At 37, Brendan Lannon is a man who, without hesitation, could be referred to as a medical miracle. Sitting across from him now, he having just arrived home from an 11km walk, I would never have thought he had open-heart surgery as a baby, a stroke at 22 and a heart transplant at 30. He beams: "Life is great, it feels like a lifetime ago. I'm working away and have since got engaged to a beautiful woman. I'm a lucky man."
Brendan’s very entrance to this world was fraught with medical concern, as indeed would be the first 30 years of his life. Congenital heart disease was quickly detected. Cue his immediate Baptism in the delivery suite of the hospital. From day one he was linked to a medical professional. His godmother, chosen with great urgency, is a family friend who happened to be on duty in the hospital that night.
Denied a carefree childhood, he mourns early dreams of wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps, to become an Army officer. Recalling fondly how he loved watching his father go to work every day in his uniform, he says, “He would bring me to the barracks, and I’d think, ‘I’ll serve here someday’.”
He describes the moment his dad sat him down to explain he would never have the chance to fulfil that dream. The impact is still evident as he sighs, “I didn’t believe him for so long. Of course, I could get in. Sure my dad was there. But it didn’t work like that.” The feeling of regret is only briefly allowed before he quickly reassumes his optimistic outlook, praising the weather.
We’re less than a mile from Brendan’s national school and he glows as he talks of sport. Always having had to be mindful of his health, he could not quite fully engage. He was never picked first for the team. But, “one day in third class though, the ball was coming my direction, I headed it away from me and it happened to go in. I was delighted. Still remember it vividly. I was picked more after that,” he laughs.
At age 12, he and his family moved to the Middle East for two years. It was in Bethlehem the sports star was born, discovering his love for basketball. Brendan's body wasn't completely failing him. His height gained him favour with the coach. "I started to get really into it. I was no Michael Jordan but I could hold my own. It was the first time I really felt part of a team." His heart condition rained on this parade too, however. His coach had to tell him to step out from time to time, in order to be cautious. A pattern that would continue with all his sports coaches in the years ahead.
Although he was required to have regular hospital check-ups, and always had to be mindful of his condition, Brendan does not feel his heart problems imposed too much at that time. He describes himself as a healthy young lad, except for when he'd get the flu, impacting him more than most. He was to come under the care of Dr Brian Denham in Crumlin hospital. He recalls the physician as a giant among men. He tells how as a child it was the doctor's large hands that gave Brendan confidence in him. "I remember thinking, wow he must be a good doctor with hands as big as his."
However, only a week before he was due to fly to the United States for his role as a summer camp counsellor, Brendan suffered a stroke.
He was in the bathroom when signs began to show. A headache he had been fighting all morning suddenly grew more intense. His right leg felt strange, he passed it off as perhaps a bit numb but quickly realised it was more serious.
“Words failed me, as I tried to speak it was just gibberish. I knew there was something very wrong and I had to help myself. I lowered myself to the floor and used all my strength to crawl to the door. I still don’t know how I managed it.” He speaks of the relief he felt upon finding his sister, who was standing impatiently outside, none too happy about him taking so long. “When I finally flicked open the door by over-reaching to turn the key. She knew to go for help.”
Brendan’s stoicism is not a decided attitude. Rather, he appears completely unaware of the strength and courage he exudes. His resilient nature is illustrated when he recalls of chatting to friends from hospital that night, assuring them he’d be on for the pub at the weekend. At the youthful age of 22, a stroke is a bitter pill to swallow, but the “why me” mindset is one that doesn’t seem to be on his radar. Instead, his perspective is far more pragmatic; “Of course, there were times I was wishing I were at home, but I knew how sick I was. I knew I needed to be in hospital.”
But the stroke was not to result in a quick, one-night stay in hospital. The following morning, when attempting to get out of bed, Brendan’s legs collapsed from under him. The medical team decided it best he be referred to the Mater hospital, Dublin, where he subsequently spent three weeks in recovery. The stroke affected his speech, causing him to slur his words. Yet again, with a casual dismissal of the gravity of the situation, he explains, “I still have some weakness on my right side and big words escape me sometimes, but nothing too bad.”
In 2010, Brendan’s heart struggled more to find the right rhythm. A pacemaker was implanted but failed to improve his condition to any significant degree. So, towards the end of that year he underwent a cardioversion. 2012 was the first real indication that his condition was worsening. The pacemaker was removed, and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator was implanted. 2010-2014 saw Brendan spend a considerable amount of time in hospital. His heart function gradually deteriorating. When attending a check-up, he would bring a packed bag, as often it would result in a hospital stay. “I knew the drill. On my last admission the doctor looked at me and no words were needed. I was admitted.”
While the word transplant had circulated once or twice during consultations, it was always referred to as a far-off prospect. “I knew I might have to face that in my 50s or 60s. Never did I think at 28 I was going to be listed for one because I was in right-sided heart failure.” After numerous tests and evaluations Brendan signed up to what would be a nine-month wait for a heart transplant.
“I got my first call only a week later. A call I’ll never forget. There was great excitement, perhaps this would finally be it. The struggle was about to end. It was all systems go. Phone calls to make, forms to sign, different doctors from different departments to see. Nurses coming in with gowns and scrubs to prep for theatre.”
The buoyant atmosphere was abruptly altered when a transplant co-ordinator arrived to deliver news that instead filled the room with an air of despondency. The heart wasn’t a match.
Brendan's second call came just before midnight while he was enjoying a weekend away from the hospital in Maynooth. Speedily, he returned to hospital by ambulance. "I felt better about this one because I had been through it before, I knew not to pin too much hope on it as it is never guaranteed. My fear was once again realised when I was told the transplant would not go ahead, the heart was too small."
Third time lucky. On January 9th, 2014, shortly after 9pm, Brendan received the call that changed his life.
“My parents had just gone back to Maynooth for the evening. My sister, who had been out with friends in Dublin, came to the hospital and once again we waited anxiously. This time it was a match. I was off to theatre. I remember the transplant co-ordinator laughing and coming over to me with a second hospital cap and saying this one’s for your beard.”
The operation was a nine-hour, tense wait for Brendan’s family. Finally, out of theatre, he was to spend three days in an induced coma for recovery. He describes his apprehension upon wakening: “There’s always a chance that even when the anaesthetic has been administered something may occur and the operation will be cancelled. I was still intubated so I couldn’t speak, there was no pain. Looking around I could see I had four drains and an external pacemaker – it had happened, I had my new heart. I was the happiest man alive that day.”
Brendan tells how he struggled to reconcile himself with the fact he had to hope for another’s misfortune for him to receive a healthy heart. He found comfort in words offered to him by a doctor: “You’re allowed be selfish when waiting on another’s demise so that you can live.” This battle was not one Brendan chose but once in it, he had to be ruthless to survive.
Brendan’s life is now unrecognisable to what it once was, and enhanced even more so by his fiancée Christine, with whom he is visibly smitten. The couple met in Athlone Institute of Technology and stayed in touch. And when he recovered, they began dating. Their wedding, initially scheduled for September 2020, was postponed until February 6th of this year.
“We weren’t expecting to have a global pandemic derail the plans. We just set another date today, third time lucky,” Brendan laughs.
As we talk dates, he realises today is also the anniversary of the day he was discharged from hospital post-transplant.