“When you start a resuscitation, you need to do it as quickly as possible. But team doctors are mainly treating many other injuries, which is why it’s more difficult for them to immediately recognise sudden cardiac death.
“That was clear to me when I saw them trying to pull his tongue out of his throat. That’s not how you save a life.
“I told my colleagues I was sitting with in the stands: ‘We have to go on to the pitch’.”
— Jens Kleinfeld (the doctor who saved Christian Eriksen)
The venue for this interview is a bizarre coincidence. Seaghan Kearney lives on the Navan Road. We’ve arranged to meet after the morning school run outside Bang Bang Café in Phibsboro.
In 2009, a year before he ‘died’, Kearney went door to door to some of the houses on adjoining Leinster Street, when he ran for local election as a 29-year-old reformist Fianna Fáil candidate in Cabra-Glasnevin, losing by only seven votes.
Bang Bang, tucked away between Leinster Street and Shandon Road, has strong Bohemian FC connections. From the road in front, you can see the Dalymount Park floodlights.
Emblazoned across the top of the Café’s facade is a lyric from the song, ‘Cold Old Fire’ by the folk group,
It says, ‘We Look for Signs Dublin’s Heart is Still Beating’.
It’s 11 years since Kearney’s heart stopped beating.
For somewhere between four and five minutes, he lay clinically dead, surrounded by panicked, shocked friends with whom he’d been playing five-a-side. He was 30.
Whatever the serendipity of our chosen location on a bright June morning, consider the details of Kearney’s survival story.
In 2010, a handful of members of St Oliver Plunkett’s/ER GAA club were trained in how to administer the life-saving surges generated by the club’s defibrillator.
On Mondays, members took it in rotation to volunteer behind the bar.
A firefighter by profession, Terry O’Brien did one such shift a month. October 11, 2010, the night Kearney collapsed, he was on.
After dispensing the jolt that effectively jump-started Seaghan Kearney’s heart, the charge in the defibrillator’s battery died.
Unbeknownst to O’Brien, he had one shot at saving his clubmate’s life.
“That was the last charge in the defibrillator,” Kearney says. “I think I was only the third person in Ireland who was saved from SADS like that. Kevin McCloy, the Derry footballer, was the first or second.”
In Ireland, two people every week suffer SADS (Sudden Adult Death Syndrome).
“Very few people are as lucky as I was…”
* * * * *
The provisional guest list for Ciarán Carr’s 21st birthday came to 150 names, give or take.
The issue – as his mother, Gemma, kept pointing out – was the Round Tower clubhouse in Clondalkin could only hold 100. They agreed to revisit.
The next day, Carr – a former Dublin U-21 football panellist – spent his morning in Inchicore College, where he was studying leisure management, spending most of it in the pool.
Afterwards, he rang his father, Philip, to arrange a few holes of golf in the afternoon. They played six in Beach Park GC near Rathcoole, ate and came home.
Ciarán was due for training with the Round Tower seniors that night. He took an hour or so to rest on the couch and left at half six for Moyle Park College, where the squad were doing indoor circuit training; heavy, January slog.
At eight o’clock, the Carrs got a phone call. Ciarán had collapsed.
It was only when Philip and Gemma arrived at Moyle Park that the severity of the situation crystalised.
Gemma was outside in the car when the blares of emergency services vehicles grew louder.
Inside, Philip saw some of his Round Tower clubmates removing the defibrillator pads from Ciarán’s chest after unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate him.
Special paramedics then worked intensively on Ciarán at the site of the incident but to no avail, deciding then to remove him to Tallaght Hospital.
As they left, Gemma pleaded with crew to allow her travel in the ambulance to hospital but they refused, requiring the room to continue to try and revive Ciarán.
Gemma and Philip followed and went in with their only child as doctors there made one last attempt at generating a pulse in Ciarán Carr’s 20-year-old heart.
“But,” recalls Gemma, “they just couldn’t get him back.”
* * * * *
SADS is not a condition itself, rather an umbrella term for sudden cardiac death in under 40s caused by one of ten, usually undetected, problems with the heart.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, 100 or more people in this age range die on the island of Ireland each year from sudden cardiac death.
But most conditions causing SADS can be treated.
Seaghan Kearney and Ciarán Carr both suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: an enlargement of the heart muscle that causes an electric fault in the body.
Statistically, if a defibrillator is administered within the first two minutes of a cardiac episode, the chance of survival is almost 90pc. With every minute lost, the probability drops by 10pc.
In St Oliver Plunkett’s/ER, they had a defibrillator on site. Kearney still has the tee-shirt and Glasgow Celtic sweater that Terry O’Brien tore off him to attach the pads.
When Ciarán Carr collapsed, a defibrillator had to be retrieved from Round Tower clubhouse. The difference in application was only minutes. But in such instances, that can often be the difference between living and dying.
“Everybody should prepare for this,” says Kearney. “Every club. Every school. Every building where people are working.
“You hope it’s never going to happen. But if it does, at least you know you’re going to give someone a chance at living their life.”
In July of 2012, five months after his death devastated the tight communities in Towers and Clondalkin, Ciarán’s death cert arrived.
Gemma was out for a walk and happened to meet Michelle Walsh, an ICU nurse in Beaumont Hospital.
She enquired about the cause of death.
After Gemma informed her friend of the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Michelle revealed that even a basic X-ray would have shown Ciarán’s heart was enlarged.
“The problem is, they don’t know an awful lot about it,” says Gemma. “They’re still not sure whether he had it from birth or whether he developed it in puberty or whether it was something that happened later than that. But it’s very detectable.”
* * * * *
Seaghan Kearney possesses the unsettling distinction of seeing himself dead and also of attending his own month’s mind.
Not long before his episode, St Oliver Plunkett’s/ER had a new security system set up at their clubhouse.
Bernard Brogan, who was working for the equipment manufacturers at the time, performed the installation of the CCTV cameras.
In hospital, after his heart rate stabilised, Kearney suffered short-term memory loss.
He might, technically, have been dead, but there were no bright lights. No pearly gates. No St Peter.
Or if there was, he can’t remember.
His last registered memory was being shown around Lough Rynn Castle in Leitrim with Mary, his then fiancée, the day before, as a potential wedding venue.
With no oxygen for approximately five minutes, doctors worried about brain damage. Kearney collapsed on a Monday. By Thursday, he began to talk some sense.
So in an effort to cajole his memory, his mother showed him the footage of the incident. In it, Kearney – much like Christian Eriksen – slumps over and crumples in a heap.
Helpfully, one of his friends, who presumed Kearney had slipped, then tried to hit him in the back of the head with the ball.
“He was asking me a few weeks later,” Kearney says, “what exactly can you see on the CCTV footage?!”
The month’s mind was the product of his friends’ dark humour.
“We had a great night,” he laughs. “The lads who were there at the time, we all had a big night up in the club.
“For me, like, I didn’t remember anything. I didn’t really have any bad memories to deal with. But when it happened, as I was being taken away, they were all fully expecting to go to my funeral.”
* * * * *
Gemma Carr was on yard duty last week in Sruleen National School when one of the 10 year-old students asked her if she’d seen the Christian Eriksen incident last Saturday.
“I heard it on the radio,” she informed him.
“Thank God, I didn’t see it happen,” Gemma says now.
“Because the way people have described it to me is the exactly the same as what happened to Ciarán.”
As it happens, Gemma was on her way to Clontarf to watch the Round Tower senior footballers play their first league match of the season at the time.
A couple of other children gathered.
“Who’s Christian?” one enquired.
“Christian Eriksen!” replied the first. “He died. He collapsed. He had a cardiac arrest. And it’s down to Gemma. She saved him.”
“The poor child!” Gemma says. “He thought I had saved him because of the Foundation.”
Ciarán’s 21st had been booked for two weeks after his tragic death. The 150-strong guest list was never revised.
Despite their immense grief – or possibly because of it – Philip and Gemma decided they had to mark the occasion. That they couldn’t let that night go without doing something.
Eventually, they committed to have an evening in his honour and, if possible, to use it for some good.
To their own amazement, between donations, raffles and prizes, they raised more than €24,000. That evening, the Carrs handed it all over to CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).
“Ciarán had some great friends. Really great friends,” Gemma explains.
“So they asked to meet us up in the club a couple of weeks after that. We got talking and we decided we would set up a foundation in Ciarán’s memory.”
They took a while to put some shape on it – how exactly do you go about setting up a foundation?
But on April 4, 2013, Jim Gavin launched the Ciarán Carr Foundation in Croke Park.
Many good intentions come from the intense energy of grief. But for the Carrs, the passing of time hasn’t taking any steam from their engine.
Annually, they organise a run in Corkagh Park but in the eight years of their existence, Gemma has lost count of the number of defibrillators they have handed over to schools and clubs.
Recently, they went to London to educate the senior team there about SADS, the correct response and how to dispense life-salvaging electric shocks.
If there is such thing as defibrillator/CPR evangelists, Carrs are precisely that. They have somehow managed to generate lasting energy from their aching loss.
Gemma reckons the sheer number of SADS incidents and her own knowledge of how they can be helped has kept them moving forward.
“It’s only when you see these things. They nearly need to happen live on television for people to start talking about CPR and hearts. People see it and it’s brought to the forefront.
“Other than that, it’s shelved. People forget about it. They move on.”
Seaghan Kearney, like Christian Eriksen, lives as proof that further education and proliferation can save people from SADS.
Kearney, also like Eriksen, had a device fitted in his arm that will kick-start his heart should he suffer another cardiac arrest.
By necessity, he gave up competitive sport but drifted into stats and performance analysis; first with Plunkett’s and then with the Dublin U-21 footballers, then the seniors.
He has worked with the Dublin ladies and the Cuala hurlers and is currently part of Mattie Kenny’s backroom set-up.
“If I got hit by a car now today, I’ve gotten 11 years more out of my life,” he says.
“I’ve got a son (Ollie, 4). I got married (Mary). I was involved in nine All-Ireland-winning teams. As a kid, I dreamed of that, even if it’s not the way I expected. I enjoyed every second, met so many different people.
“The way I look at it is, you can’t totally throw everything out the window. You can’t stop. But I worry about things a little bit less and I enjoy things a little bit more.”
By sheer coincidence, three days before Eriksen went down in full view of a global television audience, Kearney got a phone call from a former colleague, who had saved a woman’s life by performing CPR and then using a defibrillator.
“He wanted to say thanks on behalf of the woman. Because he had only gotten training because of what happened to me and the awareness it raised.”
He preaches the acronym, ACT (Accessibility, Check, Training) but, like Gemma Carr, warns that there are defibrillators lying charge-less or locked away in offices in clubs and buildings all over the county.
In fact, Gemma has already resolved to dig out a list of every school, club and organisation they have worked with, imploring the need to check defibrillator batteries and to ensure up-to-date training.
Last Saturday, in the hours after the Christian Eriksen incident, the messages starting flowing in. Friends, family, well-wishers – all of whom were instantly reminded of Ciarán’s passing by the near tragedy in Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium nine years on. “It was actually lovely,” Gemma says.
“It’s just lovely that people remember. It’s actually heart-lifting that people do remember. That they still think of him. That they haven’t forgotten.”