From despair to the high seas


FROM THE BRINK Doctors were shocked by the progression of Fintan Gibbons’ spinal tumor. Pic: Conor McKeown

Westport man’s remarkable journey back from cancer-induced paralysis   

Oisín McGovern

FINTAN GIBBONS thought that the severe back pain was the product of wear and tear from 20 years of roofing.
It turned out to be something far worse.
It all began in 2019 when he had just opened his own furniture shop, a move partly intended to provide reprieve from the attrition of his old trade.
“We went into Covid – and I was only open a year – and you were told not to go near doctors and not to be annoying them in hospitals, and you didn’t want to be getting the Covid either because you were afraid you’d die from that. I said a pain in my back was better than having Covid, the way they were advertising it,” Fintan tells The Mayo News, his crutches placed to one side in the lobby of Westport’s Plaza Hotel.
“In that line it was neglected, but it wasn’t though any fault of my own. Over the years I’ve had so many back pains twisting my back and all that, so I didn’t take much notice of it. It wasn’t then until I basically nearly went to ground with the pain one night. My legs started going on me and we went to the doctor, and he said, ‘Go up to the hospital’.”
“He thought I was having a heart attack, because I had severe pain all the way down from my stomach to my chest. From my neck down it was just pain everywhere, going down my legs and everything.”

The Westport man spent a week in Mayo University Hospital before being transferred to Galway.
He was barely in the door before he underwent emergency surgery on six of his vertebrae to release his spinal chord from a tumour growing in the middle of his back.
“In the meantime, I got paralysed from the chest down. I lost all power and couldn’t urinate or anything,” Fintan recalls.
“The doctor came to me and said ‘I’m absolutely in shock at what I’ve seen in your scan’ – so that didn’t help me much after losing the power in my legs,” he adds with a chuckle.
Eight weeks later he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an ailment no amount of roofing could cause.

Curtains drawn
Having part of his pelvis sheered was among a myriad of procedures undertaken to remove one tumour.
But that was trivial compared to the next scenario that was presented.
“It’s an awful feeling, but I asked the doctors and my wife, ‘What’s the story?’.” His wife had to tell him that there was no guarantee he’d walk again, and that he could be disabled from the chest down for good.
He spent the next two days with the curtains drawn around him on the hospital ward.
“I just couldn’t face the world and all that had happened,” Fintan says.
“I was awake one night and I said, ‘It’s not going to do my family any good going home worrying about me. The next morning, I said to the nurse, ‘Pull back them curtains, I’m ready’. From that day on I was having the craic with all the patients in the ward and that was the end of the whingeing.
“From then on it was just a positive attitude all the time. I always think there’s someone worse off than me and not be whingeing about it.”
In the end, the worst-case scenario never came to pass. Over the course of several months of chemotherapy, radiation and physiotherapy, Fintan eventually regained his ability to walk.

Incredibly, this March, he will set sail around the Caribbean with a crew of 35 as part of the 2023 Tall Ship Challenge.
Their galleon is called the SV Tenacious, a tall ship specially designed for wheelchair users. It will be manned by a passenger-less crew with a variety of different spinal injuries, each with a specific job. Their mission: to raise money for Spinal Injuries Ireland, a charity that helps people with life-altering spinal injuries.
With memories of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire still fresh in his mind, Fintan needed little persuading when asked to join the crew.
“I saw a lot of people up there that was in wheelchairs and legs missing and all this. When I was lying on the bed not knowing if I’d ever walk, I suppose I got a small taste of what it felt like for them,” he says.
“They face it on an everyday basis and I just find them amazing, they can get on with their lives every day and they could be paralysed from the neck down, or whatever it is.”

New outlook
He is fully aware that few with spinal injuries will produce a Lazarus-like recovery like he did.
Has his outlook on life been changed by his injury? His answer is a firm ‘yes’.
“There are so many things now that are not important in life, money being one of them. You’d be running around working like hell and trying to make money and all this. What good is it to you if your health is no good?” Fintan says.
“I think it’s very important to make time for family and friends,” he adds. “Years fly by, and the next thing people pass away and it’s too late when they’re gone.
“I lost my mother and my father. When my father died in 2003 of a massive heart attack, we thought he was going to live forever. He was only 65; the next thing he was gone like that,” he adds with a snap of his fingers.
“I just think it’s really put a different perspective on life altogether.”

Donate to Fintan Gibbon’s Spinal Injuries Ireland fundraiser at iDonate,