No team in the history of Gaelic games is more deserving of luck than this group of Mayo footballers. What’s luck got to do with it? In kit-man Shane Halligan, they may just have their good luck charm. The double lung transplant recipient is a walking, talking miracle. “If someone said to me over a year ago that I’d be walking out with this Mayo team I’d have said they were mad.”
Forty minutes after Mayo’s victory over Tipperary last month, Joe Brolly is walking underneath the Hogan Stand back to his car when he stops to chat in front of the Mayo team bus parked outside their dressing room.
“See that lot?” he says, jabbing a thumb behind him towards the bus. “Play like that in the final and they haven’t a hope.”
At any minute the O’Shea brothers could be within earshot of Brolly but he doesn’t care. It’s only when Mayo kit-man Shane Halligan emerges from the dressing room doors that his stream of criticism ends, his demeanour turns 180 and he embraces Halligan like a close family member.
“See this man? See this man? A double lung transplant last year,” Brolly’s voice quivers with emotion as he playfully rubs Halligan’s chest before taking a photograph of the Ballindine man to post on his Twitter account.
Brolly’s work in raising organ donation and cystic fibrosis (CF) awareness has been well chartered going back to 2012 when he gave a kidney to Shane Finnegan. Halligan, 31, reckons the Derry pundit has been instrumental in the number of lung transplants jumping to a record high of 36 in Dublin’s Mater Hospital last year – the average previously was in and around a dozen per annum.
Halligan’s story isn’t as well known but it’s a compelling tale of false hope and salvation. Diagnosed with CF at birth, he didn’t encounter any great health difficulties until his late teens. Unlike his younger brother Oisín, 16, who also suffers from the disease, he would play for his club Davitts up to minor.
Things began to deteriorate for Halligan in November 2012 when a bad dose of flu dramatically reduced his lung function. He made a small recovery and returned to work but soon after he was facing some stark realities.
“I knew myself that it wasn’t feasible so I had to pack in the job. Everything was coming on top of me and I never got the weight back up and was struggling. Then it turned out I needed oxygen and with that your independence goes. After a period of time, I knew a transplant would have to be on the horizon. It was in around then that it was first mentioned and the ball started rolling from there.”
He counts his blessings that he was put on the transplant list on January, 2014. Just over 13 months after he was laid low, it was a short waiting time by CF standards to be verified as eligible for a transplant. On the other hand, the speed of his transformation from being relatively able-bodied to needing assistance in such a short period was terrifying.
“With me, it came on very quickly and that was hard to deal with because I was relatively fine, able to work and go out with my friends. Then, all of a sudden, all this was taken away from me.”
Halligan’s first call for a transplant operation came on the September Saturday that Kilkenny beat Tipperary in the 2014 All-Ireland final replay.
He was watching it when the private number appeared on his phone. The Mater wanted him at once.
“Your heart is racing. I went up anyways and that in itself was tough because you’re going up in the ambulance and you’re trying to psych yourself up for what might be a big operation. All that’s going through your head. Then you get up there, they prep you, they do all the tests, you’re gowned up, you sign the consent form and then at 8.30 that evening they came back and said, ‘It’s not tonight, Shane. The bloods don’t match up’. After building yourself up, then you have the big down that comes with it.”
Halligan remained philosophical – “it gave me a feel of what to expect” – but there would be more false dawns. He managed to get through that winter despite a multitude of infections until the second call came in January. Ambulance called, Dublin-bound, bounced back to Mayo.
“You get to the point where you’re thinking ‘maybe it is tonight’ but then I got the same news as before that it wasn’t going ahead.”
It was at that stage Halligan took matters into his own hands and spoke to Professor Jim Egan about his situation. The hope, as much as the illness, was killing him. “I thrashed things out with them and said, ‘Look, I’m going to be 30 in April. I’m sick looking out the window and life passing me by. I’m ready for this. What are the chances?’ He said I was in good shape but I was in the low blood group (B), about 2% or 3% of the population and had these antibodies in my system, which meant getting a match was even more difficult. I had all this stuff going against me.”
In his journey, Halligan has met several fellow CF patients who either haven’t made the waiting list or never received the transplant when they were on it. A born optimist, he couldn’t but despair when he was turned away twice over the same weekend. “Towards the end, I was thinking ‘is this for me at all? Maybe I should leave it and stop putting myself through hell.’
“There was one weekend, which really tested me. I got a call on the Friday evening so we went up. It was in February and this was my third call at this stage so I was thinking ‘third time lucky’. And again we went up, went through the procedures. It was a bit later that I found out this time, around 11.30 at night, and when the co-ordinator came in to tell me that it wasn’t going ahead she was lost for words. She didn’t know what to say to me. I was really down then.”
His fourth call in total came two days later as he was watching Arsenal on tv. “I couldn’t believe it because I’d been only up. It was really bad weather, a stormy night going up to Dublin and the ambulance broke down. Long story short, we got up there, went through the tests and it was another no-go. This was the fourth call and by this stage I was saying to my parents that everyone in the family was going through hell and I was saying to the doctors could I get a second opinion, could I see if there are any other treatments out there I should be trying given that my chances were slim of finding a donor because of my blood group and the antibodies.”
Halligan makes no bones that it was his family and friends that pulled him through that ordeal. A couple of days after he and pals took in Corofin’s All-Ireland club final win over Slaughtneil, he was back in Dublin once more. “My mother and myself went up in the ambulance and normally we would be chatting away but whatever it was about this journey we had nothing to say to each other anymore. We had been through all this and what more could you say? We went through the tests again, things were slow in coming back and I wasn’t thinking too much about it. Eight and nine o’clock went and there was still no news and I got thinking maybe there was something going on.
“I remember the surgeon came into see me about 9.30 that night – her name was Donna Eaton – and she told me she had seen the lungs and they were a great set. She said she hoped to see me down in theatre later on and I said, ‘You bet. There is no-one who wants to be down there more than me!’ ”
It wasn’t until midnight that he was informed there was a match. Eureka. Euphoria. You bet.
“I just couldn’t believe it. The world was lifted off my shoulders straight away. This was all I was waiting for. Earlier, I had to go to another ward to get a line put in and there was a young enough nurse there who said to me that I was very relaxed about the whole thing. I just told her I was here four times previously so I just wanted to seal the deal at this stage. I said goodbye to my parents, brother and sister and a few relatives from Dublin and they brought me down to theatre. I was nervous but it was what I wanted. Once the surgical team were happy, I was happy.”
As informed as he was about the extent of the surgery, Halligan is glad he didn’t make himself too much of an expert. Waking up with a ventilator stuck down his throat was unpleasant as was the dehydration. What compensated was his self-awareness, that sense of being saved, but then the pain kicked in. It was when he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit that the ramifications of the operation began. He didn’t react well to painkillers and became agitated and panicky. For 10 days, he struggled but endured.
‘The pain didn’t ease until I was able to get out of the bed fully and do a bit of walking. I had all these chest drains to drain all the fluid from the lungs after the operation. When you’d walk around you’d have these two trollies each side of you draining the fluid. I just suffered really bad with the pain. Once I got the drains removed and was able to get out of the bed myself unaided, that’s when I was able to get going. Being in the high dependency unit, you can’t go to the toilet yourself or wash yourself. Your whole independence is gone; it’s almost like being born again.” Halligan celebrated his 30th birthday in the Mater.
“Day by day, things started to improve. Everybody was asking me how I was and I was saying this was the best birthday present I could ever ask for. No gift could compare to it.”
A bout of pneumonia delayed his discharge and he had dropped to 60kg, excessively low for a six foot man. In total, he was there six weeks in hospital. Looking back, his walks around the hospital were balm for the soul as much as his body.
“In one of the corridors of the hospital you can actually see on the sky-line Croke Park. I would be thinking to myself if Mayo were there in the summer I’d be going to see them with my friends. I was at the 2013 final and I wasn’t well at all with it. I had oxygen in the car. When I met my friends in the pub afterwards, it took me over 30 minutes to walk from the Cusack Stand to the Hill 16 pub when it might usually only take you 15 minutes. My body was just weak. It wasn’t because Mayo had lost! I kept convincing myself ‘I’m not too bad’ but I was.
“Looking out at Croke Park from the hospital, I was imagining walking into the stadium with my friends not be short of breath and enjoy the game. I hadn’t been able to go to matches, county or club. I was house-bound. I was thinking if I could just get myself home I’d build up the fitness again and get there.”
Three times to Croke Park this year and Halligan hasn’t accompanied his friends. He won’t tomorrow either. Instead, he and senior Mayo kit-man Liam Luggan will arrive early to ensure everything is laid out for the team. Last winter, Halligan’s uncle, Mayo media co-ordinator Liam Horan, and Stephen Rochford were discussing finding someone to assist Luggan when Halligan’s name came up.
“I said I’d think about it because I was still not long after the surgery even though I was doing well. It was too good an opportunity to turn down. I mentioned it to them in the hospital and they said go for it. They just said to be sensible in the wind and the cold. Stephen invited me along to the first few sessions to see what I thought and I think the first session was December 29. Everyone else was partying and the boys were there on the back pitch in MacHale Park. As a fan, you have a sense of how things are from the outside looking in but when you’re in there it’s totally different. I’d have known Mick Conroy and Colm Boyle from going to school and college with them but I wouldn’t really have known most of the other lads. To be working with them is fantastic, just to be in their presence.”
The size of his odyssey has never left him.
“When I think back to where I was, driving to Castlebar for training makes me realise how far I’ve come. It really hit home in Ruislip. Just to be on the sideline facing the flag was an amazing feeling. You think how lucky you are and that sense of gratitude to my doctors, my family and of course my donor and their family. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Every day I’m just trying to go out and do them proud with the life I’m living.”
Shortly after a year had passed from the surgery, Halligan wrote to his donor’s family. “Obviously, it’s all confidential and I couldn’t put my name to it but I told them how I got involved with a football team and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be able to do it and how grateful I was for the decision they made. I didn’t hear anything back but I’m just happy that they got the letter and things are going well.
“It resonates with you that somebody had to die for this great thing to happen to you. That hits you so much and you feel that you have to do the best you can with what you’ve achieved. I’ve known a lot of people who didn’t make it to where I am whether they didn’t get on the list in time or didn’t get the call when they were on it. I’m one of the lucky ones. On an average day, I could be at work or out walking and it would hit me what has happened. I am so grateful for what has happened.
“When I was sick, I had nothing to look forward to. You struggle to do the everyday tasks like going for a walk, getting dressed or taking a shower – the things we take for granted. There are 650 people on the waiting list. I know what it is to wait beside the phone. It’s not a nice place to be. The more we can do for it, the better.”
Oisín will also require a surgery in the not too distant future but he is in good hands in St Vincent’s Hospital. His older brother will be with him every step having taken them before him. Through the likes of Brolly and the work Halligan is doing to promote it, organ donation is becoming less of a taboo subject.
The sudden death of Claremorris man Alan Feeley in November 2013, whose family and that of his girlfriend Louise Galvin acceded to his wish to donate his organs and helped save five lives, has also made people sit up and take notice.
“It’s something people don’t like talking about or only talk about when it’s on their doorstep and they or somebody else needs a transplant themselves. People think if they sign up to the donor card they’re a donor but it’s the family’s decision at the end of the day. The easier we can make it for people the better. I’m here because of a donor and their family’s generosity. If somebody said to me over a year ago that I’d be walking out with this Mayo team on September 18, I’d have said they’re mad.” Not mad at all, in fact.
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