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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 22 December, 2014

The long road back: Cork hurler facing up to his biggest challenge

Former intermediate hurling star Des Fitzgerald suffered temporary paralysis playing for Charleville in October but a hunger to get back to his old self drives him on.

Fitzgerald's Charleville team-mates after their All-Ireland decider defeat.
Fitzgerald's Charleville team-mates after their All-Ireland decider defeat.
Image: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

SPORT TAKES OVER lives.

In Des Fitzgerald’s world, the effects of sport dominates his.

A freak accident when hurling for Charleville in October last year left him temporarily paralysed from the neck down, with a bleed in his spinal cord.

Today, the former Cork minor and intermediate hurler spoke of his long road back at the Mater Hospital and National Rehabilitation Hospital, and where this journey started.

“We were in the (junior) county semi-final,” Fitzgerald told Des Cahill on Morning Ireland.

“It was against Kilbrin so it was. I dived in for a tackle and my two legs were off the ground and I got two knees into the chest or neck, I’m not sure. But the impact was like whiplash in a car, I suppose. My head couldn’t move from below my shoulders down; seriously worrying times.

“So from there I went straight to Cork University Hospital and they sent me up to the Mater, I think about two hours later. Got an MRI scan; I think it was about a day later – maybe a little less – that they came back to say what it was. They said to me it was bleeding in the spinal cord, it’s a bruise and they weren’t sure how much you’d recover, or how well you’d recover.

“I think the first five weeks I spent in the Mater and then I came to the (National) Rehab Centre on the 11th of November. And I’ve been here since. And rehab is going well, it’s really intense so it is: 10 o’clock ’til five every day.

“It’s like anything, the more work you put in, the more you’re gonna get out of it. The same with hurling, the same with work, the same with anything. I wouldn’t want it any other way; if you’re seeing results, that’s the way it should be.”

Recovery

The doctors’ and physios’ prognoses cautiously suggest to Fitzgerald that he will need two years of rehab, and his determination to get back to close to his old self drives him on. It’s a slow process, small steps counting as genuine leaps.

“That’s what really keeps me going inside here,” he explains. “The fact that each week you see a little bit of improvement. It might be moving your finger an extra millimetre each week but, yeah, that really keeps you going and drives you on to come back next week. And push yourself as hard. And yeah the hands are coming back – that’s probably the slowest part of it, is my hands. And the legs are coming back as well, so it’s all good so far. As long as it stays on this road, I’ll be okay hopefully.”

Fitzgerald will marry his fiancee Sarah on March 16 and she, along with his family, have given him much of the fuel for his long road to recovery.

“I’m a lucky man; she stayed with me through all of this, a lot of people would be gone. But (I) can’t wait, we’re heading off to our honeymoon after that. Getting a ferry over to England… A break is badly needed as well you know, just to relax the brain a small bit.”

“But Sarah and my family have been absolutely amazing and I don’t think I’d be where I am – as far gone – if I didn’t have their support. And the GAA community as well, I’ve gotten more letters from people I don’t know or thought didn’t like me on a hurling field, you know. Everyone is amazing when something like this happens,” he told Cahill.

So often, Fitzgerald brings the conversation back to the GAA and it was heartbreak for him to miss out on Charleville’s subsequent run to the All-Ireland junior final against St Patrick’s of Ballyragget. He took in the Cork and Munster championship wins over the radio, with his team’s push for silverware driving him on through rehab sessions. Still, he couldn’t mask his frustration at missing out on Charleville’s narrow All-Ireland loss at Croke Park.

“Yeah definitely, I went into the dressing-room beforehand with the lads – the first time since the accident obviously – handed out the jerseys and gave a small bit of a speech. Got out onto the field then and it was so strange going into the team photo in a wheelchair. Then watching the game, ah it was heartbreaking stuff. First of all losing by a point but, for myself, not being out there; I would love to have been out there in the middle of it.

“Heartbreaking stuff – but sure look, life is strange, you just have to try and stay positive and get on with it. Fair play to Ballyraggett – you have to give it to them – they had a brilliant team and so did Charleville but they just pipped it at the end. You couldn’t take it away from them, you know.”

Charleville may lament what was a familiar slow start in their All-Ireland final before a strong comeback which was ultimately in defeat. The parallels with Des’ struggles are apparent, though you’d suspect the outcome might not be.

  • To assist Fitzgerald, Charleville GAA club are organising a Golf Classic in Charleville Golf Club on April 11 and April 13. Entries may be made by emailing secretary.charleville.cork@gaa.ie or contacting club secretary, Kieran Carey (0863155464) and chairman Mike Walsh (0872909620). The time sheet is available here.

Listen to the full interview with Des Fitzgerald here on the RTÉ website>

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