Life after a devastating diagnosis
Having a life-limiting illness is hugely challenging. But Andrew Brennan tells Joy Orpen that following his diagnosis, he has learned to be grateful for every single day he spends with his wife and beautiful daughters
Andrew Brennan has two adorable little daughters, a loving wife, and a sweet dog, and they all live in a charming stone house in the countryside. However, their once perfect lifestyle has been marred by the fact that this 33-year-old has been diagnosed with an extremely challenging condition, that will probably limit his time with his family. But he’s not giving in to this; in fact, he’s doing all he can to enable research, so others might be spared the same heartache.
Andrew, who grew up in Castletown, Co Meath, became an apprentice lithographic web printer when he left school in 1999. He then began working at the Meath Chronicle in Navan. From time to time, he would nip across the road to place bets for himself and his fellow workers. That’s where he met Yvonne Doherty, who worked in the betting shop. They soon fell in love and have been together ever since. Their daughters, Aoife (3) and Sophia (20 months), have inherited their father’s russet hair, blue eyes and fabulous grin, but not his tall, strong build. It looks like they get their petiteness and porcelain skin from their pretty mother.
The Brennans live down a country lane, in Mullagh, Co Cavan. The two-storey building was once a Church of Ireland national school and place of worship. Andrew and Yvonne have lovingly restored the building, laboriously chipping away acres of plaster, to reveal the original stonework. The interior is now bright, cosy and comfortable, while the lush country setting is a paradise for children. However, their sense of perfection was shattered a couple of years ago when Andrew went to see his GP in Navan, about pain in his face (trigeminal neuralgia).
During the consultation, the doctor noticed an abnormality in Andrew’s hand and detected spasms in his right arm. “What’s that all about?” he asked Andrew, who replied that he hadn’t had the symptoms investigated, because they’d never bothered him. But they bothered the astute doctor so much he took a video on his phone of the problem areas, and forwarded it to Professor Orla Hardiman, an eminent consultant neurologist at Beaumont Hospital.
Five weeks later, Andrew was sitting in the professor’s waiting room, wondering why there were so many patients in wheelchairs, some unable to speak. “I mistakenly thought I was in a general area,” he admits. Having been examined by Prof Hardiman, he was told that further tests would be required. However, he hadn’t bargained on getting a call the very next morning, telling him a bed was already waiting for him in Beaumont. He spent a week there having various blood and nerve conduction study tests, and MRI scans. “Towards the end of the week,” Andrew explains, “I expected bad news because they wanted Yvonne there when I got the results. My parents came as well.”
In late February of last year, Andrew learned that he was suffering from motor neurone disease (MND). This is a progressive neurological condition that attacks the motor neurones, or nerves, in the brain and spinal cord. It causes messages to gradually stop reaching the muscles, which leads to weakness and wasting throughout the body. However, intellect is not usually affected.
When Andrew got his diagnosis, he knew nothing about the condition. So Prof Hardiman explained the ins and outs; but she also had to break the dreadful news, that the average life expectancy following diagnosis, was only three to five years. “I felt like I had been hit with a sledge hammer,” Andrew recalls. “I asked to be left alone with my family.” In time, the symptoms became more obvious and more debilitating. Having researched the condition, he came to the conclusion that inevitably he would land up in a “vegetative state” in a wheelchair. So he thought about ending his life. But later he changed his mind. “I realised it would be selfish of me to do something so drastic. The doctor told me that nothing happens overnight; to take each day as it comes.”
Andrew then decided he could let the MND control him, or he could take a whole different approach, and be positive about the good things in his life. And that’s what he and Yvonne have been doing ever since. “I know I am a bit slower these days and find it harder to walk, but what I do have, is really great. I’ll wake up in the morning and think, I’m awake, that’s a good start to the day. I am so grateful to be alive. It’s my wonderful family that keeps me going. The glass is half full, that’s my philosophy.”
Currently Andrew uses medication to slow down the progression of the disease, he takes muscle relaxants, and has physiotherapy and occupational and speech therapies. He is appreciative of the support he has received from his HSE care team, from his GP, Councillor Shane O’Reilly, Prof Hardiman and the MND clinic at Beaumont. “They’ve all been fantastic,” he says.
But he is especially touched by the unselfish efforts and generosity of his former work mates and his family, who have given of their time and energy to support and fundraise for him. “But most of all I want to thank Yvonne; she really is one in a million,” says Andrew.
He and Yvonne are facing up to the challenges that lie ahead by building a self-contained unit on the ground floor.
‘As I slowly lose my ability to walk, I’m realising I’m not going to get better. It is what it is’
“There’s no point in burying our heads in the sand. I will reach a point where I can no longer go up the stairs,” he says. “I’ve had a couple of falls already; and while we were on holidaying in Spain, I had to hire a mobility scooter. There was no shame in it, but it was tough.”
Andrew says he does get really angry sometimes, because, as he puts it, “this is probably going to rob me of the second half of my life. As I slowly lose my ability to walk, I’m realising I’m not going to get better. I will never fully accept this. But it is what it is, so you just have to get on with things.”
What Andrew has done to make sense of his circumstances, is to offer to participate in any research that deals with MND. “I’m not expecting a miracle cure, but I am hoping, in the next 20 or 30 years, that a cure will be found, so everyone with MND will be helped. I’m not going to live with this; rather it’s going to live with me. I plan to enjoy the time I have left.” The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association asks people to take part in their Drink Tea for MND campaign, during the month of June, to increase awareness and to raise funds. For more information, Freefone: (1800) 403-403, or see imnda.ie