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'I said, 'Look, I'm not going to let my mother go through that pain again of losing another child''

After losing three siblings to an incurable lung disease, David Crosby was diagnosed himself when he turned 40. The inspirational double-lung transplant recipient and marathon runner shares his remarkable story.
May 31st 2019, 11:36 AM 33,949 3

Updated May 31st 2019, 1:00 PM

IN SEPTEMBER 2015, David Crosby was diagnosed with a rare, incurable lung disease.

Team  ILFA - David Crosby (4) (1) David Crosby ahead of the Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon.

Just after turning 40, happily married with three beautiful young children, his whole life came crashing down. Understandably.

But last month, he completed his third marathon.

And this weekend, the remarkable double-lung transplant recipient will take to the streets of Cork alongside his nearest and dearest, and his medical team who supported him every step of the way, for the Cork City Marathon’s Team Relay Challenge.

An occasion to well and truly relish considering everything the Meath man has been through.

***

“As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with the lungs at all now,” Crosby laughs at the end of our half-hour-long conversation. “I’d talk for Ireland.”

With a story as powerful and important to share as his, why wouldn’t he?

And it’s not just the story itself, it’s how he tells it. A storyteller through and through, you’re left hanging on his every word, eagerly anticipating the next twist in the tale. The exhilarating highs, the gut-wrenching lows, the good days and the bad, the uplifting news and the soul-destroying conversations; it’s one that has it all and is told in genuine fashion with plenty of humour in between. His positivity, his lust for life and sense of gratitude for what he has and how far he’s come makes it.

Often doing interviews, it’s hard to know where to start. What should the first question be? And the one after, and so on. But no, Crosby takes it all into his own hands — as he has done so expertly, and battled on.

“It all kicked off when I turned 40,” he begins, “I got a bad cough…”

He pauses momentarily. 

That’s where it all went downhill for him, of course. But what about before that? To truly understand it all, one must look at the bigger picture. Rewind the clock to his childhood.

Crosby was born in 1975 as the eldest of five children. A year-and-a-half after his arrival, his parents welcomed their second child, Regina. 10 days after, she got sick and sadly passed away aged seven months. A breathing problem was the only explanation given.

A son, Paul, followed, and again, he fell ill at 10 days and died not long after turning two.

The medical profession back then wasn’t as professional as it is now. They just said it was a breathing problem, but they could find no connection between the two deaths. It was tough. It was traumatic having me and having to bury two starting out marriage.

He doesn’t remember much. Pictures more than anything: how sunny it was the day of Paul’s funeral, the white coffins, his distraught parents, the tears. But life moved on, and the Crosby family moved with it. No connection, just a heartbreaking coincidence, so they thought.

David’s sister Ann Marie was born in 1982, and all was well. Day 10 came and went without trouble. In the clear, thank God.

“I always joke that she took her bottle at 10 days and she’s still taking her bottle — it’s a different kind now though,” he giggles. “She’s in Abu Dhabi teaching, she’s doing well.”

He picks back up where he was. 

david Crosby outside the Mater Hospital. Source: The Mater Foundation.

“We thought that was the way it was and everything was fine. Then my parents had a fifth child, Ciaran. Unfortunately at 10 days, Ciaran got sick. This struck us back.”

Janey Mack, after all we went through, this is coming back again

“Ciaran’s probably a big reason why I am where I am,” David smiles. “He taught us an awful lot of lessons. He was just different. I know people say that a lot about children but he literally was a legend.

“He was on a heart and lung transplant list, unfortunately he never got it.”

The memories come flooding back: “He wrote a book about his life, he was asking what’s Jesus’ second name, he brought us to a World Cup, he had three or four hundred Mexicans following him around the place…

He was different. He was a special child. Of course, we miss him but we were privileged to have 11 years with him. He was a massive part of our family.”

Yet again though, they had to try to move on.

“Look, we got on with life. That was the way it was. We lost three but we were just happy to have myself and Ann Marie.”

***

Despite the trauma and heartbreak through his youth, Crosby lived a relatively happy childhood. He was active; played Gaelic football — he lined out for Meath in the 1993 All-Ireland minor final — soccer and basketball.

Tried his hand at everything and anything sport and exercise-wise. Never smoked.

“I was very active, kept fit. Sure I had nothing else to do, I didn’t like the books,” he grins.

“I played with Meath, I captained Drogheda Boys, played basketball… anything to stay away from the books and out of the classroom. That was my escape, I suppose. 

“I was very, very fit, but you grow older, you meet a girl, you go out drinking and sure that doesn’t become as important.

“I had a new way of life, I went to America for a while, came home and got married. Myself and my wife had three lovely kids and things were going great.”

Until 40.

All is back on track for David and Katie Crosby and their three kids, Kiera (12), Daragh (10) and Erin (8) now, but the young family weathered one hell of a storm together through the years.

“I turned 40 three-and-a-half years ago, and about two weeks after I got a bad cough,” his mind returns to where it once was.

I said, ‘It’ll go away, I’ll be grand. It’s just one of these things’.

“But it just wouldn’t go away.”

Working in Dublin at the time, he recalls leaving his home in Meath Hill one morning and the cough came on worse than ever, less than a mile down the road. Eyes watering and running, this extremely sore dry cough. Trying to cough up something that’s not there, he remembers.

He pulled in, took a moment and went straight to his local GP, Dr John McMahon, in the neighbouring town of Kingscourt, Co Cavan. McMahon was more than familiar with the family tree and their back story, and in fact, the Crosbys had moved closer towards the surgery. Just in case.

Dr McMahon sent him on his way with antibiotics to try and calm it down, but to no avail. A week later, he was back in with no change. Off to Navan Hospital for an X-Ray he went.

“I remember sitting in the waiting room that day and that’s when the wheels started turning in my head, that I was a bit longer in the waiting area in my gown before being told to get back into my normal clothes than everyone else.

crosby David with his wife Katie after a local fun run, who's been there every step of the way. Source: The Mater Foundation.

“There were people in and out quicker than I was, and I thought then that they must have seen something. I got the call then.”

Look David, there’s something there. We see scarring on the lungs. It’s not cancerous, but we don’t know what it is.

Or something along those lines.

***

Towards the end of August 2015, Crosby was in the Mater Hospital for further investigations. After being put on a waiting list, he pushed his way in. Considering all that had happened in the past, he knew this was more severe than it was being made out.

First up: a lung function test. Below normal.

80-120% is that of a functioning pair of lungs, he explains. It doesn’t matter where on that scale, as long as it stays level. So the fact that his was below that indicated the fact that something was definitely wrong.

The only way to find out what exactly though was through a biopsy. So that’s what they did.

“They called me up at the beginning of September for that and I went back a week or two later…

Look David, you have IPF — Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.

“Scarring of the lungs and it was non-curable,” he adds.

This was a real kick in the you know what for myself and my wife. You’re not sure with the history and what not.

“I remember when Ciaran was sick they said it was very unusual for a young person to get this. It was a breathing problem, but it was an old person’s problem as they called it back then. I said, ‘Look, if I can keep it from killing me until I get old, I’ll deal with it then. There’ll be no harm in the meantime.’ It was never really on the radar.”

But here it was. Very much on the radar.

“I said, ‘I’ve gone through death, I’ve dealt with it before, just lay it on the line.’ 

Look David, if you’re not treating it you’d have a year-and-a-half, two years tops to live.

“It was all a lot of news to take on board going back home. It was a hard day for myself and the wife. We sat down for a coffee and words weren’t really doing any good. Your brain is just stunned, deer in the headlights kind of craic.

We came home to my parents and sister, sat them down and told them. It was a tough auld few days, a lot of crying and a lot of soul-searching. But I probably started thinking about Ciaran.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to let my mother go through that pain again of losing another child. If there’s any chance of me surviving, I’ll take any little sliver’.

“I always go back to football; two big midfielders, but if there’s a gap between them I’m going to go straight through and see what happens. I started fighting from that day on.”

A family holiday to Majorca was the next port of call. Just in case.

The road ahead was going to he a long one, and the destination pretty much unknown. The medication, creams, oxygen and drugs to prolong his life just some of the many things that would become part of his day-to-day routine. 

berlin After the Berlin Marathon. Source: David Crosby Facebook.

“We went and had a nice holiday but coming back, I knew what I was facing.”

He started fighting, he repeats again and again, and fight he did.

***

The oxygen was a big thing. He was put on it 24/7 to keep the rest of the organs delivering it to the heart, and to make sure his body continued functioning as well as it possibly could. 

To look at him, you wouldn’t think he was going through what he was, but the oxygen, tubes  and concentrators around the house confirmed that something was wrong. Just like it had with Ciaran all those years back.

“My cousins came into the house when I had the machines in and you could see it in their eyes, they could see the similarities… that the outcome would be similar. It didn’t go well for Ciaran so…

They were putting on a strong face but you could see through it. It was very traumatic. 

“We talked to the children and told them in their language what was wrong. We decided we wouldn’t lie to them, we’d tell them the truth. They might never believe us again.”

Daddy’s a bit sick, he’s going to have stuff done but he’ll be alright.

A young man with a young family, he wanted to be out and about like any other 40-year-old father. Nothing too crazy; just a walk with his wife and kids here and there, the appearance at Sunday mass, the odd hour or two spent in town; just not being stuck in the house all day, every day.

I decided after two or three days I’d get over myself. I wasn’t going to let it change who I was, or how I was viewed around the area. 

“I’d go to the pub, I was only drinking minerals but just to keep the normality, for your mental health and to keep you strong. I wasn’t going to sit in the chair and stay away from it, I was going to fight it all straight on.”

Look this is who I am, get used to it.

Crosby remembers his first night back in the pub, oxygen in tow, as well as day.

“The lads were up at the bar,” he grins, casting his mind back. “I never told anybody, I just walked in.

“They all kind of looked, you could see the necks going sideways. ‘Ah, Jaysis, this is the craic…’ you know yourself. It was understandable. 

About two or three weeks after, they were getting the tubes, trying to choke me, messing and this kinda craic. To me, that was very important, a normal thing — not to let it take away from who I am.

“I’m still 40, I’m still me, I’m still where I am. That’s the way I dealt with it. I just said, ‘Fuck yis,’” he laughs, his love for his friends shining through as he jokes.

“I had to get on with my life.”

***

He did, indeed, get on with life as he had before and was adjusting to everything that came along with his new diagnosis. All was going fairly okay. Well, until the run-up to Christmas.

“I got a bit unwell,” as he puts it himself. It all came to a head one evening and an hour-long conversation with Katie followed. She wanted him to ring the Mater, he didn’t want to. 

Ah sure, I’ll be alright.

“You know the way men go on… she won that argument.”

crosby David with his three kids. Source: evertdayhero.com.

He was summoned back up to Dublin for a another lung function test. And bad news: 73% down to 62%. Far too big of a drop.

Look David, that’s going far too quick. The medication’s not working. You’re going to need a transplant as soon as possible.

This was within three months, less… just over two months from being diagnosed, to being told you need a transplant after being on oxygen and all that goes with it.

And from there, the testing and the likes continued. But Crosby’s positive attitude  continued to shine through despite the difficult circumstances. He was told — by Professor Egan, he remembers — that he needed 40 tests done on his blood, tissue, bone, and so on. 

“Do you mind putting me through as quick as you can because Christmas is coming up with the kids, Santy has to come, Daddy has to be Daddy,” he asked.

Shortly after, they were all done and dusted. He passed 39 of them. But not the BMI. He was a little overweight, he admits. “The Irish chubbiness,” as he calls it.

But Professor Egan was very strict on that: his name wasn’t going on the transplant list until he lost the weight.

“After all the shit I’m going through, now you’re calling me fat!” Crosby remembers half-joking.

I got a bit pissed off, well not pissed off but it was like, ‘I’ll show you!’”

Straight onto the dieting he went, and before Christmas because he knew it’d be even tougher if he went all out during the festivities. Starters and desserts were skipped, this was serious. Two-and-a-half stone to be lost, and he was losing it as quick as possible.

A dietitian told him it would take five months, but he did it in two. No fasting, no liquid diets; he just ate recommended portions at the right times, used the MyFitnessPal app, counted his calories and educated himself.

Impatience, stubbornness and knowing how serious it was came into it too, he stresses, and he did plenty of walking. Once he had the weight off, he proudly rang up the hospital once again and onto the list he went.

It was great… well I thought it was great. Because I worked so hard to get the weight off, I was like, ‘This is going to be amazing when I get to that’. But talk about getting over a hill to get to a mountain… it was only starting.”

***

This was February 2016. He was told to have a bag packed and to be ready for a call at any stage. Grand, he thought. Time enough leaving that until the weekend.

But then came Friday. Three days later.

Crosby was just finishing a bit of work in the garden, wearing his oxygen on the ride-on lawnmower, when the call from Dublin came.

David, I think there’s a possible match for you

Straight onto the phone to Katie, lawnmower into the garage; there was an ambulance coming in 20 minutes. Ah, 40 so, he thought. But no, they landed in 20 with the house upside down as the kids returned from school.

dc With friends and family after a race in Clontarf. Source: The Mater Foundation.

“I remember I wasn’t prepared at all. I’m living in Cavan but I’m a Meath man through and through. It kind of came back to that when I was getting into the ambulance, leaving my kids and saying goodbye to them that I might never see the house again.

You don’t know with any operation, but especially with this one if it went ahead… the risks. It was very emotional getting into the back of the ambulance.

And as fate would have it, a medic on the job was an old school pal. There was plenty of talking and reminiscing done en route, so he was much more at ease by the time he got to the Mater. Tests, bloods and all that jazz followed, but it wasn’t to be.

The organs deteriorated too quickly, so the transplant didn’t go ahead.

Complete and utter dejection.

“I remember coming home and I went in and got a quarter-pounder and chips, a big burger. We thought maybe that was our chance gone.

You hear stories of 12 times people getting called and nothing happening in years. So we were back to normal, waiting for a phone call.”

This was March 2016. Two weeks later, the second call came.

This time I had my bags packed, I was more relaxed. I had my letters for the kids, just in case. You just want to write these things down. I still thought, ‘Look, I’ll be coming home in a couple of hours anyway’.”

But no, the tests were done and all was looking good. It was a Thursday night, nine or 10 o’clock but the results wouldn’t be in until five the following morning, With so much going on in his head, he didn’t think he’d sleep but he did. Friday morning, they got the green light. All was 100% and the transplant would go ahead.

Final phone calls to family were made, his goodbyes to, and best wishes from, his beloved kids exchanged.

My wife came down with me, we said our goodbyes. I said I’ll be back as quick as I can, and that was it. They put me out.

***

Six Nations rugby is Crosby’s first memory after waking up. Ireland were playing England. Restored, thanks to his donor and donor family.

“The tubes were everywhere, down my throat,” he recalls. “I asked could they take them out so I could shout and go back to normal, but I could hardly even talk.

“The transplant was 100%, everything was perfect. Their graphs and their readings were spot on, or so they said. It was double Dutch to me, I didn’t know what they were on about and was on an awful lot of medication.”

All he knew was he was grateful. Thankful that all had gone to plan, and for everyone who helped him along the way. The days and weeks that followed were challenging of course, but he got through them.

dc3 Finishing the New York Marathon. Source: The Mater Foundation.

“I couldn’t sleep for three days. I was thinking of my siblings; Regina, Paul and Ciaran, that passed away — and was thinking if I went to sleep, I wouldn’t wake up.

“I remember there was a nurse above, Niamh was her name. I’ll never forget her. There was a clock as plain as can be, and she just said to look at the clock. Look at the seconds. I looked at them and nodded off for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour; I don’t know how long it was…

But I woke up and remember being able to hold my breath and control it. To me that was it. It was like a chain on a bike; when you see something working you can understand it. Some of the other stuff didn’t make sense, but when you can actually feel the lungs, you can control them.

“I knew from that point — three days after — that I was in control of the lungs, I was in control of my own body again.

“I could breathe again and that was when I realised everything was going to be okay.”

***

As his recovery continued, the well-wishes came thick and fast. The phone calls and the text messages were endless. Four days after, he was off the oxygen. He distinctly remembers calling his son Daragh to tell him that, and everything was as it should be.

“Next thing, the phone went dead,” he smiles, thinking back. “He had ran off to throw all the concentrators out of the house. These little things stick in your head for a long time.”

But then, a big thing happened.

Five days or so post-transplant, his cousin, Brian, snuck into the ICU after visiting hours. They were praising the staff and what not, and he told Crosby how he was going to do the Dublin Marathon and raise money for the Mater.

And there was the seed planted.

I said, ‘That’s great’ but I suppose the thickness or whatever came into my head and I said, ‘Well, if you’re doing it, why can’t I do it?’ This was where the whole thing started with the marathons. 

“I love New York. I said, ‘Brian, if you’re going to do the marathon, you have to do the biggest one’. That’s where I went from Dublin to New York. That’s where it started.”

It snowballed. 

If you’re doing it, I will.

Katie, his mother — who had said she was finished with the marathons beforehand — a group of local people, they were all on for it. 

Little by little, bit by bit, walking to running; he got there. He started with the target of walking a mile and from there, set bigger and bigger challenges with the Big Apple the end goal.

Word got around the local community and a small training group soon turned into a Couch to 5k operation.

The first of the challenges was a five mile run in Clontarf eight months post-transplant. Navigated successfully, next up was a 10km race in March 2017.

It was a year after the transplant,” he beams. “It was emotional. It wasn’t about the time, it was about much more than that.

Then in August 2017, the Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon, and plenty of organising and fundraising after, a group of friends and family jetted off to New York for the big one.

Team  ILFA - David Crosby (3) The Cork relay team, minus Lynn Fox.

An incredible experience through and through, Crosby finished with a time of 6:15.31 and broke the record marathon time for an Irish organ transplant recipient by a full 40 minutes.

With over €60,000 raised for the lung transplant section of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, he wasn’t stopping there though. The following day, they were all sitting around having a meal at an awards ceremony when another bright idea was brought to his attention. 

The Super Six: marathons in New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo.

At the time, 2,000 people in the world had completed it. But no one with a transplant. And definitely no one with a double-transplant.

With Berlin and most-recently London under his belt, he has plans to attack Tokyo in May 2020, and Boston and Chicago thereafter. But this weekend, his entire focus is on Cork.

***

There, Crosby will finish the fifth and final leg (4.6 miles) of the relay, with four others very close to him. He’s joined by friends from the medical profession, those he would have seen through the transplant.

It’s basically the story of the transplant itself, with him the finished product.

Director of the Irish Lung Fibrosis Association [ILFA] Nicola Cassidy, Lynn Foxe respiratory nurse at the Mater, Dr David Healy, a transplant surgeon there, and Oisin O’Connell who he worked with a lot in post-op will join Crosby, and they’re all raring to go.

It’ll be a wonderful weekend,” he smiles. “Cork is a beautiful city, I’m really looking forward to it. It shows that anything can be done with teamwork and focus. If you put your mind to it, you can achieve great things.

As our conversation closes, he tells of how his knees were troubling him around the recent London Marathon and how he sustained cartilage damage.

Advised to stop the marathon, he asked what’s the other option. There’s no stopping him.

Look, it shows what can be done with persistence. I just try my best doing them, and nothing could be as bad as the transplant.

Every weekend like this is a cause for celebration. With Katie and a few more friends and family forming a rival team, there’ll be a nice gang of them down south and of course, a party afterwards.

The kids can’t make it, he frowns, and neither can his mother or father as they’ll be back home at the blessings of the graves, remembering David’s three siblings that went before.

He’ll be elsewhere, but he’ll be thinking of them each and every step of the way.

And thinking of just how lucky he is to be running through life.

You can find David’s everyday hero account here.

***

Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon organisers are encouraging those taking part on Sunday to make the most of some last-minute advice and tips, offered by professionals at the official Marathon Expo tomorrow, Saturday, at Cork City Hall from 12pm.

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