Dublin: 19°C Monday 26 July 2021
Advertisement

One step at a time: this Meath man's journey from a brain haemorrhage and stroke to Rio

Six short weeks in the summer of 2009 saw Paul Keogan’s life change forever. He now has his sights set on the Paralympic games in September.

SITTING ACROSS THE coffee table from Paul Keogan, nothing seems amiss.

In fact, spending a day with him, you wouldn’t notice that the scars of his past still present themselves on his body. He sits comfortably in the armchair, comfortable in himself.

He talks about his life occasionally, positioning and re-positioning his left hand on the arm rest. It’s not fully functional since the stroke but as he says himself, he can do everything he needs to. He’s still thankful he was born right-handed.

It’s the only visible manifestation of the harrowing summer of 2009. It started so full of hope and ambition, but would end in him unable to move half of his body.

FB_IMG_1464297828200 Source: Mary McGuire

The middle child of his family, Keogan excelled at sports. He played Gaelic football with his school St Patrick’s in Navan and with his club, Skryne as well as soccer. At the time his sporting dreams were built around these mainstream endeavours. The story is much different now.

While playing in a game with Skryne’s third-string senior team, Paul received a blow to the temple. Not one to back down, Paul played through the pain. Within minutes he was on the ground without a pulse.

“I got hit with a late challenge. There was no malice in it but I got an elbow in the temple. I got a real bad headache but I played on for like another, five minutes. After a while my coordination started going, my vision was getting blurry and I was like, ‘I better come off here’ so I started walking over to the sideline. Before I got to the sideline I just collapsed.

“I was on the ground and they couldn’t find a heartbeat and usually they’ll do CPR when that’s the case. But the physio who was there, she recognised, ‘this guy is having a brain haemorrhage.’ If you push on someone when there’s blood going into their brain you’re going to kill them. She made that call to say ‘don’t touch him’ while they couldn’t find a heart rate, so that was a ballsy call on her part.”

The impact of the elbow connecting with his head caused a vein to burst, resulting in a bleed to his brain. With the appropriate medical attention, Paul found himself in a very small, very fortunate category of people who would fully recover from this injury.

Two weeks later he left the hospital with aspirations of returning to the playing field. He didn’t know it then, but Keogan would never play contact sport again.

A follow-up scan on 29 June 2009, his 17th birthday, revealed an aneurysm – a weakness in a vein. Doctors felt they could rectify the problem and it was a procedure of which Paul was fully in support.

“One of my friends had invited me to her debs the next week. I was thinking, ‘if this goes ok I’m going to the debs!’” he says.

“The stats for this one were very good. I had a 97.5% chance of being grand, and a 2.5% chance of having a stroke.”

He had a stroke during the operation.

Having been in a small percentage of people who recover fully from a brain haemorrhage, Keogan would find that the wheel of fortune was still turning. He would wake up to a completely different world to the one he left.

‘You’re fucked, basically’

The next few weeks would be a combination of extreme tiredness, high levels of pain medication, and a tantalising wait for sensation to return to his limbs, if it would at all. Although he may have been paralysed on the left side of his body, Keogan was still the same determined man inside.

The first day he got feeling back in his leg the 17-year-old was convinced he could stand up. The use of a crane lift to get him out of bed exerted so much effort that he had a seizure. A reality check. Undeterred as ever, he was soon out of his wheelchair and on crutches, heading for Dun Laoighre’s rehabilitation clinic.

FB_IMG_1464297816587

Keogan only spent two weeks in the rehabilitation centre. Even though the staff advised him to stay, he was sure he was going back to school sooner rather than later. A prognosis from his doctor was what really spurred him on to get through his rehabilitation at an A-standard pace.

“I was in the hospital and I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘you’ll probably be able to walk again but you won’t be able to run.’ He told me I wouldn’t have a concentration span so I wouldn’t be able to do my Leaving Cert, all this kind of thing. So I was given this, ‘right, you’re fucked, basically.”

However, in addition to his stubbornness, Paul had time on his side. The younger a stroke occurs, the better the body can recover. Paul’s brain would be learning how to do a lot that year as he was immovable in his desire to sit his exams.

Upon his return to school in mid-November, just over three months since suffering the stroke, Keogan could walk, albeit with a heavy limp. His facial features drooped and he needed to take one or two naps to make it through a day. In the face of doubts from his parents and his nurses, he balanced his studies with regular trips to therapists — physical and occupational.

By the end of the school year Keogan could jog in his own way though he admits it was far from ‘elegant’.

He rehabilitated his body, sat his Leaving Certificate exams and completed his degree in Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin. But it wasn’t enough.

“College went grand. I was in the disability service which meant I got accommodation on campus. I was right in the city centre, and you get an extra 20 minutes for your exams which I entirely did not need!” he jokes.

“I finished Pharmacy but I kind of knew I didn’t want to be a pharmacist. Everyone was like ‘oh I’m so happy we’re going to start being pharmacists’ and I was just thinking, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ I felt like I was just going through the motions; go to school, go to college, get a job. I felt like I needed to regain control and do something different.

“I remember walking down the street one night and the thought just came into my head ‘I want to be an athlete’. I went on a 20-minute walk and over that time I formulated the entire plan to quit Pharmacy, start training to be an athlete, go to Rio, do the Paralympics and by the time I got home I had the whole plan formulated.”

FB_IMG_1464297745445 Source: Brandon Griffiths

Not one to do things by half, he enlisted the help of a former Olympian, Sean Cahill, who put him in touch with the right people to enable him to realise his Paralympic dream. A meeting with James Nolan, head of athletics for the Irish Paralympic team, showed Keogan what he needed to do and just like that his life started to go down an altogether different path.

His journey in athletics hasn’t been without complication as a lengthy injury kept him out of action for the first half of 2015. However, he’s now back on track in both senses of the term. Paul now holds the national record in his category in the 100m, 200m and the event he will actually be attempting to qualify in – the 400m sprint.

“I got back in June 2015 and I was panicking because I only had two seasons to try and become world class. You have to get internationally classified before your times actually go on the world rankings so I went to Nottingham last August to get classified.

“It was the Cerebral Palsy World Development Games, an international thing for athletes who haven’t been to the Paralympics or to the World Championships. Most people are there to get classified.

“My category is T37. There’s eight Cerebral Palsy (CP) categories, 31 to 38. The first four are all in wheelchairs. They’d be very severe CP.”

Paul explains that cerebral palsy acts as an umbrella term. Cerebral meaning “brain” and palsy meaning “weakness.”

Thirty-five to 38 are standing with a varying number of limbs being affected. Keogan’s category have two limbs affected by their disability, however he still finds himself to be different within his category.

“90% of people in those categories were born with their thing, maybe 95%. The likes of me, there’s not a group of people who had strokes when they were like, 20.”

The Nottingham event saw Keogan classified as a T37 athlete as he expected. Prior to this meet, he had been running the 100 and 200 metre sprints but they were what led to his injury the previous January – an inflammation in his pubic bone from sprinting out of the blocks too much.

With this in mind, Keogan decided he would change event and focus on the less-block-dependent 400m’s – taking up a new discipline just twelve months out from the Paralympics.

Due to his good times in his races at the shorter distances he was granted permission to run in the 400m race in Nottingham. The discipline requires far more endurance, and having done no training for it, Keogan tells of a comical first outing.

“The four hundred was the very first day and it was all going brilliant. I started on the outside lane but I obviously took off faster than everyone else because I couldn’t see anyone for the entire race and with 80metres to go I started cramping up.

“I didn’t have the endurance for it. It was awful and I honestly thought I was going to fall over. When I’m walking I’m grand and when I’m jogging it doesn’t feel like I have any problem with balance. But when I start to get tired, I start to feel like I did the first week or two after I had a stroke, it felt like I’d completely lost control. The last 80metres my right leg was pumping and my left was just like a stick. It was awful, I genuinely thought I was going to fall over,” he laughs.

FB_IMG_1464297716061

As arduous as his first outing at his new competition distance was, Keogan managed to set an A-standard for last October’s World Championships in Qatar, cramps and all. Although he was too late to take part in Qatar, it was a bright, if somewhat unorthodox introduction into the 400m event.

He also won the 100m and 200m races on the two following days for good measure, setting national records and attaining World Championship standards in both. “It was a productive weekend,” he states nonchalantly.

Since his change of discipline things have gone more smoothly. 2016 has seen him injury free and setting two consecutive personal best times during the indoor season this spring, recording A-Standards for Rio in the process, although his times didn’t count until 1 April.

Road to Rio

A return outdoors should bring with it another improvement to his personal best time. For Keogan, and all other Irish Paralympic athletes, setting A-Standards for Rio will not be enough due to the limited number of places available to Ireland.

“Paralympics Ireland are going to take the nine athletes most likely to win a medal,@ he says. “Anyone who is not one, two, or three in the world, there’s about three spots remaining. So they take your personal best as a percentage of third place in the world. So, ‘what are you relative to third place in the world last year?”

Keogan’s aim is to get his personal best time as close to, or ideally better, than the T37 athlete who finished third in the World Championships in Qatar last year. He currently has a 93% chance of medalling based on this formula but needs to be at around the 96 or 97% mark to get on the Irish team, something he feels he can achieve in the coming weeks.

“I haven’t even entertained the idea that I won’t get there,” he says. “For two years all I’ve been thinking about is getting there. It’s completely encompassing everything I do at the moment. It has become my entire life’s goal now, to get to Rio. It hasn’t always been but now I have complete tunnel vision and I can’t see anything else.

“Do I dwell on what might have been?

“I think I always look towards, ‘what’s the next thing I can do?’  I’m in a different set of circumstances so I have different goals. At one point in my life I had certain goals, now I have different goals, that doesn’t mean they’re any less.

“If anything they’re much bigger goals that I have now than I would’ve had. Certainly now, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t deal with. Because I have survived what I did survive, nothing really scares me on some levels. I feel like, no matter what it is I’ll be able to deal with it because it can’t be as bad as where I’ve been.”

Dublin star Michael Darragh Macauley on fitness, basketball and ‘bench pressing houses’

6 of the best restaurants for eating out healthily in Dublin

About the author:

John Ivory

Read next:

COMMENTS (2)