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13-year old Ronan Fitzgerald had 120 seconds of life left after a clash of heads

Thankfully, the Kerry youngster made a full recovery.

Kieran Donaghy and his cousin Ronan Fitzgerald.
Kieran Donaghy and his cousin Ronan Fitzgerald.
Image: Brian Fitzgerald

“I was in the school with Ronan recently and I asked him how he was doing. He turned to me and said: ‘You know, I’m doing okay dad, I’m more or less on top of everything’ and that was just brilliant to hear.”

THE FITZGERALD’S ARE a GAA family.

From Tralee, they’ll be cheering on Austin Stacks this coming Sunday when they take on Mid Kerry in the Kerry SFC final.

Afterall, Stacks captain Kieran Donaghy is family.

For one member of the Fitzgerald family, Sunday will be extra special as, by all rights, Ronan Fitzgerald should not be alive. As his mother Shelia says:

“Ronan wasn’t just lucky, he was beyond lucky. We won the lotto.”

On 3 November, 2012, as he did on a Saturday, Ronan was training with other members of the youth team at Tralee Rugby Club.

“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” says Shelia. “We got a phone call from the rugby club and they said ‘Ronan’s been in the wars and the doctor thinks he has a touch of concussion’ so they asked if we could come up and collect him.

“Because there didn’t seem to be much urgency we didn’t rush up but when I got to the dugout Ronan had an icepack on his head. He was very pale and he had his legs up in front of him. What scared me the most though was that there was a lot of vomit on the ground in front of him.

“My husband (Brian) was on crutches at the time so he stayed in the car and two coaches helped me get Ronan back to the car.”

Brian’s heart dropped when he saw Ronan, Shelia and the two coaches coming towards him in the parking lot.

“I was in the car and wondering what was keeping Shelia. I didn’t realise Ronan had vomited several times but when I saw him coming across the field I just said ‘Jesus Christ’ and I knew he was in deep trouble. He was the colour of death.

“As a retired Garda, he reminded me of someone who’d had far, far too much to drink, he had no coordination and was unresponsive.”

Shelia explains what happened next.

“When we got to the to hospital in Tralee we were told there was a huge waiting list but after they assessed him they realised he needed to be seen straight away. Ronan had a massive bleed on his brain — we found out later it was the same injury that killed the actress Natasha Richardson — and it was a full on medical emergency.

“They put him on a ventilator and you could tell by their reactions that everyone was gravely concerned so his two brothers Sean and Ciaran met us at the hospital.”

IMG-20141017-WA0002 Ronan in hospital. Source: Brian Fitzgerald.

Despite being rushed to Cork University Hospital with a Garda escort as well as an anaesthetist, nurse and paramedics on board, Ronan’s condition deteriorated in the ambulance and his pupils became fixed and dilated.

The 13-year-old was dying.

“I remember racing behind the ambulance and thinking to myself that the next time we’d be following him he’d be in a hearse,” says Brian.

Shelia recalls how quickly everything happened once they reached CUH.

“He was taken from us and operated on him on the ambulance trolly because he was dead at that stage and only being kept alive by the ventilator.

“A brilliant young neurosurgeon operated on him there and then because he had 120 seconds of life left in him thanks to the ventilator but that was it. We could do nothing but wait. Eventually the neurosurgeon met us and told us the next 24-48 hours would tell a lot. At that stage, we were just ready to collapse in the corridor.”

Slowly, Ronan began to recover. It hasn’t been easy though.

“He’s had to learn to walk and talk again,” says Shelia “as the right side of his body suffered paralysis post surgery. Everything had to be learned again.

“I didn’t work for months. It’s been a long road for him and he still needs speech and language therapy but he’s a great child, a brilliant character and that shines through despite everything.”

Ronan’s school, Mercy Mounthawk Secondary in Tralee, have been very supportive and, despite missing time, he is set to sit his junior certificate this year.

“I was in the school with Ronan recently and I asked him how he was doing. He turned to me and said: ‘You know, I’m doing okay dad, I’m more or less on top of everything’ and that was just brilliant to hear.” says Brian.

IMG-20141017-WA0011 Ronan eight weeks before the accident. Source: Brian Fitzgerald.

Though they still don’t know how Ronan’s injury occurred — initially it was thought he’d hit his head off someone’s knee or it may have been a clash of heads in the warm-up  – the Fitzgerald’s don’t blame the rugby club.

“To be fair to them, you don’t think that something as simple as that can end up as a life-threatening injury. Since then there have been more appropriate guidelines put in place by the club,” says Brian

“I think, in general though, if there are signs like vomiting, someone losing consciousness or losing colour after a clash of heads, you can’t overreact.

“Youth was a huge factor for Ronan. The neurosurgeon said that if it had happened to an older child it would have been worse as he may not have recovered as well as he did.

“Realistically speaking though, anyone involved in coaching has to act straight away if a youngster is confused about dates, names, ages, etc. What we’ve learned is that you have to act if that’s the case.

“At the end of the day, sport is sport and if someone loses their life playing sport, that’s just not right.”

IMG-20141017-WA0010 The Fitzgerald family with cousin Kieran. Source: Brian Fitzgerald.

One of the family’s biggest supporters during Ronan’s recovery was Kerry star and first cousin, Kieran Donaghy so the Fitzgerald family will be cheering extra-loudly this Sunday.

“Kieran was always extremely positive with Ronan, always looking on the bright side even in the darkest times and just so good to him. Hopefully Sunday we can help him win,” says Brian.

For more information on concussion and head injury, visit the Acquired Brain Injury Ireland website.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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