“I was in hospital for 10 months. I had a viral heart disease, then a stroke, then major surgery for a heart transplant. Pretty much every piece of Life saving equipment that exists in a hospital was used on me. But thanks to my heart donor, I was there for my daughter’s first day of school and my best friend’s wedding.”
Damien Keogh suffered a stroke whilst in hospital for viral myocarditis, an inflammatory heart disease. As a result, he has difficulty fully recalling everything that happened to him. He relies, in part, on conversations with his friends and his wife, Sally. But what he can tell from his time in the Mater makes for one of the most incredible stories to come out of the hospital.
“They tried everything. I was on an LVAD, then an ECMO, and the clock was running down. I had had a stroke, I’d lost weight from 16 to 10 stone. I thought I’d missed my chance at a transplant because, on the first call I got, the organ wasn’t viable. I remember thinking, that’s that. I’ve missed my chance. I was basically at that stage when I’d almost given up when I got a second, successful match.”
Damien and his “miracle worker” cardiothoracic surgeon, Guillermo
Damien’s story starts at his job with the Tifco Hotel Group. He was fit and healthy, playing football regularly with friends and on a good career track. But on the way back from lunch one day, that suddenly all changed. His colleague, Wes, remembers him suddenly turning pale and saying: If I didn’t know any better, I’d reckon I had a heart attack.
When he got home from work that day, his wife Sally was concerned. She was training as a midwife and recognised that something was very wrong. She called a friend who’d qualified for a second opinion. Damien ended up being rushed to hospital.
10 Months in Hospital with Viral Heart Disease
Damien had contracted myocarditis, an inflammatory heart disease, from a viral infection. Even today, he doesn’t know why or how. But a few days after his little girl should’ve been celebrating her birthday, he had major surgery to give him a Left Ventricular Assisting Device or LVAD.
The LVAD was meant to keep him alive despite his failing heart.
“It’s like an old-fashioned, 1980s computer. It’s a big massive black box and it had two pumps that went from the machine straight into my heart. I couldn’t leave it. Whenever I was going anywhere, like for an X-ray, I had to be hooked up to a portable version of it. A portable LVAD which looked a bit like a roll-on luggage suitcase.
But sometimes when they’d do the changeover between the two LVADs, plugging the standard one out and the portable one in, I’d just spark out.
It’d be lights out and I’d wake up a couple of seconds later with 15 people standing over me. And I’d be like, What? But I got used to it eventually.”
Then things took a sudden turn for the worse. Damien developed a blood clot and cardiac tamponade around the site of the LVAD. He was rushed back to surgery. During the operation, his health went downhill fast.
He began to bleed very heavily. Then he had a stroke, and his heart stopped beating for 12 minutes.
Damien was saved from the brink by the Cardiothoracic team at the Mater Hospital. He emptied the blood bank of the hospital during surgery. He required 92 units of blood in a 24 hour period. But he was stabilised and moved to intensive care. Once he recovered, he was then moved to the Cardiothoracic High Dependency Unit or CTHDU.
“There was a couple of nurses there I got on really well with. Eimear Foy was one. She’d come in and always try and put you in a good mood. Mary Ryan was another. You could have a laugh with her. I’d be playing Grand Theft Auto, which I completed in hospital and that’s no mean feat, and they’d be shocked and appalled at it. We had a bit of craic.
There was two lads in particular, Manny and Kamal, that I became good mates with. They were both Indian and had known each other for years. They were nurses on the ward and we just got on really well. They used to bring in takeaway some of the nights, which was just such a big deal after so long on hospital food only.”
By this stage in his treatment, it was clear that Damien’s heart was in a bad way. He wasn’t going to recover from viral heart disease without a Life-saving intervention. He needed a heart transplant. The LVAD was not a long term solution. But when he finally got the call to go into surgery for the operation, it was cancelled. The organ was not viable.
At this stage, having been through the works, Damien felt like giving up. But he didn’t, and that was thanks to one person. Despite the stroke he suffered, he still remembers everything she did for him.
“I can’t say enough good things about my wife, Sally. She was there for every hard conversation, every tough decision. I spent 261 days in hospital and she visited me for every single one of them while studying to be a midwife at the same time. The only day she took off was to see Ed Sheeran in concert and that was across the road from the hospital anyway, in Croke Park!
I don’t know how she did it. She had to manage the kids and exams and seeing her sick husband. She’s an incredible person.”
Damien and his wife Sally
Damien got very lucky on two days in his life. The day he met Sally. And the day of his successful heart transplant. It came right after the first cancellation. The next day, he got told there was a second match. This is very rare. It doesn’t normally happen that there would be two matches from two donors on consecutive days. He couldn’t believe it.
“Manny came running into me. He pulled open the curtain and said, Are you ready to go again? I was like, Fuck off Manny. You know, I thought he was joking. There was no way there was two calls in two days.
He said, No I’m serious. This is it! If it’s a match in any way shape or form, it’s for you because you need it right now.
So I rang Sal. I said, You need to come back in here. She was like, There’s no way! I told her, Look they’re telling me you all need to get in here.”
Damien went into the operating theatre for a heart transplant on the 14 July 2015. The most difficult part was explanting the LVAD that he’d depended on for life for so many months. Thankfully, there were no further complications and the transplant was successful.
A New Heart and a New Lease of Life
Thanks to his heart donor and the incredible work of his surgical team, Damien had a successful transplant. When he’d been hoping for this second chance, he’d always imagined another long stay in hospital following the operation. But the speed of his recovery surprised him. He was discharged from intensive care after a week post-transplant and spent the rest of his stay healing in St Cecilia’s Ward.
He even got permission to leave hospital to be groomsman for his best friend’s wedding.
Damien and his family and his friend Stuart’s wedding
“Not to sound clichéd but it was like I got a new lease of life. I went from literally dying in a bed to being up and walking around on my own. And then I got to go to Stuart’s wedding.
Basically, I made arrangements with my Cardiothoracic surgeon Guillermo. And a local lad who’s a barber in Celbridge came in and cut my hair. The lads then came in and got me fitted for a suit. One of my best friends, Paul Sweeney, picked me up on the day.
And there I was at the top of the church. People were staring at me because of the change that had taken place. I’d been on the brink of death and now I was attending Stuart’s wedding. The only really noticeable sign of what I was going through was that I had to wear a face mask. But I kept that out of the photos.
It was just surreal after so long outside of a normal setting. It was just kind of a phenomenal thing. I had a great time at the wedding. I went back to the reception for an hour or so and an hour turned into two and that turned into three. But then, I remembered my promise to Guillermo that I’d be back by 6 o’clock so I left. I ended up laughing to myself in the ward because I realised I could’ve stayed longer and he would’ve been none the wiser. But I made him a promise and don’t regret sticking to it.”
Damien had been isolated in hospital for a long, long time. But he’d always had a goal of being there for his daughter’s first day of school, to walk her. Things ended up working out in terms of his transplant timeline. He had to put in serious work with the physios at the Mater in terms of physical rehabilitation. His body had been through so much that he had to re-learn how to walk again.
But he made it.
“It was always one of my biggest goals when I was in hospital. I wanted to walk Ava on her first day of primary school. Now, thankfully, her school was at the end of our estate so I didn’t have to walk far. But it was one of those ‘dear diary’ moments being able to be there for that. I’ll always remember the smile on her face that day, starting school. That’s a moment that’ll always stay with me.”
Recovery & Support
Damien put a lot of effort into cardio-rehab but still suffers from trouble with his short term memory. It’s a result of his stroke. He will often take a photo of his car if he parks it as a prompt to help him remember where it is after the shopping’s done.
After 15 months of absence, Damien went back to the Tifco Hotel Group and found his desk exactly as he’d left it. No one had moved any of the papers he’d left there. He even found a post-it from before he left by the computer.
At the time he first fell ill, the owners of Tifco, Gerry and Aidan Crowe, looked into what they could do to help Damien. They and the entire company were fully supportive of him and his family at a moment of crisis and continue to be so today.
“Coming up to Christmas, Tifco were having a staff awards night in Clontarf Castle. The place is beautiful that time of year, all done up in lights. I’d got an invite to go to the dinner there. After everyone had eaten, they started calling people up for 20 years service awards, 15 years, 10 years and then when it came to 5 years… they called my name out.
It was overwhelming. I hadn’t worked for them for basically the past year and a half. But I got an award saying that I’d been a valued member of staff for the past 5 years. I stood there at the top of the room and it was a pretty amazing gesture on their part.”
Damien’s wife Sally, meanwhile, finished her course at Trinity College and qualified as a midwife.
Sally graduating from her midwifery course at Trinity College Dublin
Their family life is settling back to normality. Damien’s son spent a lot of time looking after Sally while Sally looked after Damien. The viral illness took a toll on all of them. But they all recently went on a Christmas holiday to London together and that was amazing.
“I’ve had serious downs over the past two years. But I’ve also had massive ups. Getting to my best mate’s wedding – amazing. Walking Ava – amazing. London – amazing. Seeing Sally graduate from college was phenomenal.
Right now, I’m working on my recovery. I’m working on putting my stroke issues behind me and getting back to work again. I’m working on being active and being social. The new project is to get a few Walking Football games started.
It’s something I’ve looked up and it’s big in America. It’s played with a weighted ball and the rules generally agree that the ball can’t really leave the ground. So that’s great for me because if I got a smack in the chest, I’d be a goner. I’ve been speaking to a few other lads doing physical rehab and on their own recovery path from brain injuries and the like. It’s definitely a goal for 2018.”
Damien and family at a picnic in Phoenix Park.