnell out for the entire championship. The frightening ill-effects of the incident also left him questioning if he would ever return to the game he loved
Shane O'Donnell's concussion nightmare: 'I was resigned to never playing hurling again'

SCARY SPELL: Shane O’Donnell still has no recollection of the day in early June when he suffered a concussion at Clare training which ruled him out for the whole championship. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Shane O’Donnell graduated from UCC last Sunday. Eight years of studying in Cork culminated with O’Donnell donning the full doctoral regalia set after completing his PhD in microbiology, microbiomes specifically. He is Dr Shane O’Donnell now.

“Yeah,” he says with a smile, “I’ll have to start putting it in all my letters from now on.”

The journey to that title began by studying genetics before moving on to his postgraduate studies and through the APC Microbiome Research Centre in UCC.

That pathway took him to Harvard University on a Fullbright scholarship, where O’Donnell conducted some of the work on his thesis on gut bacteria, specifically on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

O’Donnell’s interest in science was sparked after getting an astronomy set for Christmas when he was eight. The last two years has piqued almost everyone’s interest in the subject but O’Donnell has long been at the coalface. There is a significant difference between microbiology and virology and while O’Donnell has closely observed and studied the coronavirus, he hasn’t had any direct scientific engagement with it.

“The closest I would have got was when PCR tests first began,” he says. “I would have offered my services to do them and then run those tests for whoever needed them.”

His work now is focused on building a platform to help industry partners research and navigate their way through vast multitudes of scientific data and information.

O’Donnell is also an ambassador for the ‘Creating Our Future’ campaign, which is run in conjunction with Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Higher Education, Innovation, and Science.

On Tuesday evening in the Glór theatre in Ennis, O’Donnell discussed his own personal experiences as part of the promotional campaign, which aims to engage the public in a conversation on how research can and should play a part in addressing opportunities and challenges for the future.

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Clare hurler Shane O’Donnell with Cork’s two-time All-Ireland camogie winner Chloe Sigerson at last Sunday’s graduation ceremony at UCC. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
HIGH ACHIEVERS: Clare hurler Shane O’Donnell with Cork’s two-time All-Ireland camogie winner Chloe Sigerson at last Sunday’s graduation ceremony at UCC. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Before a live audience, the theme of the event centred around O’Donnell’s five defining life moments. The highlights reel included his incredible contribution in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay but the fourth defining moment O’Donnell selected was at the complete opposite end of that spectrum.

O’Donnell still has no recollection of the day in early June when he suffered a concussion at Clare training which ruled him out for the whole championship. He had a grace period for a few days afterwards, but then he hit the wall. And O’Donnell spent most of his summer collapsed in a heap.

“It happened on a Thursday,” he says. “By the time the following Wednesday came, it was absolute car crash stuff. From that point on for about two weeks, I was about eight out of 10 on nausea for the entire time. Just sitting down, I could have got sick at any stage.”

O’Donnell couldn’t even look at his phone for nearly two months. He had just started a new job but had to take six weeks sick leave.

“I had nine out of 10 symptoms just sitting on the couch,” he says. “My primary symptoms for the first four weeks or so were nausea and pressure in my head. Then it was sensitivity to light and sound but the whole gambit was there.

Some days you wake up and you feel Ok. You think you’re getting out of it and the next day you’re feeling worse than ever. It just psychologically saps every bit out of you. It’s absolutely exhausting.”

Just over two weeks after O’Donnell got concussed, Clare played Waterford in the Munster quarter-final. O’Donnell spent the entire game sitting on a ride-on lawnmower in his garden.

“There was no way I could even watch the TV,” he says. “Even being in the house could have caused me to get my heart-rate up, which could have brought on me feeling worse again. I had my headphones on a table listening to the match but not really listening. If the match was getting intense, I would turn the headphones off. Physically, I wasn’t able for any more than that.”

When Clare played Tipperary the following week, O’Donnell made it to the sitting room. But he was only there in body. No more. “I was just watching my family and my girlfriend’s family watch the game,” he says. “I was in room but I was facing away from the TV because I couldn’t watch it.”

The attitude towards concussion in sport has dramatically improved in recent years but the practical application towards fully addressing it properly still needs constant revision. There are comprehensive protocols around identifying various strains of concussion, subsequent treatment and return-to-play schedules, but O’Donnell still found himself voraciously searching for reading and research material to try and educate himself more on the subject.

“I don’t want to be critical but I feel that the general medical knowledge around concussion is quite poor,” he says.

“Things you should be doing is kinda unknown. The frustration with going to a doctor is that they just don’t know. They tell you things like don’t look at the TV, or wait it out. The whole protocol process nearly drove me insane. The first step of the protocol is to wait until you have no symptoms. I was six weeks in and that was no help to me whatsoever.

“People’s personal experience can give you a totally different angle on things you’d never consider before. A good phrase I heard is even the most intelligent person in the world can’t write down a list of things that wouldn’t occur to them. If you haven’t experienced something and you don’t have any exposure to it, it’s not on your mind. This whole concussion has completely changed what’s at the front of my mind.”

His attitude towards sport was bound to change. When O’Donnell was watching NFL last week, he found himself not looking at the play but immersed instead in the ferocity and sheer volume of the hits.

“I would have never watched the NFL like that before,” he says. “But now that’s all that I can see.”

Before O’Donnell could return to the field again he had to cross a significant threshold in his mind. He was finally cleared to play again after 10 weeks. Clare were gone out of the championship by then but Éire Óg were only days away from their first championship match against Newmarket-on-Fergus. Yet medical clearance meant nothing to O’Donnell until he could convince himself that he was ready.

“I had done all the return to play assessments and had no symptoms,” he says. “But I just had that thing in my head that I couldn’t go onto the pitch.”

After being named on the team, O’Donnell asked manager Mattie Shannon not to start him.

“I said to Mattie that I can come on but try not to use me because I basically don’t want to play this game,” says O’Donnell.

“Mattie said he’d put a hard number on it, as in if we were down by — I think — eight points that he would bring me on. I thought that was reasonable because I felt we were going to win the game.”

Éire Óg were trailing by eight a minute into the second half. O’Donnell was sprung. “It took a bit of pushing,” he says. “There was a difference between physically being ok and psychologically making that leap.”

O’Donnell’s introduction was a game-changer but Éire Óg still lost. They went into their final group game against Feakle needing a result to progress to the quarter-finals. It almost seemed conspiratorial when O’Donnell had to go off injured just before half-time after taking another rattle to the head.

The symptoms returned afterwards. Amidst the pain and anxiety and worry, O’Donnell was waging another war in his own mind.

“It really had me asking myself: ‘What am I actually doing here? I recovered after a few days but I was thinking: ‘Maybe I’ll just sit out this championship’. It’s a hard thing to say to your club when you’re in a quarter-final but I really was considering it.”

A four-week break before the quarter-final against Sixmilebridge granted him more licence and O’Donnell returned. Most of his training was non-contact work but O’Donnell was excellent in Éire Óg’s 10-point win, scoring 1-2.

Narrowly losing the semi-final to Inagh/Kilnamona was disappointing but at least O’Donnell was on the field. Sitting out the championship with Clare was a different experience but O’Donnell didn’t feel powerless or denied of opportunity. He didn’t have the power or inclination to even process those emotions.

“Playing with Clare wasn’t on my radar at all,” he says. “I can’t emphasise how much it was not a priority. I missed being OK. I missed my brain functioning in the way it should. That was all I missed.

While I was dealing with the real difficult part of the symptoms, I really felt that I was never going to play hurling again. I was resigned to that fact because I was thinking that I could never justify putting myself back in this position. It’s only when you’re coming out of it that your mindset changes.”

Everything else took its place in the queue behind his top priority. O’Donnell was always a good footballer but he made the decision to step away from the Éire Óg senior footballers after his concussion. Éire Óg won their first senior title in 15 years earlier this month, but O’Donnell had no regrets.

“I was delighted for the lads but I was happy with my decision because it was all about trying to spend less time on the pitch,” he says. “Every time there was a football game on, I was only thinking: ‘Thank God I’m getting a break this weekend’.”

‘I didn’t want to see anybody’

O’Donnell has long learned the value of perspective. He was only 19 when scoring 3-3 from play in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, which instantly thrust O’Donnell into a life that didn’t belong to him. The fairytale story which began on that glorious evening in Croke Park was never going to stick to a linear narrative.

Inevitably, there were tolls to be paid along the journey.

When O’Donnell recalls that period in his life now, he looks at it through different lens. “Purely from a hurling perspective, it was dream come through stuff,” he says. “There was so much other stuff I was immersed in but reluctant to embrace, which led to a little bit of conflict personally in trying to negotiate that situation.

“It was more the lack of personal space I found difficult. I wouldn’t have been shy but definitely not way out there and then, suddenly, I had no option where every time I was out I’d be bombarded.”

At the height of everything, O’Donnell didn’t even want to leave his house. “I didn’t want to see anybody,” he says. “I wanted to avoid everyone and not do anything.”

O’Donnell thinks the mania lasted full-on for 18 months. The attention didn’t completely recede after that period but it was much more manageable.

Trying to match the merciless standards he set on the greatest stage so young was a whole different challenge. O’Donnell scored six goals during that 2013 championship but in the six championship seasons he has played since, O’Donnell has only matched that total with another six goals.

There were contributing factors. A hamstring injury torpedoed his 2014 championship. O’Donnell was often the spearhead of an attacking system which invariably saw him isolated and forced to try and beat two and three defenders when in possession. There were other occasions when O’Donnell was almost too predictable, in that he was hunting for goals when a point was a more practical option. But O’Donnell’s bravery and selflessness continually saw him creating goal chances, winning frees and having scoring assists.

Scoring just 0-2 from seven shots in the 2020 championship skewed the general perception of his performances, but drilling into the minutia of the data underlines the magnitude of his contribution; O’Donnell had 24 assisted shots, with an average dividend of 0-4 per game; he had assists for 1-10 of Tony Kelly’s 1-53.

His deeper role transformed O’Donnell into a playmaker, but the struggle between scoring and creating has also been reflected in that attempt to strike that better balance between hurling and education.

“I do sometimes think that I fall on the wrong side of that balance where I don’t give the respect to big games or championship games that, not that I should, but that I’m trying to balance too much,” he says. “Sometimes I get frustrated after a game when I think ‘I worked hard this week (in work) and could have maybe done a little less’.

“But on the pitch, it’s been Ok, like. I’m in a different role. I’m further out the pitch which lends itself more to assisting people. But after the year I’ve had, I have to change my game. I can’t be barrelling into people anymore. I now know that I need to be shooting more.”

Clare look like a team on the move under Brian Lohan but O’Donnell is a key stakeholder in that process. Clare would be a far more potent force with him. And O’Donnell aims to be a part of that grand plan.

“I talked to Brian and I’m extending my off-season just to give myself more time off,” says O’Donnell. “He has been very understanding about it. I just want to put some distance between my last game and next game.

I just don’t want to rock out in a January pre-season game. If I didn’t play one minute in the league next year, that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. But if I missed the championship, I’d be devastated.”

O’Donnell’s potential return is somewhere in between. But he aims to make it happen at some stage. “I think Clare is coming together nicely and I’m very excited about next year,” he says. “Whatever role I have, or management want me to play, I’m happy to play.

“In 99% of my full health again, I’d be very sad to say that I played my last game with Clare. So I’m definitely not done with it. To be honest, I’m more excited than I have been in a few years. I’m really looking forward to the future with Clare. I really think we’re in a very good place.”

And after a long and difficult five months, O’Donnell is slowly and steadily getting back into that place too.

- Creating Our Future is an invitation to everyone to tell us what researchers in Ireland can do to create a better future. Go to creatingourfuture.ie to find out more.

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