GAA Football

Antrim Gaels Niall Murphy and Gerard McLarnon on the road to recovery after Covid19

Niall Murphy and Gerard McLarnon met up to talk about their near-death experiences with Covid19 Picture: Hugh Russell

‘Suaimhneas i ndiaidh an Bhearna Baoil’ - (translation) Tranquillity after the gap of danger

BRIGHT as a lark, Gerard McLarnon greets us in his driveway with a warm smile. Niall Murphy hands over a carefully wrapped lemon drizzle cake.

From the baking hands of Marie.

The first thing that strikes you about the Creggan Kickhams clubman is his awesome gentleness.

It’s a beautiful, breezy Monday afternoon.

Hugh Russell and his lens need a few props.

Niall opens his car boot and pulls out a hurl and sloithar.

Gerard fetches his bicycle from the back of the house and his beloved Creggan Wheelers jacket.

He invites me to test the weight of his carbon fibre racing bike. Jet black and light as a feather. Even to this untrained eye, the bike is a beauty.

He was training for the Wheelers’ jaunt around Loch Ness, scheduled for April. Until Covid19 intervened.

Niall Murphy never minded life’s fast lane.

Human Rights lawyer, GAA fanatic. St Enda’s, Glengormley to his marrow. Fluent Irish speaker. Still only 43, in his younger days he could hurl with the best of them.

He was also tasked with re-invigorating Club Aontroma – the fundraising wing of Antrim GAA - and is one of the leading, dynamic voices of high-profile civic body Ireland’s Future.

Proud Daddy to Manas (13), Fionntán (11) and Aoibhinn (8), and loving husband to Marie.

They say if you need something done, get a busy man to do it.

Gerard McLarnon and Niall Murphy: two Gaels forever bound and their lives framed by Covid19.

Straddling the apocalyptic months of March and April, Niall was placed in an induced coma in an intensive care unit at Antrim Area Hospital for two weeks. With each passing day the news became ever more bleak.

One well-placed medical source at the time described Niall’s chances of survival as him “pushing a massive boulder up a steep hill”.

Gerard spent 57 days in ICU, the vast majority of which were also in an induced coma.

“That was March and I woke up some time in late May in the City Hospital,” Gerard says.

Niall Murphy and Gerard McLarnon shouldn’t be alive.

And yet, here they are, in Gerard’s front room of his Randalstown home, eating Marie’s freshly-baked lemon drizzle cake, sipping tea and comparing hospital scars.

Gerard: “Do you still have a numb thigh?”

Niall: “Yep. From my knee to my hip. My thigh is completely numb.”

Gerard: “And it doesn’t feel like your leg?”

Niall: “It’s a dead weight. They say it’s neurological. They don’t know how it happened or if it will leave but it is as numb now as it was when I woke up from the coma.”

Gerard: “I touch my thigh and it just doesn’t feel part of me. My physio was looking at it a few weeks ago and she was getting me to close my eyes and she was tapping my leg and I was trying to guess was it top, middle or bottom and I got it wrong half the time.”

Niall: “My physio did soft and sharp tests then cold tests and there is no sensation whatsoever...”

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APPROACHING his 62nd birthday, Gerard spent more years than he’d care to remember coaching the youth of Creggan Kickhams. Roughly 90 per cent of the Kickhams squad that were desperately unlucky to lose to Cargin in last month’s epic Antrim SFC final were nurtured by Gerard’s guiding hand.

A couple of weeks ago, Creggan’s dual player Conor McCann told The Irish News: “In our club Gerard would be known as a gentleman – a cool sort of figure.

“He managed underage teams as he had a few sons on the team – and started with U12 and worked his way up to U16. Gerard has just a good way with him, the whole family is the same.”

To this day, Gerard can’t be sure how he contracted the deadly virus. Before Christmas he was complaining of a cough and feeling generally under the weather, but the cough persisted right through to March when his health deteriorated.

“I did travel to a meeting in Omagh with another chap about a week-and-a-half before I took sick,” Gerard recalls, who works as a chartered civil engineer.

“We travelled from here. We washed and disinfected our hands but we were in a car for an hour. We did all the right things but we still spent that time together in the car and I’ve since learned that he was asymptomatic and he did pick it up.

“He might have given it to me. I don’t say he did, and my wife was asymptomatic as well when she went and got tested. She or I could have brought it into the house – you just don’t know…

“I had the temperature, the fatigue, the cough and then I lost my taste and smell. The doctor who was triaging me over the phone then said: ‘I think you’ve got the virus.’

“That was Friday morning. Kathleen took me to hospital the following Tuesday and I have absolutely no memory of what happened after that phone call from that doctor.”

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IT was just a hectic week. More hectic than normal. Niall attended Celtic’s 5-0 thrashing of St Mirren on Saturday March 7 at Parkhead – a sumptuous hat-trick from Leigh Griffiths and the last time the famous stadium was packed with Hoops fans.

On Sunday, he hosted a town hall discussion on Ireland’s Future in Glasgow and the following day he was on a plane to New York to deliver the same presentation in Manhattan later that evening.

On the Tuesday evening, he attended the plush Brehon Law Society dinner in Rosie O’Grady’s, the city’s unofficial GAA headquarters in downtown Manhattan. On the Wednesday morning, he’d to meet a client regarding an immigration case.

Afterwards, he flew out of JFK Airport and touched down in Dublin in the early hours of Thursday morning and caught a bus back up the road.

Aoibhinn was making her first confession and the family went out for a bite to eat afterwards.

With a mountain of paperwork on his desk at the KRW Law firm in Belfast’s city centre, he stayed in work on the Friday until 7pm.

On the way home he grabbed a Chinese takeaway meal for Marie and him.

“That was the point of my first symptoms. The first flush of it was that hollow soreness that you get. I woke up the next day and I had an uncontrollable temperature, over 40. I was boiling up, fatigue that I’ve never felt before. I decided to self-isolate.

“It was the Taliban approach. Marie or none of the kids got it. She medically sealed me into the room until I was admitted to hospital. I had no cough until about day 10. I said to Marie: ‘You may bring me to hospital here.’ I thought I was going to die. I was suffocating. I felt as if my head was underwater. I just could not get breath in because I was coughing so much.”

Within an hour-and-a-half of arriving at Antrim Area Hospital he was put into an induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator.

His fate was in the lap of the Gods…

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THE lost days. In Gerard’s case, the lost months. Both men have subsequently become educated in respiratory medical discourse. Once you flick the ventilator on, it’s really up to the patient to find the reserves to pull through. The odds were stacked against both of them.

“Marie got a call on the 30th of March basically saying to her to start making arrangements as I was sick enough to die that night,” Niall says matter-of-factly.

Almost in a last throw of the dice, doctors decided to medically ‘prone’ him – a delicate procedure which entails turning the patient from their back onto their front.

“It’s a huge medical incident,” Niall explains. “You’d need six or seven physios or doctors to do it. I read somewhere it has become part of the [Covid19] treatment. It’s like physics, almost. It’s like kick-starting an engine. I was ‘proned’ once but I was talking to Gerard’s wife and she told me he was being ‘proned’ quite a bit when he was very unwell. It obviously worked for both of us.”

The unmerciful stress of each day Marie, Manas, Fionntán and Aoibhinn and Niall’s mum and dad endured is unimaginable. Likewise, for Kathleen McLarnon, Roisin (36), Sean (32) and Damian (29) and extended family.

When Niall woke up, Gerard’s family had roughly another 40 days of torment ahead of them. But the Glengormley man’s remarkable resurgence at least gave hope to the McLarnon clan.

Kathleen received one phone call per day from the hospital.

Every day she religiously wrote down the message that was relayed to her by the hospital about her husband’s condition. Over 50 messages are stored in a small box at their home.

Gerard feels no compulsion to open that box.

“There was a liaison doctor to bring my family up to date about my progress and some of the messages were not good,” Gerard says.

“I still don’t have a sense of how ill I was. In this box that I have the nurse would have broken it up into simple language and Kathleen would have written that down. So she’s dated it from what they said on Day One, on Day 20, this is what my condition was. She wanted to do it for the grandchildren so they could realise, ‘Look, Grandad was sick and here’s how sick he was’ and hopefully this is how well he is now.’”

Gerard McLarnon on his release from hospital back in June with his family

 

Niall [on FaceTime to his wife]: ‘Marie, you’ll not believe who is on our ward. Conor McGregor.’

Marie: ‘Ach, love, he’s not there.’

Niall: ‘He is here! Conor McGregor is a junior doctor on our ward. He’s on work experience. He’s just walking up and down here.’

Marie: ‘Niall, he’s not. You’re just dreaming love…’

Niall: ‘Do you think I’m some sort of eejit? Ask Toner [Ciaran Toner, his friend]’

But Toner wasn’t at his bedside. No-one was...

“This was the haze of post-coma,” Niall says now. “You ease out of a coma; you don’t just switch out of it. During that time, I experienced the most vivid episodes. It took me a few days to unravel reality from perception.”

Gerard experienced hallucinations too. He remembers being stuck in the side streets of Liverpool but couldn’t find his way to the building on the main street where he occasionally worked.

“I needed to ask someone how you got to the main street from these sides streets,” Gerard recalls. “And this dog came paddling up to me and I asked this dog for directions and the dog kind of looked at me as if to say: ‘What a fool.’ I’ll probably be forever condemned for that recollection.”

Kathleen has kindly left a fresh pot of tea on the table. Niall and Gerard laugh at each other’s hospital stories…

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NIALL Murphy fell ill on Friday March 13 and was discharged on April 20. Gerard McLarnon went into hospital on March 30 and came out on June 10.

While in a coma, little Hugh came into the world – Gerard and Kathleen’s third grandchild alongside Casaidh and Tadhg.

“I went into hospital on the Tuesday and Hugh was born on the Saturday and I didn’t know this,” Gerard says. “He was weeks old when I woke up and the nurse said: ‘You’ve got a new grandchild,’ and I didn’t know his name. That upset me terribly. And when I was told his name I couldn’t remember it. It was ten weeks before I could cuddle him.”

The applause in the surrounding streets of Roseville Avenue never sounded more magnificent and never did a wife’s grip on a man’s hand feel so true.

Wearing a pair of “ridiculous pyjamas” and hooked up to a canister of oxygen, Gerard embraced little Casaidh as he climbed out the passenger door of the car before summoning the energy to thank the hundreds of well wishers.

“I thought there was a wake on. And Kathleen said: ‘No, they’re here for you.’

“I opened the door to my eldest grandchild. That meant more to me than anything because I did feel that the children, being so young, would forget me because I was away for three months.”

All the local GAA clubs were represented for his surprise homecoming: Tir na nOg. Kickhams. Cargin. Moneyglass. And, of course, the Wheelers.

Although not one socially distant soul outside his home that June evening would have chosen a near-death scenario to pay homage, but this was their way of acknowledging one of their own, a true GAA man, a gentleman of the rarest kind, who’d invested all that he had into the young people of the area for so many years simply to enable them to love Gaelic football in the same way he did.

Niall was equally moved by an idea his friend and work colleague Gerard McNamara came up with while he was still in a coma.

“Gerard asked people to send me a message to my email address. It has been one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. I received over 5,000 emails and I haven’t read 2-3,000 of them yet.

“It felt like dropping into your own wake [laughing] - and that has given me a push, a bit more wind at my back to physically get better and just how I approach life going forward. It was a stunning, beautiful thing for Gerard to do.”

Mickey Harte, Joe Kernan, Eoin Kelly and many of the great and the good in the GAA world sent him messages of support.

Niall adds: “Not that I needed the evidence of persuasion but how broad and wide a family the GAA is and the collegiality to rally behind one of its own – that will never, ever leave me and that only deepens my sense of being part of the greatest Association in the world.”

Both Niall and Gerard’s respective lung functions are improving all the time. Gerard hopes to be weaned off oxygen completely sooner rather than later, with the help of his physio and one of the kindest souls on earth - Mary McAuley.

Impatient to be able to get back on his bike again, Dr Kidney told him: ‘Don’t be setting goals because you might never achieve them, but look back and see where you’ve come from.’

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SINCE their cliff-edge experiences with Covid19, life for Gerard and Niall is as clear and as beautiful as a bright blue sky. 
 
Both enjoyed the thrill of Antrim’s club championships with Creggan Kickhams taking the scalp of St Enda’s in Dunsilly at the quarter-final stages.  
 
“There’s a word in Irish – suaimhneas,” Niall says.
 
“It means tranquillity, calmness, contentment. It’s a beautiful word. In July, we went to Donegal and we were down at Machaire Rabhartaigh (Magheraroarty Beach) every day.
 
“It was Manas’s birthday on the 13th of July and because you couldn’t have gatherings we decided to have a hurling match on the beach. We scratched out a bit of a pitch and four or five families of the U14 team at the club had taken houses up around Donegal and we had about 14 kids among us and we played a match. Those are special times, just beautiful memories…    
 
“One concept I have grappled with since is, if I didn’t ‘push the boulder up the hill’, and the decision was made to medically switch the machine off, I’d never have known. And my last actions would have been walking voluntarily into hospital.
 
“Consenting to the ventilator was me entering  a ‘Bearna Baoil’ - the gap of danger. A long way from the suaimhneas of Pairc Éanna grass or Machaire Rabhartaigh sand under your feet.”
 
Against ridiculous odds, Niall and Gerard somehow made it. They’re still standing, undaunted. Forever bound by Covid19…

.Belfast lawyer and Coronavirus survivor Niall Murphy applauds the NHS and frontline staff with his family Aoibhinn, Marie, Fionntan and Manas soon after his release from hospital Picture: Mal McCann..

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