Living with illness: ‘I was told to go and spend time with my family’

Maurice Kavanagh’s long catalogue of illness ended with dread advice - but he’s still upbeat

Since he was a child, Maurice Kavanagh has endured illness after illness. However, not only has he survived to tell the tale, he remains resolutely positive about the future.

“My health journey began when I was just 12 years-old and I had a painful lump on my leg,” says the Wicklow man. “Initially, doctors thought it was growing pains, but it kept getting worse and was both painful and hot to touch. So I went for several tests and was told that I would need some treatment but [that I] was going to get better soon. I only found out that I had cancer from someone in school. I was a bit taken aback and when I got home and asked my mother, who confirmed it.

“I discovered I had something called Ewing’s Sarcoma, which meant nothing to me at the time – but I had to go through two years of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, lost my hair and was horribly ill. It was a terrible time, but I got through it and got the all clear in 1986.”

I had a prosthetic fitted but I couldn't bear it in the beginning and didn't wear it for about four months

Kavanagh was keen to get back to school and after his Leaving Cert he trained as a chef in Dublin's Cathal Brugha Street before heading to Cavan to work. But unfortunately misfortune struck again, and his culinary career was cut short as he began to experience chest pain.


“I started having difficulty breathing when I was walking up the avenue to work and there was a bit of gurgling sound in my throat which was diagnosed as asthma,” says Maurice who was 24 at the time. “I was sucking on inhalers but didn’t feel any better so I called my parents who drove up to collect me and brought me to hospital in Dublin where I underwent an angiogram and it was discovered that I had cardiomyopathy as result of the chemotherapy I had as a child.

“Then in March 1994 the doctor told me that the muscles in my heart were failing and that I only had one functioning chamber which meant I needed a heart transplant. This was a total shock and I couldn’t get my head around it. I went for a walk to try and process the information before telling anyone as it just seemed too huge.”

Once his family were told, Kavanagh, who has four sisters and one brother, went home to wait for the appointment which would hopefully transform his life. And after two false alarms, he finally got the phone call informing him that a new heart was available, and he would need to get to hospital as soon as possible.

"When I put down the phone, I burst out crying and was totally up the walls with fear," he says. "My GP came over and assured me that it would all be okay so I went to the Mater Hospital where everything happened really quickly. Before I knew it I had woken up after a very long operation and was told that everything went well."

Kavanagh spent two weeks in isolation and then was moved to a general ward to recuperate. However, a collapsed lung saw him spend a further 3½ months in hospital before finally being discharged and eventually over a year later, he returned to work.

But his ordeal was far from over.

“In October of 1996, I had a bilateral hip replacement as the high doses of steroids I had been taking had weakened my joints,” he says. “I recovered well over time and everything was fine for a good while but at the end of 2009, I started having problems passing urine. I had been born with only one functioning kidney and apparently the medication I had been on [for his other conditions] had destroyed the other kidney, so I was told that I needed a transplant.

“My family all put themselves forward to see if they were a match, but they weren’t so I was put on the waiting list and again it was third-time lucky when a match came up and although it wasn’t an exact fit, I had the transplant in 2011 and was put on anti-rejection medicine.

"I thought I could carry on with life now but then the leg which had been cancerous started to give me trouble to the point that the pain became unbearable and after investigation, it was discovered that the drugs I had been on had destroyed the cells in the bottom half of my leg. I was told that it would have to be removed. At the time I didn't mind as it was so painful, but it took some getting used to. I went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital where I had a prosthetic fitted but I couldn't bear it in the beginning and didn't wear it for about four months, but eventually I learned how to live with it."

Due to his catalogue of surgeries, Kavanagh was no longer fit enough to work in a busy kitchen environment, so he trained as a medical secretary in 2014 and started a new job which he really enjoyed.

“I really loved where I was working but in 2018, I started suffering from really bad headaches and was rushed to hospital where it was discovered that I had suffered a brain bleed and a massive heart attack,” he says. “Things really were touch and go as one of the blood vessels in the brain had burst and my poor old heart took an awful battering, apparently it was only working at 20 per cent but the doctors worked their magic and I survived.

“Things were pretty rough, and I was in ICU for three weeks, but I made it. The new kidney, which was never a perfect match, is totally banjaxed but I’ve been told that I can’t get another kidney or heart transplant as I wouldn’t survive. Doctors told me last year that I should spend time with loved ones as they implied I didn’t have long left – but I am still here.”

Despite his astonishing list of health complaints and the lengthy hospital stays, treatments and procedures he has had to endure, the 48-year old remains not only stoical but utterly upbeat and positive.

“I am living day to day and feel really great at the moment,” he says. “I am enjoying things while they last and am very mobile, even though I have to have dialysis three times a week for three hours at a time. I don’t know what has come over me since I was told to go and spend time with my family – it is the worst thing you can hear but I feel fantastic and am really enjoying life at the moment.”

Kavanagh is well placed to offer advice on dealing with adversity and says communication is vital and although it can be very tough, positivity will make a difference.

“My advice to anyone going through an illness is to try and talk as much as possible about things,” he says. “Don’t bottle it up, get it out, say how you feel and ask people for help.

“There will always be bad days and of course it can be very difficult to be positive, but I really worked at making myself have a good outlook. I have had a horrible journey which was very lonely at times, but I tried to remind myself on a regular basis that there is always someone who is worse off – so I would encourage others to try to look at all the great things they have in life.

“Also don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out all you can from Citizen’s Information, from medical experts or others going through the same thing. Remember you are not alone, and I hope that my story will help others to realise the importance of staying strong, looking to the future and being positive about life.”