Former Cork hurler, Dessie Fitzgerald shares his story of unimaginable loss and tragedy but also his message of hope for the future as he dedicates his life to helping others overcome their challenges through counseling and life coaching.
I’m a Cork rebel to the bone. Born and raised in Charleville, Co. Cork. Our back field is in Limerick. I just made it to the right side of the border – not according to my mum however as she is a proud Limerick woman.
My dad was a hurling man. I picked up a hurley at the age of three, and I’ve loved it ever since. I played my club hurling with Charleville and was lucky enough to represent my county at minor level and win two All-Irelands with Cork Intermediates.
I’m a dad myself now. I’ve two kids with my wife, Sarah. I don’t push hurling with my own kids, but I can see them taking off with it already. It’s in the blood maybe.
One of my earliest hurling memories was going to see my dad playing a junior B match up at the pitch in the town. He was playing full back wearing what looked like a jockey’s helmet. I just couldn’t wait for my chance to be out there on the pitch. I played my first game aged eight.
The first time I saw Cork in action, my dad brought me on the train to Thurles to see a Munster Championship game – Cork V Limerick. I just remember being in the stand eating bonbons, listening to the roar of the crowd. The excitement was huge.
I played in the backs, so as a kid I dreamed of emulating my hero, Brian Corcoran and playing for Cork one day along with my three brothers – Conor, Mike and James. I was the eldest. We were very close.
On 8th August 2011, my life as I knew it changed forever. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
I finished work early to go to hurling training with my brothers, Conor and Mike.
On the way home I saw my brother Mike’s van parked in the entrance to a farmyard. My dad was renting the farm, but it was unusual to see his van parked there, so I tried calling him a few times. No answer.
As I walked into the farm, I found my brother. He had taken his own life.
”I screamed. I roared. I wanted to vomit. It was utter disbelief. It made no sense.
He was just back from Arkansas where he’d been Best Man at my cousin’s wedding. I remember he was so excited about going over there. He’d recently started his own carpentry business and came back from the States with new carpentry equipment. Everything seemed fine on the outside.
I’d never seen him suffer or struggle with his mental health. Something must have just triggered with him.
Mike had a great bunch of friends. I spoke with them after. None of them had seen any warning signs. It just leaves so many questions unanswered. We just have to accept that we’ll likely never have those answers.
Mike was 23 when he passed.
People react to loss in different ways.
Back then, I would not have been someone to open up and speak about what was going on in my head. It wasn’t something I was used to doing. If someone asked me how I was feeling, I would have said, “I’m grand.”
I was numb from the whole experience and avoided dealing with it as much as I could. The pain was too much. After two weeks, I threw myself back into work. I was surrounding myself with distractions – work, hurling, gym – anything but to talk about what happened.
When a tragedy like that happens in a community such as ours, you fully understand and appreciate the importance of the amazing support of the GAA. I’ll always be grateful for that. People rallied around. They helped and supported us in whatever way they could.
On 8th October that year, exactly two months after we lost Mike, Charleville were playing a county semi-final against Kilbrin in Buttevant. I really wanted to win the game for Mike. I put that pressure on myself.
About 25 minutes into the game, the opposition corner forward had the ball land at his feet. I was centre back and sprinted back to dive into the tackle and flick the ball away from him. Another player came out at the same time and I got sandwiched between the two players. A player’s knees went into my chest and my head sprung back and forward. I was on the ground in a daze for a few seconds.
As I came around, I tried to pick myself up off the ground, and I realised I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t move. I was paralysed.
I was surrounded by players, people from the side-lines, from the crowd. They were talking, but everything went extremely quiet for me. I thought of Mike. In my head, I was asking him to help me.
I then became aware of the talk around me. Luckily there were nurses in the crowd who came over and advised people to leave me be and to keep me still. That action alone limited the damage.
I remember one of the players saying “you’ll be fine.” I held on to that. I was trying to be somewhat hopeful.
My family were at the match. Sarah traveled in the ambulance with me to Cork University Hospital, and I was transferred straight away to the Mater spinal unit in Dublin.
”I was scared. I couldn’t help but think this might be it for me, paralysed from the neck down and my heart started racing.
I saw the consultant and his team come in. The doctor told me I had fractured C4 and damaged my spinal cord but that it was an incomplete injury. If the swelling reduced there was a chance, I could get some function back. A glimmer of hope.
Not the worst-case scenario. It was bad, but there was hope.
Having a sporting background helped me. Life is a game. You’re going to have struggles, but it can often bring out the best in people.
There were no operations. I had to trust the natural healing of my body. I spent two months in the Mater. I was then transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, where I spent the most part of a year.
Sarah was working in a very supportive company at the time. They were very good to her. She was transferred from Cork to Dublin so she could be with me.
There were times when I felt so angry about what had happened, but I couldn’t let anyone see that. Especially not my parents, who were still coming to terms with losing Mike. For them, I stayed upbeat.
But I felt so helpless at times. Things I would have taken for granted physically were now impossible without assistance. I internalised all that frustration.
They say that with a spinal cord injury, the first three months are critical in terms of your recovery. There were so many unknowns, but I did have hope.
I remember lying on the hospital bed in the Mater Hospital. I would close my eyes and focus on trying to move.
Then one day, the big toe on my left foot moved. Tears rolled down my face.
It was a massive milestone on the road to recovery.
Sarah and I were due to get married the following March 2012. Sarah was adamant that we would still get married. I was thinking, “Are you serious, you could be looking after me for the rest of your life here, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
The wedding went ahead. It was a day of mixed emotions. On one hand, it wasn’t the wedding day we’d imagined but on the other we loved each other and getting married was what we wanted to do.
I arrived at the church in a wheelchair. My brothers helped me up, so I was standing when she came up the aisle. I even managed to walk down the aisle after the service and not fall. Another unforgettable milestone.
Unfortunately though, we were not done with tragedy.
Seven months after our wedding and 12 months since my accident, my youngest brother James went to work out as he often did. He was about three quarters of the way through his work out when he collapsed.
I was in town about to go for lunch with Sarah when I got the call to say that James had collapsed. When I heard this initially I just presumed he’d be ok. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case and my brother died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. James was only 16.
”After all of these tragedies, as you can imagine, I was in a very dark place. I knew I couldn’t ignore those feelings. I needed help.
I wasn’t ready in the beginning, but after a while It was time for me to open up about what I was feeling. I started by speaking to one person. Tom Carey was his name. He proposed a group therapy workshop.
In that workshop I shared openly and honestly everything that happened. I thought I would be judged by sharing and crying as I did, but the opposite was true. It was an amazing experience. Another turning point on my journey.
For three days, I worked on releasing all those emotions that were holding me back.
It had a massive impact on me. I thought about how much I would love to help others in the same way. I therefore decided to go back to college and studied counselling and later completed a Masters in life coaching.
Loss is so much broader than losing a loved one. Loss comes in different forms. It might be losing a job or having to retire from a sport that was part of your everyday. All loss awakens emotions in people. Sometimes those are anxiety and stress. Emotions that need to be let out and spoken about. I have a greater understanding of that these days.
These days, my job as a life coach is to listen to other people’s challenges and to help them on their journey.
Maybe that’s what all the suffering was for. It brought me here, to where I can help and support other people. That’s where this journey has brought me.
Following my accident, watching sport, particularly hurling games, was heart-breaking. I came home from games full of anger and regret at how much my life had changed, thinking, “It should be me out there.”
After I was injured Charleville went on to win the Cork Junior Hurling Championship. They then made it all the way to the All-Ireland final against Ballyragget (St. Patrick’s) from Kilkenny. I attended that match in a wheelchair.
Being brought to Croke Park in a wheelchair, being pushed to the side-line, I just felt lost. I felt broken inside while I was there. Charleville lost out by a point. Looking out onto the field, it just awakened all the feelings of “what might have been.”
Time is a healer, though. These days I enjoy sport again. I give team and motivational talks as part of my work. You can’t beat the atmosphere of being in a dressing room. I’m not going in there as a hurler, but I have an important part to play.
Charleville reached the Intermediate All-Ireland final last year. The lads lost out again, but we’re a senior club now in Cork. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. I can enjoy that for sure. I hope I’ll always be able to contribute to my club. They’ve been so incredibly good to me.
Its nine years since the accident now and I’m walking again. Often with the aid of crutches but I’m on my feet. I’m able to play with the kids and live as close to a normal life as possible.
It’s been a battle, but Sarah’s been amazing through it all. We adapted. I’m just grateful to have Sarah in my life and to have the two boys.
”I still talk to my brothers in my mind. I’ve written them letters. It keeps me connected with them.
It helps me through. I’m grateful for my belief that that connection still survives.
The more I’ve worked every day on becoming better myself, the more it’s had a positive effect on those around me.
I’m so very grateful for what I have in my life. Sarah, the boys, my mum and dad and my brother Conor, the GAA. I’m grateful for the time I had with my brothers too.
This is an ongoing thing for me. I have to keep improving physically so I can do more with my kids. I have to keep striving to be the best human being that I can be. There are so many layers to us all and different energies about us. We can use that to help others.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and I learned it the hard way, it’s that life is short.
Make the most out of it.
Dessie Fitzgerald helps individuals overcome obstacles so they can achieve what they want in their personal lives, in the workplace or on the sports field and feel empowered, confident and peaceful while doing so. He works as a life coach, mind health coach and performance coach. For more information visit www.dessiefitzgerald.com