No Longer Swimming Upstream

An informal chat with fundraiser John Cloonan

“When I travel to Dublin now, I never drive the same route that Etain and I took each week to Crumlin Hospital.  I know that I’ll do it someday; and I know that it will be so emotional.”

                                                                                                                             —John Cloonan

These days it has become almost fashionable to believe in nothing.  It’s no longer even considered defeatist to take up a stance that screams of nihilism.  It’s apparently become the only normal thing to do.  Of course, we aren’t helped in our attitudes by politicians who seem to believe that the only purpose to being elected is to make sure that they are re-elected.  Just take a look at the now-infamous interview in which Sean O’Rourke challenged smug Pat Rabbitte of the Labour Party concerning the broken promises that had been made in the run up to the last election.

“You kept it really simple”, said O’Rourke.  “Protect child benefit:  vote Labour.” 

To which the bold Pat replied:  “Well, isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

In the face of such mind-numbing cynicism it is a pure pleasure to meet mathematics teacher, athlete and fundraiser John Cloonan.  John has called into the Hand in Hand office in order to give us an update on his fundraising pledge at the beginning of 2013 to swim 1 km every day for a year. 

Now the first thing that has to be said about John is that he has the kind of good looks that should immediately irritate we men who are more…uh, facially challenged.  The reason that it’s not annoying, however, is because the looks come with a wonderfully warm and open personality that you sense from the moment that he shakes your hand.

With son Brogan having been diagnosed with cancer in August of 2007 at the age of 2 ½ years, John and his wife Etain have gone through the blackest of times imaginable.  Mercifully, with Brogan having been given the all-clear in October of 2009, their dark journey has had one of the happier outcomes.  It’s clear however that the scars have been left with John.

“Before he became sick I knew nothing about this illness.  It was totally alien to me; in fact it wasn’t even on the radar.  Afterwards we were always thinking about it, were seeing references to it everywhere.

“We were told that because he was young it was a good thing.  What are they talking about? I would think. How could it be a good thing?  He had so many procedures to go through”—here John stops and shakes his head, obviously reliving some particular incident of that early period—“and he was resistant to every one of them. But they were right, of course.  His age stood to him, especially as cells were being replenished.

“Our lives revolved around Crumlin Hospital and the trips back and forth from there; and our heads were filled with correct procedures that we had to carry out.  There were different drugs to hear about, certain dates to keep track of.  When travelling to Crumlin our day would start at five a.m; we would bring him out to the car, usually still in his pyjamas.  On days when he had to go to theatre there was the added burden on him that he would have been fasting.  Naturally he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to have food or drink; and because he was on steroids he was always hungry. In fact he put on a half stone in just a few months.”

When talking of distracting Brogan until his time for the visit to arrive came around, it is achingly moving to hear John speak of how he and Etain approached this.  He talks in terms of ‘mommy’s job was…’ or ‘daddy’s job was…’ until the moment for the theatre trip had arrived once more.  I found this habit of unconsciously slipping into the third person to be profoundly touching; it was as if John was once more looking at events that are forever in his head, but which for the most part stay safely locked away.

“In the beginning it could get frustrating that the staff would only give us information in small amounts.  We wanted to know absolutely everything; but here again they were right.  We could never have processed everything, with the state that we were in.

“I tell you:  I have the height of respect for nurses in general and for the work that they do.  Even if a child comes through it– even if they get better– for them it never ends.  They are just great.  They see children day in and day out.  It just goes on and on for them.  As far as I’m concerned they are as close to angels as you could get.  I don’t know what other way to put it.

“We would see them as we stayed over, trying to sleep.  There were no private rooms. Each one had two or three children in them.  There would just be a curtain to divide each sick child from the next one and they would vary in age right up to maybe fourteen or fifteen years old.  Our sleep patterns changed or else we got no sleep at all; and there would be things to do that you mightn’t have expected.  For instance, the nappy had to be weighed.  Liquids in and out had to be checked; and the nappies were so toxic from the chemotherapy that they had to be disposed of in a very particular way.”

The Harsh Reminders

Later on, when the chemotherapy was administered at home in oral fashion, John tells me that it served as one of the reminders to them every day of the seriousness of Brogan’s situation, when they had to wear gloves and hold plastic bags with the skull-and-crossbones on them.  Etain was trained in a 25-step process that covered a 45-minute procedure.  Constantly using hand sanitizers became second nature. And again, Brogan’s young age stood to him in that he didn’t miss having friends call on him.  His brothers Cian (seven at the time of the diagnosis) and four-year-old Daragh were enough for him.

Listening to John talk about his other sons, I was interested to hear how Cian had coped with his brother’s illness.  (I felt, rightly as it happened, that Daragh was just a little too young to understand what was happening.)  I know that the reactions of siblings can be complex, to put it mildly; but it seems that John and Etain have been blessed with a young man who was at that age not only ‘a bright kid’ but mature beyond his years.

At a family reunion in Dublin Cian had ‘made a beeline for his uncle, Patrick Johnson’.  [He was Professor of Oncology at Queen’s University, Belfast; and since 2007 has been Dean of the Medical School.]

“He asked him straight out what was going on with his brother.  Patrick answered him as an adult, reassuring him realistically and telling him that Brogan was in the best place in Ireland to treat his illness.  He also spoke to me, although a lot of it was over my head; but he said that there was a good chance—though not guaranteed—of a full recovery.”

It’s good to report that the ending to Brogan’s story is a happy one.  He had been diagnosed within days of becoming ill by Doctor Anne O’Mara.  The tumour that was eventually removed had extended from throat to kidney and was causing enormous pressure on Brogan’s eye.  A small detail that makes me look up is that when the child came back from theatre and was sleeping soundly, his dad asked the nurses for a pair of scissors.  Brogan didn’t like having his nails cut and this seemed like a good opportunity.  I guess that it is in this manner that we humans attempt to normalise the most grotesque of situations.

Moving On

Today Brogan is almost as active as his father when it comes to sports:  he has already done a triathlon with him, as well as horse riding, playing Gaelic football and hurling as well as Tae Kwon Do.

We here at Hand in Hand are enormously grateful to John for his efforts in raising money by his daily swim. 

“I was initially very reluctant to accept any help from the charity.  However, Etain thought that we shouldn’t turn down whatever was offered.  I’m very glad we didn’t. The support of the group even extended to my parents.  We not only had meals delivered and so forth, but because of Hand in Hand my parents got a night off too while we were travelling. 

Hand in Hand knew exactly what it was like for us.  At one point a package of crayons, books and magazines arrived just when they were most wanted.”

John Cloonan had his first swim of the year in Lanzarote.  In a logical symmetry that I would imagine is pleasing to a mathematics teacher he will have his last swim of the year in the same place on 31st December.  It’s not likely to be his final one, though. In fact he says that it has become therapeutic.  As someone who was born without the Sporting Gene I begin to feel exhausted just listening to John’s list of activities, from triathlons to swimming to cycling.  In fact, in one of life’s ironies, when he and Etain were living in California he completed a 100-mile charity cycle for Lymphoma.  He hadn’t heard of it, just wanted to do the run in order to test himself.  The second time he heard of it was when they had returned to Ireland and his son was diagnosed.

Writing this several days after meeting John, I find that I’m still haunted by a throwaway story he recounted.  Recently Brogan had to do an essay on a very important thing that had happened in his life.  John couldn’t recall what his son wrote about, but it wasn’t his illness.  With the resilience of children, that already seems like something written in the sand to him, washed away with the tide.

Listening to John, though, I know that the memories of that period are set in concrete forever– both for Etain and himself.  On behalf of Hand in Hand I want to thank John, not just for his efforts to raise money, but for sharing his family’s story with us.