There is always something that encourages me to write a particular blog post. What helped inspire this one was a comment from someone asking how I play Gaelic with an ileostomy and the fact that I’m playing in a 2nd county final in 3 years this Sunday.
Gaelic Football has been a big part of my life since I was young. It’s an integral part of my family’s life. As many people reading this may be aware that I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis when I was 17. My illness was unfortunately never controlled by the numerous medications I tried and I experienced what was basically a 3 year long flare up until I had emergency surgery to remove my large intestine in 2017.
In my last year at school only a few months after being diagnosed I remember struggling to keep up at football training after school. I was in pain and fatigued and really I should have been at home. I kept planning on telling the manager what was going on but I couldn’t even think about it without breaking down in tears. I just couldn’t get the words ‘I am sick’ out. Even now it is difficult for me to think back on. I finally and very emotionally told the PE department and made the sensible decision to stop playing. When club training started back in the New Year I didn’t return.
2 years later I watched St Brigid’s win a county final. It was only then when I was actually watching my own team and friends play a sport I once loved that I realised I wanted to go back. Out of sight out of mind maybe… That New Year I re-joined the team. The only training sessions I missed was when I was in hospital or dosed with a cold- the weak immune system that my medication and illness generously gave me. The manager at the time didn’t understand and probably just didn’t care either. I was new to him, very much rusty and I imagine I wasn’t in any of his plans for the team that year. Truthfully I shouldn’t have been anywhere near a pitch.
In May of that year I had surgery to remove my large intestine. As it was an emergency and I was very sick at the time I didn’t even question the things I could and couldn’t do after surgery. I was always against surgery I didn’t want to know anything about it and so when I had the surgery I was really going in blind.
Recovery after any surgery is difficult. Physical recovery was challenging, it took me over a week to stand up straight and walk to the toilet and back alone. God forbid I needed to sneeze or laugh (which I do an awful lot of). The muscles in my tummy were cut down the midline so doing either of those things were not enjoyable. The risk of a hernia after abdominal surgery is high so I wasn’t able to lift anything over the weight of a few kgs for weeks.
The success of my quick recovery I believe was that I began slowly introducing light exercise into my days. The timing of my surgery was such a blessing with it being summer as my mummy had the summer off work. I joined my mummy in the car to do the shopping and eventually going into the shops with her too. Although these light bouts of exercise exhausted me they continued to make me stronger and fitter and eventually not even 6 weeks after surgery I was walking my dogs up Black Mountain. By August I was back in the gym, doing low impact activities with little to no weights and focusing on strengthening my core and improving my fitness before introducing weights.
By January 2018 when football training started I was more than ready. At the time we had no manager and with some persuasion, my da offered to help out. To return to training with my da coaching was special. I was ready to give it 100%. After a few sessions and seeing our incredible humour, high spirits and footballing potential my daddy took on the role of manager. We went on to win the Intermediate County Championship and I had earned my place on the team as a wing half back. Although we missed out on success in Ulster that year was special to me. It is hard to comprehend how much my life changed for the better from the years previous. To be involved in a team sport again meant that I got to experience all these good times with my friends and da alongside me. It was a year I’ll always remember.
Last year with a step up to senior football we lost in the Championship Semi-Final. With the season finishing and with other pressing commitments daddy made the decision to step down as manager. The influence my da had on me and the team as a whole when we needed it the most was powerful. He reignited my passion for Gaelic football and showed the girls and I that with hard work, success will come. I am filled with pride when my team mates reminisce on my da’s time as manager and the love for the sport my da instilled in us all. Gaelic was an escape for many people that year and the moment we stepped on that pitch we forgot about everything else we had going on.
Many people struggle mentally during recovery but to be completely honest it was easier than the physical recovery for me. To wake up from surgery and not feel the pain I had felt those 3 years was a turning point. The pain I experienced due to surgery itself was a different pain and one I knew I’d not feel for long. I saw straight away that my life was on the up. I no longer cared about whether I had a bag or not. I had my life back and I was ready to start living again. Many people probably misjudge and assume I am overly confident but I think it is mistaken for acceptance. I am not completely confident and happy that I have a bag on my tummy but I quickly learned to accept it as at the end of the day without that surgery I’d not be here.
Being young and fit (to an extent) going into surgery gave me the head start I needed to recover and return to sport. Although I have an ileostomy bag, I train and play just the same as everyone else with just one difference- I wear a guard over my bag. The guard is shaped to allow the stoma to function during wear and is made from a durable, light plastic and protects against direct contact. I have never hidden the fact that I have a bag and I openly put my guard on before I play but at the same time, if I didn’t tell anyone no one would know but I think that would be more daunting and I wouldn’t get to share my success story of returning to a competitive and physical sport after surgery.
As much as I love to forget that I am not exactly the same as everyone else, I am often reminded. Some days can be tough and like everyone, some days at football I struggle. With no colon to absorb minerals I have to drink many litres of water the days I play and even at that dehydration can’t always be avoided. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many sachets of Dioralyte I’ve taken over the years. I have to choose carefully what I eat and get the timing of my meals right before all training sessions and matches. There is no real guarantee how effectively my food will be digested and so I usually eat a good 4-5 hours beforehand which can also leave me feeling weak and dizzy but I chose that rather than being full, sluggish and uncomfortable. There are times when the nausea and often pain associated with bloating is that bad that I wish I was just like everyone else. These thoughts are short-lived however and I get on with it and thankfully the discomfort always passes.
I received no guidance or information regarding returning to sport. I guess I pretty much winged it. I even found the guard I wear through a quick google search. They are actually provided by the NHS too. So I guess if I didn’t have a wing it personality or the reassurance that I was young and fit I probably wouldn’t have played sport again. There is little and also misleading information online. By fully recovering and gaining abdominal strength in the right way there should be no reason why people with ileostomies can’t return to contact sport. Many people message me for advice or to really just thank me for providing them with hope. With every new message request from someone young and going through the same thing as me it scares me that there is such a lack of awareness and understanding of Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease as well as the chance of a normal life with an ileostomy. 3/10 people with Ulcerative Colitis need surgery. I hope that showing how my life isn’t far off a ‘normal’ person as people would assume, that it gives people the faith and courage they need to move forward with their life and continue to do the things they love. My brother Conor was unfortunately diagnosed with UC a few months after my operation. He self-injects a drug called Humira every 2 weeks to keep his disease under control. Although battling a chronic, auto-immune disease that affects a lot more than just the diseased colon he continues to play senior hurling and football and watching him on the pitch reminds me just how strong he is.
The ability to exercise and play sport is a privilege that many people take for granted. For people who have experienced injury, illness or disability exercise may be off the cards temporarily or permanently. It can be hard to see the light but better days are always ahead. It is okay to take your time, it is okay to ask for help and the best thing you can do is share how you’re feeling with people you trust.
It is now 3 years after surgery and we have reached a second county final since. To think that at one point in my life I had hung up my boots and Gaelic was the last thing on my mind is insane to me. Every time I put on the St. Brigid’s jersey I put it on with pride for my club, my team mates and also myself and the journey I’ve been on to get here.