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Brother of tragic MMA fighter Joao Carvalho finally gets some answers

‘It's hard but at least everyone knows now what conditions were like at the fight’

Finally, after almost two years of soul-deadening visits to this country, something good happened to Alex Silvestre in Ireland.

On Thursday evening, after a long day sitting in Dublin Coroner's Court listening to the details of the night his brother Joao Carvalho lost his life in an MMA fight, Silvestre looked certain to miss his flight until a Garda intervened and offered a blue-lights-flashing escort to the airport. One act of kindness goes a long way.

It brought an end to a 22-month ordeal that began with a call in the middle of the night from his brother’s coach telling him to hold for the surgeon. The coach was in Beaumont Hospital and the surgeon’s advice was to get the first flight to Dublin. Ever since that night, Carvalho’s brother has been looking for answers and it was only on Thursday that he finally got some.

The inquest jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure. Across the breadth of a day’s evidence, it became clear that the medical room set-up on the night was chaotic and that Carvalho had travelled to hospital unsecured on the floor of an ambulance.

There was no clear chain-of-command between the on-site doctors, the paramedics and the ambulance driver and there was conflicting evidence given in court over who decided which hospital to go to.

Alex Silvestre sat impassively for much of the day alongside his wife and an interpreter. The excruciating back-and-forth over how his brother came to be on the floor of the ambulance never reached a satisfactory conclusion and for some of that portion of the afternoon he buried his head in his hands. But overall, he left Dublin largely satisfied.

Blunt-force trauma

"I'm happy because at least I know now what happened," Alex told The Irish Times. "It's hard but at least everyone knows in Ireland now what the conditions were like at the event. I am happy with that result. The most important thing for me was to find answers. What happened? Why did it happen? Who is responsible for this? It's hard for me to listen to what happened but at least we know now."

The court heard that Carvalho died from acute subdural haemorrhage due to blunt-force trauma to the head, with aspiration of gastric contents as a contributory factor.

In layman's terms, there was a rupture in his brain stem caused by repeated blows to the head during his fight with Charlie Ward, leading to a bleed in his brain. As he lost consciousness – and with it, his gag reflex – he vomited the contents of his stomach and swallowed them.

Alex Silvestre has no issue with those findings. Nor does he bear Charlie Ward the slightest ill will. When Ward gave his evidence on Thursday, it was his first and only public account of the fight and he did well in trying circumstances.

As soon as he finished in the witness box, Ward left the court. Alex didn’t try speak to him, nor he to Alex. There’s nothing to say. “I have nothing against Charlie,” Alex says. “He is the least guilty person in all of this.”

Carvalho's cause of death was the battery of punches to the head. State pathologist Marie Cassidy explained that it was the rapid turning of the brain stem due to punches coming from both sides of his head that caused the rupture.

Chance

What will never be known is whether or not Joao could have been saved had the medical procedures on the night been better or more efficient. Alex works as a healthcare assistant in Royal South Hants Hospital in Southampton so he is no stranger to life-and-death situations and understands how difficult it is to provide expert medical care in heightened circumstances.

But having listened to the evidence on Thursday, he believes more should have been done.

“I think it should be better than it was. I think if my brother had been helped with all the supports in place properly, at least he might have had some chance of surviving. I know that maybe he would not be fully healthy or have a great quality of life.

“But at least I think – and not only me, I think lots of people think this – I think he would have had some chance to still be with me if everything was provided properly that night. That’s my opinion.

“I’m disappointed with the whole process that happened from the time he came out of the cage until he reached the hospital. It’s not professional at all, what happened. There were lots of people saying different things: ‘Go there, go here, go wherever.’ There was no one person making the decisions.

“I work in a hospital. My wife works in a hospital and is more qualified than me. We both know situations like this, when there is chaos. We understand that things happen quickly. We know that. But because we know how it works, we know that there should have been one person in charge, one person giving instructions. But that was not the case. That’s why we think that there is a chance he would still be with us if it was properly organised.”

Advocate

In the course of giving evidence on Thursday, Professor Dan Healy – a long-time advocate for safety standards in MMA who was in the audience that night – read from emails he had sent to event promoter Cesar Silva in the months leading up to the bout in April 2016.

Silva’s Total Extreme Fighting organisation had chosen not to run the event to the standards suggested by SafeMMA, a non-profit organisation of which Healy is a founding member in Ireland. “Mr Silva indicated there was a limited budget for the event and the safety standards required were not possible,” said Prof Healy.

Silva has since moved to Colombia where he teaches martial arts and also works for Brave Combat Federation, a vehicle that promotes and stages MMA events in the Middle East. He gave a statement to the gardaí a couple of days after the fight in April 2016 and this was read out in court.

But Silva himself was not present. Of all the protagonists, Silva is the one Alex Silvestre would have most liked to have heard give evidence.

“What is strange for me and what makes me feel angry with everything is that he is still teaching and promoting fights between young people. I think it’s unbelievable how someone can keep going with this after what happened.

“I’m not saying he should stop with his life, of course not. I can understand if he wants to set up an academy and teach the sport, okay. But to keep going with promotion after what happened, I don’t think it’s right.

“I think he’s not the best person to do it. He should stop with this kind of event if he is not prepared to spend the money it needs. It was amazing to sit and listen to someone say in the court that he didn’t get different medical staff because the budget would not allow it. How can he say this? How can you play with life like that? If you have no budget, don’t do it. It’s simple.

“So that’s what made me feel very uncomfortable. I think sooner or later, there is a possibility that something could happen again with someone else. It’s not fair at all.”

Consolation

He sighs. He knows it’s all immaterial now. The past two years have been a living nightmare, from the very first day when he was dropped off at a B&B and told to stay as long as he needed, only to be stuck with the bill a fortnight later on the day he finally got his brother’s body back.

All he ever wanted was somebody to give him some straight answers. But nobody helped him. Not the promoter, not the Portuguese embassy, not the Irish government, nobody.

As he left Dr Myra Cullinane’s court with his wife on Thursday night and headed for the airport, his one consolation was that he had followed his younger brother’s thread to the end.

Joao was 15 years younger than him when he died, a non-smoking, non-drinking lover of life who, in one of the last sentences he ever spoke, asked Charlie Ward if he could organise a selfie with Conor McGregor.

Alex hated his brother’s sport but respected his love for it. The least he could do was find out exactly why and how it killed him.

“This case will never finish for me. But I have to try to separate it from the rest of my life. I have to focus on different things, otherwise I will be crazy and I will ruin things for the rest of my family. It’s not fair on them. They have to live with me.”

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