My Health Experience: ‘My son’s heart surgery was to be on the same day I was to play soccer for Ireland’

The operation was rescheduled and, despite his dad’s worries, Woody is outrunning him

A year ago the fear was that his young son might be restricted in his everyday life by the congenital heart condition that required surgery at six months in London’s Great Ormond Street hospital.

Now, Damien Duff admits that being laid up himself through injury has helped him to appreciate the progress Woody has made in the past few years, with the youngster quick to abandon his dad as he lay at home on the couch, and head off in search of a rather more mobile playmate.

“He had no interest in me once he realised I was no good to him,” the soccer player says with a laugh that hints at a certain admiration for the three year old’s mercenary instincts.

The former Republic of Ireland international, who has just agreed a move to Melbourne for next season, is not complaining. He has spoken before about how badly he took the initial news that Woody had a partial AVSD, a small hole in his heart that would require surgery after he was born.


That, he recalls, was after a 32-week scan that he and his wife, Elaine, were getting just to have the picture as much as anything else. “The geezer,” he recalls now, “went, ‘I need to get my superior to look at this,’ and we were going: ‘Ah no, what’s wrong here?’ ”

When the situation was explained to them, complete with the stark fact that one child in 100 would not be expected to survive, Duff, who is now 35, admits that he “broke down”.

Good prognosis

His wife coped far better with the initial news. The prognosis was always actually pretty good but Duff feared, understandably enough, that Woody might just be the one.

“We all have holes when we’re born, I think,” he says now. “And they fill in. But this one wasn’t going to, so it was going to affect his strength and his development, his ability to get big and strong. So we knew before he was born that he needed an operation but we were . . . well, you just fear the worst,” he says.

“The other thing was that it’s a marker for other things, chromosomal things, and, with me being a worrier, I thought there was going to be an awful lot more wrong with him.

“In the end, though, it was all good; he needed a heart operation, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Woody needed to be six months old before he could have surgery and, as it happened, the appointed date led to complications on the work front.

“They wanted him to be big and strong enough so we had to wait, but the minute he was six months he was booked in. The problem then was that he was actually booked in the day we played Armenia [in a Euro 2012 qualifying game].

“That was a really hard time. I was saying: ‘I can’t change my son’s heart operation to play for Ireland.’ It just didn’t sit right with me; I didn’t want to mess with fate.

“I was thinking that if we put it back a week, it mightn’t work the next week – it’s just the weird way the mind works – but my wife talked me around and we did it the week after.”

From that point on, all went well and Duff was astonished by the speed with which his young son began to recover from the ordeal.

“They’re so strong, young kids. If you or I had a heart op, we’d probably be in for two or three weeks, but Woody got more or less turfed out after three nights. It was bizarre. We were saying: ‘Are you sure?’ We kind of wanted him to stay in, but three nights after open-heart surgery he was out.

“Now, he just goes back for scans, just to make sure that they’ve sewn it all up right and that the blood is flowing right through the valves and so on.

“In the early days it was more frequent but as time has gone on there have been bigger gaps and, hopefully, that will continue.

“But you can just tell from looking at him that it hasn’t affected him from that time on,” he says with a clear sense of both marvel and pride. “He’s flying around.”

The doctors are more positive too, he says. “When they first diagnosed it they said: ‘Well, he mightn’t be a professional footballer but he’ll live a long and healthy life.’ But when we go back now, the same professor says he’ll be grand, that he can do whatever he wants. So it’s obviously going well.”

Damien Duff is an ambassador for Heart Children Ireland, which is holding a seven-a-side football tournament at Irishtown stadium next Saturday, June 28th, to raise funds for it and for the children's cancer charity, Aoibheann's Pink Tie. For more details, see

In conversation with

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times