Cahair O'Kane: Community spirit offering hope to Kevin Carey
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
THIRTEEN months ago yesterday, on July 15, 2015, the perfectly healthy, fit, former Antrim minor and Portglenone footballer Kevin Carey was told at 35 years of age that he had Glioblastoma, an aggressive, cancerous brain tumour.
Gruelling treatment followed in Belfast, between the Royal Victoria and the City Hospitals. Major brain surgery last September was followed by six weeks of radio chemotherapy, and then six full months of full-strength chemotherapy.
After all that, exactly a year to the day after his diagnosis, doctors told Kevin that the treatment hadn’t worked.
The tumour had begun to grow again, becoming more and more aggressive and wrapping itself around the main arteries in the brain.
Doctors told Kevin Carey he had three months left to live.
That tumour, and the doctors who told them that news, clearly didn’t know Kevin, or his wife Natasha.
As the world they knew threatened to crumble, Natasha already had a plan.
Their option at that stage was complicated surgery. The pair were on the next flight to London, where Kevin underwent the operation. It lasted five hours, and he had to endure it under local anaesthetic.
The neurosurgeons said that he experienced a lot of pain but that he gave them “everything he had”.
The surgery removed 97 per cent of the tumour but that was not going to be enough to halt it.
Natasha had been quietly researching immunotherapy, a pioneering treatment not available on the NHS.
The couple ploughed every penny they have into saving Kevin’s life, but this treatment costs £205,000. It is the only chance Kevin Carey has now.
Exceptionally quiet, private people, they were loathe to start a public campaign to raise the money. The family considered every option before reluctantly agreeing to launch a gofundme page online.
Friends hoped that they would be able to bring in £30,000 to help the couple with the costs. They’d surpassed that inside 12 hours.
By the start of the 26th hour, they had raised just shy of £90,000. By the 48-hour mark, the tally donated sat at £160,000. By 2pm on Saturday, with the campaign having gone viral, the £205,000 mark was hit.
As of yesterday morning, £223,000 had been donated.
People have donated from all over; an anonymous donor from America pledged £2,000; GAA clubs right around the country clubbed together.
Kevin’s native Portglenone club held a Big Breakfast on Sunday morning and there wasn’t room to move. The food was all donated and cooked for free. They flocked from far and wide.
On the way through the doors at 10am, just as the crowd started to really flock from the Monastery, the orange and black of the Lavey senior football team the first colours to encounter.
Carrying cups from the kitchen to the main hall, Kevin’s brother Tom and his fiancée Faunchea stop for a word. It’s evident that they are completely overwhelmed by the support they’ve received the last week.
The cyclists, all finished their Sunday morning laps, called in their droves. There were at least five different cycling clubs represented.
All of Portglenone was there at some stage through the day, and by the tally raised, you’d think half of Antrim as well.
They lifted £18,000 in four hours. Breakfast was supposed to finish at midday but by the time they got through everyone, it was closer to 2pm.
A street collection in the town on Saturday lifted £8,000, and another in West Belfast collected £2,000.
The sums of money were simply overwhelming for a family that was at its wits end not seven days ago.
The Carey family has a big connection, branches stretching through counties Antrim, Derry and beyond.
Farming people, an exceptionally private and quiet family, the reason that the campaign sparked as it did was because of the depth of feeling for Kevin and Natasha in Portglenone itself.
The middle one of five children, Kevin was hard as nails on the football field. The four brothers – Sean, the oldest, Tom next and then Patrick behind Kevin – all carried the same look on the field; big, broad shoulders, biceps that would crush a man, power from every angle.
Jane, the only girl and the youngest in the house, a fine camog.
A very quiet figure in the changing room, Kevin was a fierce leader when he pulled on the saffron jersey of club or county.
There was never anything but a central position for him. Three or six, mostly.
He was a year young when he played at number six on the Antrim side that lost to Tyrone in a rare Ulster minor football final in 1998.
The proud holder of three Antrim minor football championship medals won with Sean Stinson’s, he quickly graduated to the senior ranks.
But he always had other things in life besides football. Travelling. Rugby. People. Religion. Work.
Coming from a devout Catholic family, he spent a lot of summers with Fr. Frank Diamond acting as a leader at Dromantine camp.
He regularly travelled on pilgrimages. But he kicked a bit of ball on his travels as well, winning a New South Wales Championship in Australia back in 2006.
By then, he wasn’t playing much with Portglenone. But he was involved with the club in their runs to county finals in 2005 and 2007, and togged out on county final day against St. Gall’s.
Kevin Carey’s sporting background, however faint, was also critical in helping raise the money he needed. The GAA remains the best community organisation in the world, bar none. GAA people do not forget their own when the time of need comes.
Such is their thoughtfulness that, even at a time like this, the Careys have been considering what to do with the excess money they’ve raised. Plans are afoot to donate it to others who have had trouble raising the funds for immunotherapy.
The messages of support that the couple were left on the gofundme page would do your heart just as much good.
One woman told of a lady who had aggressive breast cancer, for whom immunotherapy was the only option. That was five years ago, and she remains cancer free.
Having been released from hospital last Wednesday almost in the pits of despair, Kevin returned yesterday for a wound check ahead of beginning treatment later this week. He returned with hope in his heart.
Hope. The greatest gift the community gave to the Carey family this week.