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'The whole side of my face went numb and I couldn't see out of my left eye so I went straight to hospital'

Donegal footballer Kate Keaney speaks to The42 about her harrowing recovery from a concussion and a torn cruciate as Donegal prepare for an Ulster final.

IT TOOK ALMOST a month for Donegal footballer Kate Keaney to get a concussion diagnosis in early 2015.

Kate K Kate Keaney at the 2017 Ulster final. Source: Ladies Football TV Youtube Channel

A nurse in Limerick discharged her from hospital with no explanation for her symptoms, while another doctor conducted some tests which revealed that her vision was poor.

She had previously lined out for her county in a challenge match against Dublin when she was involved in a mild collision after jumping for a ball, which left her feeling sick as she walked off the pitch at the end of the game.

Keaney was a final year Sports Science student in UL at the time with a thesis to complete in her final semester, and she returned to college life the next day with no major signs of ill-health.

She was however feeling groggy, and when she tried to resume working on her thesis project, the true impact of the clash began to reveal worrying symptoms.

I went into the library to try and do this thesis and the whole side of my face went numb and I couldn’t see out of my left eye or nothing so I went straight to hospital,” she tells The42.

“But the MRI and scans all came back positive. There were no answers and I wasn’t told anything. I didn’t even get checked by a doctor before I left, it was just the nurse saying that I was free to go. I asked when could I return to play and they said, ‘whenever you feel better.’

I went into college the next day and I just knew after a few minutes in a lecture that I was going to collapse and I just left straight away. I then went to see the Donegal men’s doctor at the time. This might have been 10 days or two weeks after.

“He was doing all these tests and the first part was to follow the finger, and when he put it to the bottom right-hand side of my face, it was just black. He told me to do nothing and come back in a week. It was the same again, no improvement and the same again the third week.

“This was about a month after it happened and he said he could see a small bit of improvement but he said that the first time I came in was like I was after drinking 10 pints of Guinness.”

Dr. Eanna Falvey Dr Eanna Falvey. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Keaney was eventually referred to the renowned sports physician Dr Eanna Falvey of the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry.

Falvey has previously worked with the Irish Rugby team as well as the Irish Boxing High Performance Unit, and the Donegal Town woman could feel she was getting to grips with her condition under his care.

She suffered from a range of symptoms including regular migraines and dizzy spells. She was unable to read or watch television due to the strain it had on her body, and she was forced to defer her college course as she struggled to concentrate.

Keaney is an established member of the Donegal panel and was an important part of a UL team that was preparing for the O’Connor Cup competition at the time. But despite her passion for the game, attending matches was physically beyond her during this lay-off period which lasted for five months.

Lauren McConville with Kate Keaney Keaney in action for UL in the 2014 O'Connor Cup final. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

There was also the added psychological pain of having no choice but to watch on while games passed her by.

“I just couldn’t cope with going to watch matches that I should have been involved in,” added the Four Masters clubwoman.

Keaney describes her experience with concussion as a ‘lonely’ injury although she had Donegal teammate and friend Róisín McCafferty — who suffered from two concussions — to turn to for advice and reassurance.

Termon’s Therese McCafferty is the latest Donegal player to be struck down with this head trauma and she recently recounted her harrowing experience with it in the Donegal Sport Hub.

Just as Róisín did for her, Keaney felt duty-bound to ensure that McCafferty had all the moral support she needed throughout her recovery, and she battled her way back to feature in a victory over Monaghan last weekend in the Ulster senior semi-final.

The first step of Keaney’s return-to-play protocols consisted of going for a five-minute walk, which caused her some frustration, but her biggest concern was the lack of clarity about what she was suffering from.

You’d be [lying] in bed and you wouldn’t have any answers to questions and you’d be lying wide awake and your brain would be going 90 thinking, ‘what’s wrong?’

“I just wanted to be back normal to do everyday things. I wanted to graduate with my class. Football nearly took a back seat that you just wanted to be yourself again. I knew that I was nearly a shadow of myself just because of the effect it has and it’s so energy sapping.

“It was so hard because physically you look fine.

I’d probably go as far as to say that your mental health is definitely affected because you’re not sleeping and you don’t have a clue what’s wrong with you or know when you’ll be back.

“It’s definitely an area of importance, especially the last couple of years and the proper return-to-play protocols. There’s a huge amount of work done but it needs more. It’s just a scary injury because it’s your head and your brain.”

Keaney made her inter-county comeback in the Division 2 National League final in May of that year, before helping Donegal to secure a first-ever senior Ulster crown with a victory over Monaghan.

Donegal team The Donegal team before the Lidl National Football League Division 1 National League final against Cork in 2017. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

None of the previous symptoms resurfaced as she moved on from her concussion nightmare, but more misfortune was to follow in 2017 when she tore her cruciate ligament in the Division 1 National League final against Cork in Parnell Park.

Another lengthy stint on the sidelines awaited, and Keaney’s mother was informed on the day that she needed to prepare her daughter for the possibility of another dreaded diagnosis.

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“I was in complete denial for ages and you’re just like, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ Most days you try and put on a brave face and other days you don’t want to talk to anyone.

“I remember when I was told, I was like, ‘Donegal are going to win the All-Ireland.’ At that time, you’re just thinking that you’re going to miss out on so many things but I did keep involved in the squad.

“I always tried to be the best for them because there was no point [in] me going to training if I was going to be moping about the place. That wouldn’t be good for anyone either. If there were days when I didn’t feel up to going, I just didn’t go.

“Even when I got the results, I sort of had this plan in my head that I’d get surgery after the season was over but he [doctor] fairly shut that down.”

The Keaney household was something of an infirmary around this time, as Kate’s brother underwent hip replacement surgery. They were both active people who were suddenly ruled out of sport and confined to using crutches, which created a rather subdued atmosphere at home.

Her football managers never interfered with her recovery or tried to rush her back on to the pitch prematurely and she had the full support of her teammates throughout her absence.

Source: LadiesFootballTV/YouTube

And when Donegal won their second Ulster crown last year, captain Geraldine McLaughlin called Keaney up from the crowd to help her lift the trophy.

She documented her progress in a journal to help keep a record of the milestone moments that led to her recovery, while her UL teammate and Galway star forward Róisín Leonard sent motivational videos to help Keaney through times of struggle.

I remember my first session she sent me a video of me when I’d just got off the crutches walking,” Keaney explains, “and I’d describe it as a lame cow dragging my leg.

She was very good and always had little things [like that for me] on the days when you feel like you’re not progressing.”

Unlike the concussion which had no defined recovery time or set of exercise drills for her to rely on, the Donegal defender had a clear rehabilitation programme to help her overcome the cruciate injury.

There were some setbacks along the way due to issues with her quads, but Keaney’s second injury comeback last month happened to fall on the one-year anniversary since she tore her cruciate.

She made her return to competitive inter-county football last weekend, when she was introduced off the bench in Donegal’s victory over Monaghan.

Manager Maxi Curran gave her a six-minute cameo towards the end of a comprehensive 14-point victory, but the few minutes she did play helped alleviate the pain she had suffered throughout the year.

Maxi Curran and Rory Gallagher Maxi Curran with Rory Gallagher during his days of working with the Donegal men's football team. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was amazing to get on for the last six minutes. If you could bottle that feeling, the girls put in such a huge performance and it was class to get back on the pitch.

“I think it was my first championship match in three years so it was a long time.

I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself and to go out and enjoy it. The physio was standing beside me asking if I was ready to go on and I said, ‘I’ve been ready the last year’ and I just wanted to go out and enjoy it.

“One thing I didn’t want to jeopardise was going back too soon and the management were really, really good. They never put me under any pressure, or pushed me.”

Donegal have little time to savour that win as they prepare to meet Armagh in the provincial decider later today in Brewster Park, Enniskillen [Throw-in, 3.45], where they will hope to defend their crown and win a third Ulster senior title.

Curran famously worked alongside Jim McGuinness when Donegal won the Sam Maguire in 2012, and in truth, knowing that he was taking charge of the team this season provided Keaney with extra motivation to get back into contention for 2018.

Getting some championship football in the legs is the first step towards working her way back into the team’s starting line-up, but she concedes that she has many more strides to take in a panel where there is stiff competition for places.

“I know I have a huge amount of work to do but hopefully it’ll be a long enough summer for us,” says Keaney.

You’re out of it so long and you spend so much time trying to find yourself but it makes you appreciate the feeling of coming off the bench. It does make you appreciate it so much.

“Armagh will pose a completely different threat, we know how good a team they are. They’ve such experience and have some of the best forwards in the country in Aimee Mackin and Caroline O’Hanlon, they need no introduction.

“We know it’s going to be a strong, physical game. Any day you’re in an Ulster final is exciting and hopefully there’ll be a big strong support from Donegal there as well in Enniskillen.”

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