My Health Experience: Cancer, catheters, three Hail Marys and a waddling waltz

I may never run or play tennis again, but I survived a journey of medical misadventure and experienced exalting humanity along the way

There are no atheists in a foxhole. When the mortars rain down and bullets and shells fly overhead, brave and reckless men cry out for their mothers, and for Jesus.

When it’s 4am on a hospital ward and you are grappling with cancer and infection and neuropathy, and you are no longer sure you are going to make it through, it’s pretty much the same. Reach out to Mother and Jesus.

At a very low point in my illness, about the middle of 2014, I lost control of my bladder and required catheterisation. After a week or so, the crisis passed and the time came for the removal of the device.

The procedure involved is somewhat less than scientific, and requires the patient and the nurse to jointly count to three, at which point the latter pulls the offending tube quite forcibly from the most sensitive appendage of the former. Then the patient waits and waits, perhaps for 12 hours, for the bladder to return to normal function but, unfortunately, in this case the bladder was having none of it.


The only remedy was to return to the catheter and hope for a better outcome next time around.

Sense of despair

Next time around duly arrived and again I waited and waited to no effect. I passed the point of 12 hours of not pissing with a growing sense of despair and decided, being in something of a foxhole, to pray. I placed the bottle between my legs and started the first Hail Mary.

Halfway through I started to pee. The flow increased and I prayed with even more intensity and in seconds, to quote Michael Harding, I was pissing like the officer’s horse and still going strong as I began the second cycle of Hail Marys. Whether it was fear, gratitude or the foxhole effect, I could not piss for three months afterwards without a whispered Hail Mary to start proceedings.

And I remembered, during those long stretches of hospitalisation, how my mother solved most of her life’s problems with tea and brown bread. For the more intractable issues she added three Hail Marys to the mix.

However, some of my afflictions do not succumb to the three Hail Marys treatment. There are mornings that begin at 4am with the crushing realisation that my life has changed in a very profound way. I feel the pain of the neuropathy in my feet and I know I will never play tennis or run again, or even walk properly for that matter.

How in the name of Jesus Christ am I going to cope with this? I struggle to the kitchen on those grim and bleak days, and as soon as the light allows I watch blackbirds and robins search for food in the dead leaves under an ash tree.

Suppressed resentment

Cyclists pass the house all through the morning, heading for the Naul, and sometimes I cannot suppress my resentment of their f***ing strong legs pushing their f***ing gleaming bikes up that hill and I feel like screaming at their f***ing bent backs. I never had to think much about my health in the time before cancer struck. I was indestructible, but this cancer has broken me.

But along the way there were moments when the sheer humanity of some of my carers lifted my battered soul out of depression and put me back to work on my recovery.

I met a physiotherapist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital who told me she double-jobbed as a wedding singer. She said she loved to sing and she took wedding bookings that slotted into her holiday entitlements at the NRH.

She was a beautiful woman and her smile, this vitality that shone in her eyes, could light up a room full of broken bodies, victims of strokes and motor cycle crashes.

I was part of an exercise therapy class that she supervised one day, and she decided we were going to dance. Myself and half a dozen patients who suffered from acquired brain injuries, all of us lurching and waddling our way back to independent walking, and I barely able to stand without assistance.

To the soundtrack of an orchestral waltz she came to my wheelchair, held out her arms and asked me to dance. I protested I couldn’t dance now – in fact I never could – and could she not see that I could barely stand at that moment.

She just stood there smiling, her arms held out to me, and somehow I found myself standing in her embrace and she started to count. One, two, three. One, two, three. She made a tiny dance step and I followed, then another and I followed, and then we both started to laugh. Laughter of joy and deep release from months of fear and frustration. A physical, heaving laughter on my part at the realisation that I would walk again; it might take months, but it was going to happen.

And I saw this humanity, this profound empathy again in a pair of physiotherapists at St James’s Hospital who strapped me into a machine and helped me take my first 10 steps after a bout of C. diff infection.

Exhalting humanity

They held me through the searing pain of stretching leg muscles wasted by infection and shortened by being bedbound for months. They high-fived and hugged me when I made 20 steps in a zimmer frame and helped me to hide a hospital exercise bike in my room to use at weekends.

I have recovered well. I can walk now, on a good day on the beach, for nearly an hour. Sometimes in the night I wake up in a state of sweaty terror, reliving the past 16 months of medical misadventure and trying to make sense of it. But there is no sense to it. Only that I survived it and lived to tell tales of exalting humanity experienced along the way.

Des Allen is chief executive of Tennis Ireland and has just returned to work after a 16-month struggle with cancer. Throughout his illness he found that writing about his experiences was very therapeutic. He he hopes to publish some of his work this year to raise funds for cancer treatment.