‘Just beating Covid and coming out of the coma wasn’t enough’
Kingscourt man David Crosby contracted Covid in August last year
Saying ‘goodbye’ to his family from a hospital bed was the “most difficult” thing David Crosby has ever had to do. He’s had to do it twice in only a short number of years.
The first time David uttered those words was just before undergoing a double lung transplant in 2016, where he took time to compose a series of heartfelt letters to each member of his family.
The Kingscourt man wrote to his childhood sweetheart and wife of 12 years “in sickness and in health”, Katie, reminding her just how much he loved her. He asked too that she remain strong for the couple’s three young children should the operation not succeed.
David typed each carefully considered word, measuring their emotional weight against the strength and determination he had to see them again.
To have to say goodbye again, and so soon, was inconceivable.
“You’re very unstable. You’re not breathing properly. You’re not at your strongest, and yet you have to be at your strongest,” recalls David of being hospitalised with Covid in early August 2020.
Not long after, his wife Katie and their three children - Kiera (14), Darragh (13), Erin (11) - as well as David’s mum, dad and sister Anne Marie, were called to his bedside. Their attendance followed news that doctors at Dublin’s Mater Hospital were preparing to place David in an induced coma to try stabilise his condition.
David’s voice cracks, then pitches so slightly as the concentration of what he’s about to say next lodges as a lump in his throat. He composes himself, anxious not to breakdown now. If he didn’t cry then, he’s not going to cry now.
“You know it could be your last conversation with them. But I didn’t want that image, of me in weakened state, to be the lasting image in their memories,” David remembers back. “It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have.”
Surrounded by a cacophony of bleeps and blinking monitors, David took each member of his family by the hand. In turn he told them how much they meant to him - individually and collectively. He thanked them for their unwavering support over the years, their care and kindness during the good and the bad times, and told his children in particular how proud he is of them.
To his parents, Gene and Kathleen, and sister Anne Marie, David was conscious the disease he was diagnosed with, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) that led to his earlier transplants - already forced them to bury three of his siblings - Regina, Paul, and Ciaran.
“[Before the transplant operation] I’d written letters on my phone, and that was hard, because there’s tears dropping on the screen. But this was harder because they’re there, and you’re holding their hands, trying to squeeze them with whatever strength you’ve left, to comfort them, but you just can’t.”
David says he’s been lucky enough to live two lifetimes’ worth of experiences - pre and post transplant.
Since the 2016 operation the former Meath GAA star travelled the world as a figurehead within the organ transplant community, running marathons in New York, Berlin, and London. He even helped his beloved Meath Hill GFC to Junior Championship glory in 2017 as team selector, and was in the process of planning to run a fourth marathon in Tokyo when the pandemic first struck.
“My life took a completely different path since my transplant. Then, all of a sudden, you’re stuck in a hospital bed, drips and breathing apparatus all around you, having conversations with the most important people in your life all the while having to process that you might not be alive in a couple of days, or even come back fully the way you once were.”
Unbeknownst to David, while in the induced coma for those two-and-a-half weeks, his condition dipped severely. Such was his decline that medical staff called David’s family back to his bedside on two occasions.
“Not only did I have to have that talk with them, but doctors had to talk to them as well about me nearly not making it. And for my parents, with all they’ve gone through, three coffins and now me nearly the fourth, it’s horrific when you think about it,” he acknowledges.
Even without the setback of contracting Covid last August, David’s health had been slipping.
A “slight rejection” detected in one of his transplanted lungs meant David required an intensive course of radiation treatment - 10 bouts over five weeks - ending just before Christmas 2020.
The rejection caused David’s lung function to drop as low as 52, where once it had been in the 90s when training for the marathons.
Unlike his recovery from the transplant operation and even the later radiation treatment, with heightened restrictions, David found being in hospital with Covid a “very lonely experience”. He suffered from “psychosis dreams” while in the coma, worse than he’d ever experienced before.
“I thought at one stage I was in London, or being flown from Birmingham to Dublin. It was frightening.”
Unable to communicate, David’s family were allowed see him for only a half hour at a time. The rest of the day he spent in the room on his own.
Post transplant, the feedback David got was “nothing but positive”. He hoped this latest hospital stint would be almost as straightforward. But it wasn’t. Peering sternly over their PCP masks, doctors told David his recovery from Covid would “take time”.
To top it all, a stated side-effect of an “experimental” drug used to treat David impacted his kidneys. The Covid drug had been used to help patients in Canada recover from Covid with “positive” outcomes, but had not yet been used in Ireland before a doctor, aware of David’s specialised case, made the recommendation.
“They hadn’t given me much of a chance of surviving, but they thought this drug might help pull me through,” explains David, who adds that there’s “something inside” him that refuses to let go of the rope, no matter how many direct hits he takes mid-round.
David spent a total of 66 days in hospital, and while in the coma, lost a remarkable 15 pounds of muscle.
He held off on doing this interview until after the Christmas and New Year period ended, preferring to instead train his focus on spending what became now treasured moments with his family with no outside distractions.
“It was immense, better than any lottery win. When I started to come round, Christmas and New Year’s was all I wanted. But it was a struggle to even get home. I had to relearn how to talk. It wasn’t until weeks after I woke up that I was even allowed a couple of teaspoons of water. My legs were gone as well, so I had to relearn how to walk.”
‘Failure is not an option’ has always been David’s motto.
“Standing up for 30 seconds was the first goal, then two steps, 10 steps, and eventually going on my own. This was all with oxygen. Then to try to do it without oxygen. So just beating Covid and coming out of the coma wasn’t enough. I still had so much work to do to even get to a point where the doctors were happy enough to let me leave hospital.”
David is currently undergoing dialysis three times a week at Cavan General Hospital due to ongoing issues with his kidneys. He’s hopeful of soon regaining kidney function again, but accepts there are “other options” available. “I’m not trying to think about those at the minute.”
So determined is David to get back to fitness, that doctors have already scolded him about “overdoing” things. “Maybe that’s no harm,” he laughs guiltily. “It’s more about controlling the rehab now instead of going hell for leather.”
David’s first “proper” walk was in nearby Dun Na Rí Forest Park. It’s a place David holds dear, almost sacred even. Amongst the trees he finds a deep reservoir of peacefulness. “There’s something special about it. I’ve trained there, walked it before every game Meath Hill has played. I walked there before my transplant as well. It’s a place of solace. So just to be able to go again meant so much.”
David also walked picturesque Port Beach in Louth with wife Katie, and more recently, the greenway near Nobber. For a man who ran multiple marathons on a set of donated lungs, the two kilometres along old railway line were the “toughest” yet.
There hasn’t been a day in 2022 that David’s phone hasn’t rang or beeped with someone wishing him well. His teammates from Meath Hill were among the early callers, presenting David with a signed club jersey. That kindness is another factor keeping him “strong” he says.
“There’s been more Novenas said, candles lit, you name it. Mary McAleese [who interviewed David for RTÉ’s ‘All Walks of Life’] was in Rome at the Vatican when she heard I’d taken ill, and she sent a message to say she’d lit a candle for me. All of that is very special.”
David adds his recovery is, for now at least, a “constant battle”.
“This is all part of another chapter in the book about my life I’m going to have to write one day. All I can say about where I am now is, I’m getting there, step by step by step. The rest is all in front of me.”