Blood clots, cancer, stroke and a heart transplant: a young man’s 10-year ordeal

Danny O’Connor, 33, talks about a decade of extraordinary health crises that several times came close to claiming his life

At 33 years of age, Danny O’Connor has endured more issues with his health than most people will experience in a lifetime.

Ten years ago, he began to experience pains in his calves and, following investigation, he went through a litany of medical emergencies and procedures, eventually culminating in a heart transplant at the Mater Hospital in Dublin last October.

“In January, 2012, I started getting severe burning pains in my calves, and the gym instructors at the hotel where I worked thought I had pulled something,” he says. “I went to see the doctor, who gave me some anti-inflammatories and pain relief tablets. Over the course of the next few months, I saw several other doctors who all thought it was related to a back problem and I was referred for physio, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better and I couldn’t walk more than 100 to 200 metres before having to take a break as the pain was so bad.

“That April, I was back at work but while carrying a tray of food, I got such a bad pain that I had to lie down and elevate my legs. The manager called for an ambulance and when it arrived I was taken straight to A&E, where I was told that I had suffered a heart attack. They asked if I had any pain in my chest and I said it was only my calves, so I was sent to the Cardiac Care Unit in Dublin for a CT scan where they found blood clots in both of my legs, the right being worse than the left. There was also some scarring from other blood clots, which had cleared up over the past few months.”

Shocked at this turn of events, the Wexford man was told that his heart was very weak but they would have to operate on his leg because doctors were worried that he might lose it due to the clot. The surgery was successful but the following day his leg started to swell and another “hidden” clot was discovered, so he went through another operation.

Then, after spending two weeks in hospital, he was expecting to be simply sent home to recover, but doctors informed him that they were concerned about the clots and would need to have them analysed.

After being discharged and ordered to stay on crutches for six weeks, he went home to wait for results and was then told the most unexpected news – the blood clots contained cancer cells.

“My mam and dad were with me when I got the news and it was really shocking,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting that at all and had to have CT scans, MRIs and a PET scan, but they couldn’t find the source of the cancer, so I was moved to an oncology department. I tried to have a positive attitude to it and said I would just try to keep myself healthy and listen to the doctors.

Chemotherapy

“A couple of weeks [after being diagnosed], I started chemotherapy, which took a lot out of me. I lost a lot of weight and found it very draining. Then, after the third round, I had a scope and they were able to locate the cancer – it was on my heart. I remember getting the call to say they had located the sarcoma and they required consent to put me forward for surgery, which Professor [James] McCarthy at the Mater Hospital would do.

“I had surgery on Tuesday 25th of July and was sent home the following Monday. It went really well and I was told that I would need a few more rounds of chemo to rule out the chance of there being any undetected cancer in my body.”

Danny, who has three children – Matthew (14), Logan (two) and Robyn (one) – finished his chemotherapy in October 2012 and thought this was surely the end of his problems. But there was still more to come and, in 2014, after coming off the anticoagulants, which he was prescribed for blood clots, he started to suffer from headaches, which he ignored initially, but not long afterwards he suffered a stroke.

“I was brought by ambulance to hospital as I had lost all use of my right side and couldn’t speak,” he says. “Being able to understand what everyone was saying to me but not being able to say what I wanted [back to them] was really frightening and frustrating. I was sent to Dublin to be put forward for a Canadian trial operation to remove the clot [which was discovered on his brain]. And they removed clots from both my brain and my neck which had caused the stroke and I really believe without that operation I wouldn’t be here today.

“Within 24 hours, I started getting movement back in my fingers and toes and a few days later I was started getting up and about and came home two weeks later. I had some speech and physical therapy afterwards to regain my ability to speak, write, and move fully again. And thankfully I made a full recovery.”

12/1/2021
Exterior pic of the Mater hospital in Dublin yesterday(Tues). Pic: Collins Courts

The carpenter had seven years of good health and apart from regular check-ups with doctors, his former problems took a back seat. But in May 2021, he began to experience shortness of breath and after being assessed in his local hospital, he was sent for an angiogram, which came back clear.

“I was put on water-retention medication as they thought there was some fluid build up on my lungs, and I was referred to a heart failure nurse,” he said. “The medication seemed to work for about three weeks but then the shortness of breath came back again. This time I went to A&E in Dublin, where my medication was increased and when I returned three weeks later for a follow-up, the doctor said he wasn’t happy with my progress and I was admitted to CCU [Cardiac Care Unit].

“I was in hospital for a week, where a heart scan showed that the function of my heart was severely reduced, so I was advised that I was suffering from advanced heart failure and was to be worked up to be added to the heart-transplant list.”

Heart-transplant list

After undergoing numerous scans and tests, Danny, who has been with his fiancee Jaimielee for 10 years, was placed on the heart-transplant list and sent home to wait for a call and spend time with his daughter who had been born three days previously while he was in hospital.

Before actually having the transplant, I had three matches which ended up being incompatible for one reason or another, but then at the end of October 2021, I had a call to say they found a match and were very hopeful it would suit,” he recalls. “I was collected by ambulance and brought straight to the Mater Hospital and the next few hours felt only like minutes while I had numerous tests and blood work done. Then in the early hours of the morning, they performed the transplant and I spent the following three days in ICU trying to regulate my medications, start eating again and getting back on my feet.

“I was moved to HDU [High Dependency Unit] where I spent about a week doing physio, going for short walks and just trying to get myself back right. Within days, I noticed my breathing was so much better, my energy levels increased and my appetite was coming back. All I wanted to do was get out of hospital and see my family, so that was my main motivation to keep going and improving every day.

“The whole team in the Mater are just superb and are amazing at what they do, so they made my recovery much easier than I thought it would be. I was discharged three and half weeks after my heart transplant and now, eight months later, my recovery has been going great and I’ve had no major issues.

“I visit the Mater regularly for my check ups and am trying to stay on top of my health from home by staying as active as possible, which is fairly easy with two kids under three. I hope my recovery continues to progress well and I look forward to getting back to a totally normal life soon and getting married next May.

“Now I just want to say a huge thank you to my donor and their family for making the selfless decision to donate. Without them, I may not be here today. I would also like to thank all of the amazing people who have done so much for me, and continue to do. I’d like to give special thanks to my mam and dad, my partner Jamielee and all of my friends and family who have been there for me throughout the past 10 years. I couldn’t have gotten through it without you all and I will be forever grateful.”

For more information, see materfoundation.ie

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories