‘I am playing with Lego at home to get dexterity back in my fingers’

Cian McWhinney’s Cork county final replay with Nemo Rangers lasted five minutes - and will remain with him for the rest of his life, writes Eoghan Cormican.

The goalposts have moved for Cian McWhinney. Small victories, he now pursues.

Long-term, the goal is to pull back on the Nemo shirt. Short-term, he’d like to be able to put on a t-shirt without his mother’s assistance.

Taking it day-by-day has replaced the game-by-game approach.

Baby steps, without wobbling.

The phone conversation with McWhinney runs for half an hour. Come the end of our chat, his arm is tiring. Holding up the phone for such a period of time is taking its toll. Something so basic is now a job, a challenge.

Earlier this week, the 25-year old held up a glass of water. There was no shake. He had control. Progress.

Small victories.

Bringing the glass to his mouth so to take a drink from it is another day’s work. The straw remains, for now.

Showering is still a two-person job, walking short distances leave him exhausted on the couch. Even using the television remote control requires as much as concentration as minding a lively corner-forward.

This has been Cian McWhinney’s life since lunchtime on Sunday, October 22. The Cork SFC final replay was eight minutes old when the Nemo Rangers corner-back lay still on the Páirc Uí Chaoimh turf. Slightly crouched forward, McWhinney was attempting to block a Robert O’Mahony kick when an onrushing Barrs player accidentally collided with him.

For Nemo's Cian McWhinney it's a case of taking it day-by-day instead of game-by-game. Picture: Larry Cummins

McWhinney, stretched out on the ground, twisted his head to the right. The nearest man in black and green was Barry O’Driscoll. “I can’t feel my arms,” he shouted to O’Driscoll. The latter became panicked, frantically gesturing to the sideline for help.

From his neck down, he couldn’t feel a thing. He tried to move his arms. Nothing. His legs. Nothing. It wasn’t so much numbness, it was as if there was nothing there.

“It was terrifying,” the Nemo defender recalls. “I thought my arms were above my head as I was flat out. But they were down by my side. It was so frightening.

“The doctors came in and started to hold my neck in place. That’s when I began to contemplate the worst.

“I was thinking am I going to be like this for the rest of my life. That came into my head straight away. I was thinking is this going to be it for me, will I be completely paralysed from the neck down forever?

“They were touching me and asking me could I feel anything. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.”

Loaded onto the medical buggy, the large applause which greeted his departure from the field further heightened his fears. His mother Mairead, brother Daniel, girlfriend Lorraine, and Nemo teammate Dave Niblock were present in the long tunnel as the ambulance pulled up. Lorraine grabbed his arm. He could see his girlfriend, but couldn’t feel her touch.

Mum Mairead travelled in the ambulance, with Daniel and Lorraine in the car behind. Daniel sent match updates to his mother to keep his brother occupied.

And then, maybe an hour or so after the collision, a breakthrough. An obeying toe, a wiggle. Relief. The first small victory.

Later on at Cork University Hospital, this awful sensation began to flush through his body. Extreme pins and needles, is McWhinney’s description.

“I was moving my hands a bit, but I couldn’t tell what exactly I was moving. I had to have people tell me what I moved.

“I got such a buzz from being able to sit up in the bed for the first time. Add in the morphine and winning the match, I was on such a high. I was on such a buzz that I wasn’t paralysed. Recovery and the long road ahead, during that moment, were irrelevant.”

X-rays and CT scans were conducted, but there was nothing out of the ordinary showing. He was allowed home Sunday night, despite his own admission that even the slightest gust of wind would have knocked him over such was his lack of balance.

Back in on Monday. Still no diagnosis.

“By this stage, I was getting worried. All these tests were showing up clear when I clearly knew there was something wrong.”

On Tuesday, it was decided to take him down for an MRI. Here, they found a spinal cord contusion up around C3 and C4.

“Hearing it was a spinal cord contusion and that there was a very long road to recovery, it was positive news because I could put a title on it and knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. My recovery started then.”

Three weeks on, baby steps continue to be taken. The initial shock of temporarily losing total function from his neck down, he says, has only recently worn off.

Cian still doesn’t have full feeling, nor does he have full movement. He has limited mobility around his shoulders, while he continues to grapple with his hands for control.

On sick leave from his job at the Permanent TSB IT centre at Cork Airport business Park, McWhinney passes the time with a few donations from a nearby creche.

“I am playing with Lego at home to get the dexterity back in my fingers. It sounds silly but that is what has to be done. I can’t even play the PlayStation. The hands are the main problem.

“The lego is fantastic but it takes me ages to do. I put pegs in holes, as well. It is simple dexterity, good for the hands.”

It is, to put it simply, like being a child all over again.

“I can walk, but the balance isn’t great. I try my best to go for a walk every day, but even after a small walk, I’d be absolutely shattered.

“Everything takes serious concentration. For my dinner, I can’t cut stuff so it literally has to be shovelled into my mouth. I can grab a fork or spoon, but don’t have full control of it. I can get it from the bowl into my mouth, but that takes serious focus. I can grab a sandwich and put it into my mouth, but there is no real control there either. I’d be shaky. It is very strange.”

Socks and pants aren’t an issue. Jumpers and t-shirts, though, mean a call for help to whoever is in the house. The same applies to washing.

It was only recently he was able to stick a key in the door again. Even at that, there’s still a fair bit of fumbling. Changing the channels on the remote control is another job.

“I have to be looking at the remote control to know what buttons exactly I’m pressing or to know that I’m pressing the button. It is the simple stuff you take for granted that now takes a huge amount of concentration and effort.”

What of his football career?

It’s not over. By the same token, there’s no guarantee it’ll resume either.

He went down to watch Nemo play a challenge last Saturday morning, but hasn’t been back to Trabeg since. He knows better than to be standing out in the November cold.

Heavily wrapped in the back of the ambulance, the thought went through his head, ‘is [football] worth this’?

That attitude gradually wore off and it was when he stood on the sideline last Saturday he realised how much he missed the banter and how much he misses pulling on the shirt.

“There is a chance you might not have a full recovery. I would be fairly positive that I will get out playing again, but the doctors and physio staff can’t guarantee anything. It is a waiting game to see if I make it back. It is a cliche but I have to take it day-by-day.

“It is gutting to be missing a Munster semi-final tomorrow. That said, I do get lots of reality checks when I manage to do something simple around the house. I know it could have been a hell of a lot worse. I’m extremely grateful it wasn’t. I’m thankful and lucky to be able to pick up the phone and talk to you. I got a buzz from having control of the glass of water. If I do get back, hopefully, that would be brilliant.

“At the moment, it is the small things. The small victories.”

This article first appeared in today's Irish Examiner.


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