My stroke story: The tortuous tale of my narrow escape from the Grim Reaper

Vivid memories remain stubbornly permanent in my fractured but still cerebral brain

John Cooney covered the annual Croagh Patrick climb in  his last assignment as a professional journalist. Photograph: iStock

John Cooney covered the annual Croagh Patrick climb in his last assignment as a professional journalist. Photograph: iStock

 

At first they sounded like defiant Covid-19 street revellers enjoying alcohol loudly in public, but as they turned the corner into the vicinity of Eaton Square in Terenure I saw they were enthusiastic canvassers for Ivana Bacik, the Labour Party’s candidate in the Dublin Bay South Dáil byelection.

Spotting my slow but steady approach, the candidate stopped to hand me her leaflet. 

“Hello, Ivana. Don’t you remember your old friend?” I asked. 

“I cannot see who you are through your face covering,” she responded apologetically.

“I’m not taking off the mask even for your election as the poll-topping queen of the bay,” I predicted, while identifying myself.

“Ah, John,” she exclaimed with a note of nostalgic memory.

This was my cue to explain how it was exactly 10 years ago that I involuntarily disappeared from mainstream national journalism after suffering serious illness in Co Mayo. “I didn’t know,” Ivana exclaimed.

As her cavalcade trooped off into the fading evening light, her unawareness of my near-demise fitted uncomfortably with every journalist’s nightmare of “out of sight, out of mind”.

So I resolved that if my prediction of Ivana’s success were confirmed at the count, I would, for the first time, tell the tortuous story of my narrow escape from the Grim Reaper’s clutches. So here is my stroke story. The unsolicited hole in my head is filled with vivid memories which remain stubbornly permanent in my fractured but still cerebral brain.

Little did I know that I was embarking on my last assignment as a professional journalist – with 41 years service – on Sunday, July 31st, 2011, when I drove from Dublin to Mayo’s Holy Mountain to cover the annual Croagh Patrick climb for the Irish Independent. Having reported the climb before, I took the initiative in advance of obtaining the mobile numbers of several relatives from Mayo and Sligo, who were attending the overnight cliff-top Mass by Archbishop Michael Neary.

On arrival I used my press card to secure a car park space close to the Reek and proceeded up the lower mountain slopes in defiance of loud-mouthed anti-papist evangelicals from Northern Ireland. The sun was beating down but I kept climbing for about half an hour before finding a sturdy rock to act as my resting stool.

There I devoured my ham and tomato sandwiches, drank a flask of coffee, tuned into Mid-West Radio news bulletins on the turn-out estimates of pilgrim numbers, all this while enjoying the spectacular view of off-shore islands shimmering below me. I fell asleep and awoke with a forehead as red as beetroot.

Already high-flyers were coming down from the upper reaches and I duly phoned my relatives and took note of their experiences. Rather than phone my copy by mobile to Dublin, I returned to my car and sped to my summer home on the Quay Road half-way between Ballina and the seaside village of Enniscrone. There I set up my laptop in my backroom study, wrote two stories and sent them speeding down the electronic line.

I vividly remember feeling demob-happy, as I reminded the news desk that I would be on holiday all August. I got back into my car and bought groceries, several bottles of vino rosso and packets of Corona cigars at Keans’s grocery. Back at the bungalow, I began writing the outlines of a book.

The last thing I remember is suddenly feeling a violent spasm that made me yell out, “I’m too young to die.” I must have fallen and banged my head on a coffee table...

When I awoke, it was pitch dark and I was in so much pain, I could not stand up.

Luckily, the door was ajar and I crawled in agony along the passage-way to my front bedroom, but I could not get into bed. Exhausted, I fell asleep on the carpet.

Birdsong and early morning sunlight awoke me, but the pain was still there. I crawled to the bathroom, where with an almighty effort I stretched up to see in a mirror that my face was distorted, my mouth drooling with lava-like saliva. And the pain still persisted.

This trolley rushed me to casualty, where a doctor could not be believe I had nursed a stroke for six days. “How stupid, are you?” he berated

Monday morning panic struck me: it would not be until Friday, the start of the August Bank Holiday weekend, that my wife would be off duty at the Department of Foreign Affairs and coming to Mayo. Instead of phoning for help from my nearby relatives, I disconnectedly discarded my original diagnosis of suffering a stroke for an erroneous explanation that I had an unusually severe hangover, and needed more provisions.

Somehow, I managed to open the front door and head for Enniscrone, only to realise that I was failing to control the vehicle which was slipping dangerously onto the wrong side of the road.

John Cooney worked as a journalist for 41 years before he suffered a serious illness in Co Mayo. Photograph: Eric Luke
John Cooney worked as a journalist for 41 years before he suffered a serious illness in Co Mayo. Photograph: Eric Luke

Luckily, traffic was thin and I put the car down a few gears staggering into Enniscrone at 15 miles an hour. There I purchased more cigars, soups and wine, returning slowly to the bungalow at the speed of a hearse. I stayed in lock-down but the pain refused to go away.

Come the weekend, my wife took one look at me and phoned her brother Bernie to come immediately as “John has had a stroke”.

This was confirmed in a Ballina stopover surgery which phoned Castlebar that an emergency case was on the way and must be met by a porter and trolley at the entrance as a second stroke appeared to be imminent.

This trolley rushed me to casualty, where a doctor could not be believe I had nursed a stroke for six days. “How stupid, are you?” he berated.

When my trolley was held up outside a ward, I saw someone smoking outside. I got off the trolley and lit up a cigar, only to hear Sarah, my daughter who had rushed from Dublin by bus, order: “Put that out, dad.”

Sheepishly, I surrendered my four packets.

In 10 years since, I’ve not lit up again.

cooneyjohn47@gmail.com

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