Cycle for Life, DCU’s flagship charity for 2013, is set to make its return to Irish roads next year. The charity, which once again has the backing of the university’s Students’ Union, was founded in 2012 by DCU Athletic Therapy and Training student, Cormac Ryan.
Cormac lined out between the posts for Dublin’s minor hurlers in 2011 as they lost to Galway in an All-Ireland final. It was a defeat that was about to be slapped with a big slice of perspective, however, as the young hurler tells The College View.
“We were just back with our clubs and we had a county semi-final against St. Anne’s and, during the game, I was going down with dizzy spells, breathlessness, chest pains and it happened four or five times and I ended up having to get an ambulance to Tallaght Hospital. Now Tallaght eventually sent me home a few hours later, told me I was fine. This sort of incident kept happening whenever I was training and playing matches.”
As an 18 year-old athlete selected amongst the best 15 hurlers in his county, it is not hard to understand why Ryan might have been slightly blasé about the warning signs that began to develop in late 2011.
“I’ve had asthma all my life. Coming into that county semi-final, I had been on a course of antibiotics all week and, in truth, I probably shouldn’t have been on the pitch anyway, so I just thought it was a mixture of the sickness and I’d suppose, my asthma acting up.
“I kept ignoring it and then, as it happened over a period of a few months, I did start to think in my own head ‘right, there’s something not right here’ and I remember saying to one of the lads that I just have this gut feeling that there was something wrong but you just put these things to the back of your head and you get on with day to day life.”
The critical intervention in Cormac Ryan’s story is that of his father, whose suspicions made this narrative one of relief and close shaves rather than an all too familiar tale of tragedy.
“Every time I’d go and they’d screen my heart – the basic screening – they’d send me home and say ‘look, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re grand, it must be in your head or whatever.’ So my dad wasn’t happy with this so he basically pushed that I get fully assessed completely.
“They were telling him ‘look there’s no point doing these (respiratory tests). It’s not his heart, his heart is fine. Like, they actually said, ‘if it was his heart, he’d be dead by now.’ So they ran them anyway and, lo and behold, they picked up a cardiac problem.”
The tests revealed that Cormac was often going into heart block, whereby his heart would stop at regular intervals, sometimes for more than five seconds, totally unbeknownst to himself. Without his father’s fears, the student may not have lived to tell the tale.
“To put it into perspective, we got up to the coronary care unit that day in Beaumont about an hour after I got home from town and the cardiologist walked in and myself and my father were sitting on the bed and he shook my dad’s hand and said ‘you must be Cormac.’
“The staff alone were shocked to see me walk in the door because everyone in there – it’s a specialised unit Coronary Care – there’s only 12 beds in there. The other 11 people in it were about 60 or 70, all of them, and I walked in at 18.”
While the severity of the condition and the suddenness of its revelation was undoubtedly a harrowing experience, it was what came with the news that affected Cormac most – being told that he would never play hurling again.
“I remember they told me that I had to get a pacemaker and stop playing on the same day, about two or three hours apart and you would think the pacemaker thing would be the most traumatic but I’d suppose when you come from such a high level of a sporting background, when the doctor came in and said ‘look, you’re going to have to give up contact sport,’ I was inconsolable for hours upon end like, and even days. And that was the thing that hit me hardest.”
Fortunately, the Whitehall Colmcilles man managed to get back on the pitch after over a year and was back in the Dublin underage scene once again thanks to his pacemaker being implanted behind a layer of muscle in his chest. However, the wait was long and the ratio of mental to physical distress that Cormac’s condition caused was surely staggering?
“Honestly, and it’s no exaggeration, I’d go 90:10, 90% mental, 10% physical.
“I spent 13, 14 months off the playing field, I spent six or seven months not being able to exercise whatsoever so obviously the confidence takes a big, big hit and I’d suppose I went back into the (Dublin) 21s setup in 2013 and even though I got back in and people were saying ‘you’ve done awful well to come back,’ I probably in my own head didn’t think I should have been there and I’d suppose the confidence was a big issue for a long time.”
Analysing Cormac’s condition and the fact that he continued to play despite the warning signs, it is perhaps another reflection upon Irish sport and the machoism that goes with it. Listening to your body in times of anguish is a sign of weakness, Ryan says.
“You nearly feel like you have to play, you have to be the martyr, you have to be the brave soldier to keep going when he’s not okay and, as you said, it’s a dangerous thing because I’ve seen it with other boys too. There’s one or two lads in my club who have small heart defects and they’ve been told about them and, even though they say it’s not something to be worried about, I’ve seen them at winter training and they’re pushing themselves and clearly in distress at times like.”
Due to the recovery time needed on both a physical and mental level, Cormac deferred his second year of college in DCU but, in his newfound free time, set up the Cycle for Life initiative in order to raise funds for and, perhaps more importantly, raise awareness of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS).
Cycle for Life was launched in 2013 with Cormac and four others completing a 1,100km cycle around the coastline of Ireland in aid of the Irish Heart Foundation, Cardiac Risk in the Young and the Cormac Trust. The event was a resounding success with €35,000 raised for the charities and a huge increase in awareness of the dangers posed by undetected heart conditions.
Next year, the Cycle for Life initiative will return and will be open for anyone to take part in. Over the course of 10 days, starting on the July 31st 2015, the cyclists will pass through all 32 counties in the country, covering approximately 150km each day.
Fittingly, the first stop on the route will be in Eglish, County Tyrone; the hometown of the late Cormac McAnallen. While the cycle is 10 months away, people are already beginning to sign up to the challenge with half of those registered already being DCU students.
For more information on the cycle, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Cycle for Life Facebook and Twitter pages. As a designated DCU SU charity this year, information is also available in the Students’ Union offices.
Image Credit: Cormac Ryan