“I was 19 and the doctors were afraid I was going to have a heart attack. That’s how high my blood pressure was at the time. So the doctors sent me to the heart monitor ward. That was my first experience of a hospital.”
Andrew Browne is a talented, young golfer and massive Real Madrid fan. He’s also been through 3 major surgeries in the past 2 years and is living with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and an ileostomy bag.
The stand out feature of his game, as he contemplates turning pro, and his medical history is pure mental toughness. Not many people could handle almost having a heart attack at 19 years old. But Andrew just laughs it off.
“Being mentally tough, willing to fight and having a good attitude is crucial in my condition. People compliment me for having that outlook but it’s just a part of what I do to recover. In saying that I find that there are some things you just don’t get over in life. A near death experience can haunt you. It’s just something that’s going to be there for life and you are going to just have to live with it forever. I recently read a book by Bob Rotella, one of the top sports psychologist in the world, and he says the people who turn out to be the toughest mentally speaking are those who have gone through a near-death experience.
“When I read that, it stuck with me and helped me turn it into a positive experience. I mean, who has to handle the fright of a heart attack at just 19?.
I was active and I was sporty. But I still have to live with that experience of almost dying despite everything you’re doing to benefit your health. So yeah, that’s made me mentally tough. Not suprising really, considering I went from weighing 9 stone to 5 stone in just 11 days.”
Andrew’s story starts with what he thought were flu symptoms. He had diarrhoea with blood, joint pain, extremely tired and just didn’t feel right. But after medical staff at the Mater ran a few tests, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. He was initially able to treat the condition with a medication called mezavant.
But after a couple of months, Andrew’s symptoms worsened. He was admitted into the Mater Hospital and underwent an emergency colonoscopy. Then he was rushed into surgery.
“My bowel was about to explode. The doctors told me I would die in a couple of hours if I didn’t have surgery right away. There was a rush to prepare me for operation and get me into the theatre as soon as they could.
When the porter came in to bring me down for the surgery I couldn’t move there was no life in me. My dad had to lift me up off my bed onto the trolley. He told me a couple of days later it took no effort to lift me onto the trolley. Not surprising really considering I only weighed 5 stone.
During the operation, the surgeons had to remove my large bowel. But I was obviously unconscious of all that. I had been in such a bad way prior to the operation that I wasn’t fully aware of everything.
When I woke up after surgery, I was in ICU. But it was night by that stage and the room was pitch black. I was so disorientated and out of it that I didn’t recognise I was in a hospital ward. It was seemed so dark and quiet, I thought I was dead.
This woman, a nurse, came out of nowhere and the first thing I said to her was, Am I dead?
No you’re alright, she said.”
Andrew was moved to St Monica’s Ward of the Mater to recover after being discharged from ICU. He now had an ileostomy bag after having undergone a colostomy to remove a large part of his colon. This was a massive and sudden change and, combined with the near death experience that had led to the emergency surgery, it was a lot to take on board.
“When I look back on my first surgery I think, How the hell am I still alive? In the space of three days, I could have died on four separate occasions. The first was when I was about to be sent home from hospital. Just before I was about to leave I had to go to the toilet. When I came back to my bed I didn’t feel right. So I had the nurse take my blood pressure and temperature. Both were high so I was kept in. This was two days before I had emergency surgery. The doctors told me that if I had gone home then I would have died.
The second was the next day when my blood pressure was through the roof and the doctors were convinced I was going to have a heart attack. I can still remember seeing my heart visibly beat through the skin of my chest, it was going so fast. I was sent to the heart monitor ward but thankfully I didn’t have a heart attack.
Then immediately following that experience was the day of my emergency surgery. Overnight I took a really bad turn and it wasn’t looking good for me. I was rushed down to have a colonoscopy which they found out that my bowl was going to explode and that I’d need emergency surgery straight away or die. I actually thought I was going to die, that’s how bad it was at the time. The fourth was during the surgery I didn’t know it but during the surgery I gave them a scare and they thought I was going to die. The morning after my surgery, the doctors told me about it and said I was extremely lucky to still be alive.
I remember after the operation, even though I came through it against those odds, I was still in a really bad way. I had two bags on my stomach, two drains coming out of my stomach, a morphine drip in my left, a TPN line in my neck, and an NCG tump up my nose. I had to learn now to walk again. The first time I walked after the surgery I needed the help of five other people to do so, and we only walked about ten yards. Not surprising after all I had been through and only weighing 5 stone.
I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to live with Crohns, Colitis, and an ileostomy bag. The side affects I suffer from all three has changed my life so much its unbelievable. Fatigue, joint pain, memory loss, lack of sleep, headaches, and extreme tiredness just to name a few. People can’t believe now much I suffer. People often say to be you look really good. Just because someone looks good doesn’t mean they are. That’s why crohn’s and colitis are called invisible illnesses. People like me are in constant pain. It sucks.”
Furthermore, there’s still a lot of stigma about ileostomy bags and Andrew had to adjust straight away.
“At first, I was worried about it. I was even down about it for a while. I wondered how it was going to affect my life and my game. Golf was my big hope for the future. I wanted to play pro. And of course, I was worried about the social aspect of it as well.
But then, once I talked with the doctors and realised it wouldn’t have an impact on my golf, it became easier not to care about what people think. I read stories from other people with ileostomy bags like Leanne Hammond. That helped too. There is still a lot of stigma about bags. But it’s just ill-informed. It’s down to people not educating themselves or listening to those who have real life experience with ileostomy bags. People don’t realise that 100% of people who have ileostomy bags would be dead if they didn’t have the bag. People think having a bag is a death sentence when it’s the exact opposite; it’s a second chance of life.
I actually had this moment of realisation about how hard they actually are to notice when I was talking to an older player at my club in Luttrellstown. He’d heard I’d had the operation and told me he’d a bag too. He’d had a colostomy 20 years ago. All that time, seeing him around before, I’d never known. It was a wonderful gesture and it just shows that people think they’re more noticeable than they are.”
Andrew suffered further complications following his initial operation. He needed follow up surgery a few months after getting the ileostomy back due to a blockage in his bowel. During recovery from that second operation, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as well as colitis. He then later developed a hernia on the site of his ileostomy bag and went for a third round of surgery.
“After my third operation, a few weeks went by and I noticed a lump next to my stoma. I thought it was just swelling from my surgery and it would eventually go down. Unfortunately it didn’t and I started to feel really unwell. I lost a bit of weight and started getting a lot of weird side effects. So I got it checked out by my doctors. They were not sure about what it was. I could tell they were very worried about me. When you have been through as much as I have, it becomes very easy to tell when doctors are worried about you. I was sent for a scan as it was very likely that I have developed bowl cancer in my small bowl. Let’s just say if you only have one bowl and you get cancer in it, you’re a goner.”
Andrew’s lump thankfully turned out to be non-cancerous and despite these setbacks on the road to recovery, he kept up his mental toughness and played golf when he could. He broke course records at his club and even won the Captain’s Prize. There were bad days when he couldn’t play and he considered packing in his career given the obstacles he was facing in his professional career because of his health.
And those were the moments he turned to his second love, Real Madrid and big Classico football matches in Spain.
“I’m a massive Real Madrid fan. And that’s only a good thing as a person with Crohn’s disease. The energising effect of the sun on you when you have Crohn’s and colitis is unbelievable. It’s a huge help.
I went over for a few matches. I remember one of them took place at 11 o’clock at night and it was 35 degrees. The game went well into the next morning. It was just an amazing atmosphere and an amazing break. The whole lead up to going away to Spain every time I go and the experience of being over there really takes me out of my own head for a while, for a week or so. It makes everything easier to handle.”
Experience of St Monica’s Ward and staff
Andrew spent a lot of time recovering in St Monica’s Ward, a surgical ward of the Mater Hospital. He had nothing but good things to say about the staff.
“They work their asses off in St Monica’s. I’ve been in a few wards and St Monica’s is by far the busiest. I remember one night after my initial operation, I was getting sick a lot and had a high temperature, there was a nurse who stopped to talk to me for a while. She went above physically taking care of me to checking if I was alright at a personal level, considering the major change in my life following the operation I’d just had.
I was the youngest on the ward at the time. And it’s a serious ward. It’s a place where people come to go for surgical, potentially life-altering procedures. So it was daunting for me at the time. They made sure to check in on me mentally as well as physically while I was there. That meant a lot.
They’re also just a great laugh. I get on well with all of them. They’re the hardest workers, I know, by a long way.”
Andrew also wanted to give a special mention to his two medical teams, Professor MacMathuna’s IBD team and Professor Shield’s surgical team.