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'Sometimes my heart starts racing' - Former Cork minor hurler embracing memories of a spinal cord injury

Dessie Fitzgerald discusses the incident in a county-semi-final that changed his life and how he has found a vocation in life coaching.

DESSIE FITZGERALD IS reminded of the incident that changed his life every time he passes the Buttevant GAA pitch in Cork.

Dessie Fitzgerald Dessie Fitzgerald's life changed forever in the 2011 Cork junior hurling semi-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His mind is instantly brought back to a Cork junior hurling semi-final in 2011. 

It was a match that started out as any other for Fitzgerald, with a big prize on offer of qualifying for a county decider. But the tough Charleville defender who walked into those grounds close to his home, didn’t leave the same person that day.

Almost eight years on from the game that left him with a spinal cord injury, Fitzgerald is a father of two young boys — MJ and Jack — and is married to Sarah. He’s running his own business ‘Dessie Fitzgerald Coaching,’ which revolves around life coaching and personal coaching.

His days are split between his clients, his family, and rehabilitating his injury, where the quest to regain more and more physical movement is constant.

Fitzgerald leads a busy life. On the day he speaks to The42 over the phone, we push our chat back by half an hour to accommodate his hectic schedule.

He has come to accept the various blows that life has dealt him, although he’s keen to stress that “it’s an ongoing journey. I don’t think we ever get to the bottom of it”.

Those regular trips past Buttevant evoke different feelings in Fitzgerald, but he never tries to block the memories out. Allowing himself to experience different emotions about the accident is what allows him to move forward in his new life.

I have to deal with that and be accepting of it,” Fitzgerald explains. “I get a certain feeling of… sadness comes with it… and sometimes my heart starts racing and [I] feel a little bit anxious when I think about it all.

“But the more I try and avoid that the more it may eat me up further down the road. If I allow myself to go into that sadness a little bit and that anxiety, then it will get less and less.”

Dessie & Sarah & kids_6367 Dessie and Sarah and their two sons.

Fitzgerald’s story has been well documented over the years and part of his job as a life coach involves visiting schools, clubs and other organisations to deliver motivational speeches about his experiences.

He was recently invited onto the Late Late Show to tell his story of struggle and recovery. It was a “surreal” experience for him, having grown up on the other side of the screen watching other people feature on the iconic RTÉ programme.

Several GAA legends including Kieran Donaghy and Henry Shefflin paid tribute to Fitzgerald’s compelling interview with Ryan Tubridy on Twitter. Their gestures left a lasting impact on the Cork man.

“It touched my heart. I’m not a huge man for Twitter but I had a quick look and people were showing me afterwards of these various sports stars posting stuff like that.

When I saw the reaction the following day, I felt huge goosebumps. It was very touching and heartwarming.”

Fitzgerald’s oldest son MJ is four years old and is already starting to pick up a hurl. He was named after Fitzgerald’s brothers Michael and James, who tragically passed away. Fitzgerald’s youngest son is one-year-old Jack.

People have inquired if Fitzgerald would have any concerns about his two boys developing an interest in the sport, given the tragedy that befell him during a game. 

Henry Shefflin Henry Shefflin tweeted his praise for Fitzgerald for his interview on the Late Late Show. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But the former Cork underage player has never held any resentment towards hurling for the injury he suffered. He simply describes it as “one of those things” and a “freak accident” in which his body was left prone while battling for possession.

The collision that followed with two other players left him with a life-altering injury, but he would never discourage his sons from falling in love with the small ball game the way he did.

And with the Munster SHC starting this weekend, Fitzgerald plans to bring them along to support the Rebels.

“I would encourage them to get involved in whatever sport, I don’t care what it is,” Fitzgerald beams.

They’re at a lively stage and getting that balance right is important. Having had the losses in my life, it makes you very aware of needing to embrace as many moments as you possibly can.

“Once they’re out there engaging in a physical activity with their friends. What happened to me was a freak accident. It was just one of those things.

Do I wish it didn’t happen? Massively so. But it did. It could have happened me anywhere. I’ve just got to roll with that.

“I do not regret playing hurling or sport. The benefits that I got growing up playing, those experiences made me into the man that I am today.

There’s no way I would change that because having a happy childhood like that was huge.”

Fitzgerald exudes positivity when he’s speaking on the phone but his enthusiastic voice beguiles the dark days that haunted him when he returned home to begin his rehabilitation.

His brother Mike had recently died by suicide and the other, James, passed away in 2012 from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS). Their losses, coupled with the daunting challenge of living with a spinal cord injury, overwhelmed Fitzgerald.

Seoirse Kenny and Mervyn Gammell Charleville took on St Patrick's of Kilkenny in the 2012 All-Ireland junior club final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Charleville went on to contest the All-Ireland junior final against St Patrick’s of Kilkenny the following February, and Fitzgerald was given permission to leave hospital and attend the game. He spoke to the players ahead of the game, but looking on from the sideline in a wheelchair “was a tough experience.”

After the accident, it wasn’t known if he would be able to move independently again. But when doctors explained to Fitzgerald that the injury was incomplete, his mind immediately began contemplating a possible future where he could play hurling again.

Coming from a background where he played minor hurling for Cork and shared a field with Limerick great Andrew O’Shaughnessy while attending St Colman’s college in Fermoy, these were exactly the kind of reassuring words that a player of his competitive nature wanted to hear.

But it soon transpired that returning to hurling wasn’t going to be an option for Fitzgerald.

All in all, the roller coaster of emotions was too much for him to process.

“The image that emerged in my mind was, ‘would there be a chance that I could get back out on the hurling field again?’

“But as time progressed, I kind of came out of that state of shock and became aware that it wasn’t looking likely, unless they came up with a cure for a spinal cord injury.

Dessie Fitzgerald Dessie Fitzgerald briefly hoped that there might be a chance that he could return to play hurling. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I really struggled with getting back into life.

When I was brought to a GAA game, I used to leave and was so angry and upset. I realised that my opportunity was now gone. And seeing my friends out there doing what they do, I found that extremely hard. It took me a while to get back into sport again.

“I struggled to watch it on television. I battled with that but I managed to get back to a good place and slowly learned to enjoy it again.”

Fitzgerald had to quickly refocus his mind and change his goals. Instead of hoping he could play hurling again, he needed to pour his energy into his recovery.

It was gradual, but the feeling and physical function started to return to his body. It began with a twitch in his big toe which later transferred up his left leg and eventually over to his right leg.

Mondays are his rehabilitation days, which start at around 11am and continue until 6.30pm. Everything from his hand movement to his legs, arms and core stability are worked on during those sessions.

His work schedule allows him to fit in other times to get his exercises done throughout the week as well, and former Limerick football boss John Brudair is lending him a hand with it all.

The ultimate ambition for Fitzgerald is to regain as much mobility as possible in the future.

“Any movement I got along the way, I was moving an inch and was doing whatever I could to move it an inch and a half. That’s been my life for the last seven years.

John Brudair Former Limerick football boss John Brudair. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“But it’s about going along with that as best I can. I’ve got myself into a good head space and have been relatively accepting of what has happened.

I’m looking to push the boundaries as far as I can in terms of a spinal cord injury. 

“I engage in as many physical activities as I can like weights. I work with John Brudair quite a lot in rehab.

“He’s pushing me as well.

“We’re constantly seeing progress as time goes on and I’ve no notions of coming off this. It’s gonna take me years and who knows where I’m gonna be in a couple of years time but I definitely know that I’m gonna be further along than I am now.

“It’s about minding myself and pushing myself and finding that balance as much as I can.”

Fitzgerald’s psychological journey is an ongoing one too, and having experienced the benefits of life coaching himself, he discovered a vocation in that line of work to help others overcome similar obstacles.

His story of resilience has inspired many, including Cork All-Star hurler and Charleville man Darragh Fitzgibbon, who has previously spoken about his admiration for his local hero.

Darragh Fitzgibbon scores a point and celebrates towards Richie English Cork star Darragh Fitzgibbon. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

‘Dessie Fitzgerald Coaching’ is only open a few months, but he’s already treating about four clients per day.

He continues to embrace all the emotions that come with the memories whenever he passes by the pitch in Buttevant. And being able to draw upon those difficult experiences enables him to connect with his clients on a personal level.

I think all of us underestimate ourselves to a certain degree. I would have thought ‘how would I be able to inspire other people?’ But I would, just like anybody else. Hearing that about Darragh [Fitzgibbon] would touch my heart in a way. 

“It would make me aware that I’m on the right path in terms of recovery and all aspects; physically, mentally and emotionally.

I do think having gone through various life experiences puts me in a much better position because I can be so much more empathetic when I’m working with people because I’ve been through a lot of it myself.

“It does give you a different level of awareness. It involves an awareness of myself and what I went through. It’s an ongoing journey, I don’t think we ever get to the bottom of it.

“Having been through the life experiences definitely puts me in a position to be extremely supportive of anybody and whatever it is they’re going through.”

You can find more information about Dessie Fitzgerald coaching here.

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