Neck surgery gave me four years in brave new professional world
As long as I can remember I’ve experienced bumps, bruises and busted teeth. I’ll never forget a year of root canal work on my front central incisor having “accidentally” headbutted a bottle in my brother Niall’s hand. I was in second year at St Clement’s Redemptorist College. On finally leaving, my dentist complimented my healthy teeth and suggested a year’s grace.
On arrival home, while playing soccer with my older brother Brian, I slipped the ball round him when he trapped it under my feet. I went head over heels, crashing teeth first into the border wall. Barely an hour out of the dentist, I returned with three teeth missing, including the aforementioned expensive root canal tooth.
In most cases it was all good fun and hardly life-threatening, or indeed life-altering. Rob Penney’s comments on Paul O’Connell this week has brought many memories to the fore.
After safely negotiating 21 months in the Cadet School I was part of the Irish Development Tour in 1993 to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Rugby was extremely different back then but injuries were equally evident.
That December I played in the Scotland v Ireland A fixture. It was the start of my most significant injury journey as I woke up the following morning with a terrible neck pain that flowed into both arms and gave a tingling sensation down both hands.
It was awful timing as the final Irish trial was set for that week, with Denis McBride out injured and France looming in early January 1994. With a prolapsed disk I had to stop all forms of rugby for the remainder of the season.
Unfortunately not only did I stop all forms of rugby, I stopped all forms of exercise. The road back the following season was very tough, having slipped back in general fitness and the rugby pecking order. The rehab and physio did help, which also included the murky business of match injections.
In hindsight this was a very dangerous strategy that kept a prolapsed disk on the edge of disaster. I become comfortable in an environment of poor neck mobility, continuous physio and injections. This had become my norm.
Finally it gave way when playing for Old Crescent against Shannon at Thomond Park in 1997. I was in a maul of sorts when a certain Shannon secondrow entered, driving into my lower back. This happened hundreds of times and usually without incident but this time I felt a form of whiplash and a sensation in my neck.
In the adrenalin of the moment the pain passes. The following morning I woke up as I had done many times before – in pain – and was given anti-inflammatory medication, which was the norm.
I’ll never forget where I was when I woke up the following Monday morning, as the pain was excruciating. For more than two weeks I listened to the 2FM news every hour on the hour 24/7. No sooner would I doze off but my head would flop to one side, causing massive pain and waking me up.