Andrew Kieran's inspirational tale of triumph over adversity
By John Harrington
When Andrew Kieran was substituted in the dying minutes of Killanny’s Monaghan Senior Football League victory over Truagh on Wednesday evening, the home supporters rose to applaud him off the pitch.
They weren’t just acknowledging the vital role he’d played in the newly promoted club’s first win in the competition this year, they were celebrating an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity.
It was Andrew’s first game of Gaelic Football in almost three years, and the perseverance and bravery it took to get the 22-year-old on that pitch is hard to credit.
Just five months previously he had his large bowel completely removed after eight hours of surgery to once and for all cure the Ulcerative Colitis (UC) that had ravaged his body for the previous three years.
UC is one of those devastating diseases that can suddenly strike with no warning, has no known cause, and isn’t fussy about who it afflicts.
You certainly wouldn’t have picked Andrew Kieran as a likely candidate.
An Ulster Minor Football League and Championship winner with Monaghan in 2013 alongside his twin brother Adam, he couldn’t have been healthier or fitter.
The diagnosis of UC came completely out of the blue in March 2014, but he soldiered on through his Leaving Cert and got through the first year of his degree in Education Studies in Marino Institute of Education before his condition suddenly worsened.
“In June 2015 I got my first ever flare-up with the condition which result in checking into the Beacon Hospital for seven weeks,” recalled Kieran when he spoke with GAA.ie this week.
“I just started to get all symptoms of ulcerative colitis highly fatigued, bleeding from the back end, cramps, joint-pains, headaches, everything.
“I got E Coli, sepsis, I was extremely weak. My weight dropped to 49 kilos, just over seven stone, which was extremely unhealthy.
“The sepsis could have actually killed me because I was that weak, but we caught it just in time.”
For over a year and a half, Andrew tried a variety of different immunosuppressant drugs to combat the disease.
He had blood transfusions, iron transfusions, IV steroids, oral steroids, a number of biological drugs, and one drug through the chemotherapy process, but every time his UC seemed like it was going into remission, it would flare up again.
Eventually Andrew decided the only resort was the last one left available – surgery to remove his large bowel and an ileostomy to bring a piece of his small intestine through his abdomen creating a stoma.
“Mentally it was very up and down,” says Kieran. “With Ulcerative Colitis one thing they say is it's tough mentally.
“But with my football background and the kind of lad that I am, the way I look at life, and the confidence that I have, I never really got too down in myself.
“I always said there's always a chance that I'll get better.
“Like, even though the times in remission were short, I still appreciated them. Only a couple of weeks. But I suppose it all came to a head and I just had to make that mature choice.
“I didn't want to continue this cycle of having a few weeks of feeling relatively normal only to be knocked back again, to get all the symptoms back and to lose weight again. And then to try to rebuild yourself all over again.
“It was frustrating. People wouldn't really understand the condition. They think he's well one minute and then he's down on his hunkers again the next minute. They don't really understand the process, the rebuilding that goes on.
“I suppose the mature choice was to go for the ileostomy which I now have.
“I decided I’d rather have that little extra addition to my body and be completely back in the swing of things rather than continue to fight the way I did and go from drug to drug.
“That just wasn’t working. I knew the decision that had to be made.”
Andrew now wears an ileostomy belt which supports the bag that collects the waste from his body.
It’s a reality of his life he’s happy to be totally up front about because he sees no reason why there should be any stigma attached to it.
“It's an absolutely great piece of kit,” he says. “Some people might think there's a stigma to it, but they're air-tight and very hygienic. They're probably more hygienic than going out the other end!
“Everything you digest goes through your ileostomy and the consistency is like porridge. So, it's not the other way - it's not a ‘bleep’ bag or whatever you want to call it!
“There's no taboo about it. My core group of friends would all have seen it. It looks sleek, it looks good. You can still look good and feel good about yourself, you can still be confident.”
The first two months of recovery post-surgery were tough, but right from the get-go Andrew was very clear-eyed about where he wanted to get to.
While he’d been sick he admits it was “heart-breaking” to miss out on all the great football days he should have shared with his twin brother Adam.
The minor team they’d won Ulster Championship together with in 2013 won the U-21 title three years later, but this time he had to watch Adam from the stand rather than share the experience on the pitch with him.
And at club level he missed out on successive promotions that saw Killanny transformed from a Junior club to a Senior club for the first time in over two decades.
He was keen to make up for lost time and missed opportunities, so even though he was urged to keep his expectations low, his priority was to lace up a pair of boots and play Gaelic Football competitively again.
He was fortunate that pretty much on his door-step was the perfect facility within which to build his body back up – the DBSM (Declan Brennan Sports Management) Centre of Excellence just outside Monaghan town.
“I got on a programme there with Paul O'Donovan, an absolutely brilliant personal trainer,” says Kieran.
“He asked what goals I had, and my goal was to get back playing football and obviously build myself up in size and weight too.
“To be honest, I'm back now as strong core-wise and physically as I ever was.
“I suppose there were times when people were saying you mightn't actually ever get back to football, but I've always had that deep desire and motivation within myself.
“They didn't want to build my expectations up in case they would crash down, but I always knew there was that chance.
“To be honest, truly deep down I always knew that I was going to come back. There was never a time where I didn't believe that I would play again and put on my club jersey.
“I never got too down about it all, because I knew I would have my day in the sunshine, I knew I would be back.”
That day in the sunshine came on Wednesday evening when he was selected at full-forward for Killanny even though he’d only returned to training two weeks previously.
It looked like he’d never been away as he won four frees and a 45 that led to scores and made a crucial contribution to his team’s badly needed first victory of the campaign after seven defeats in a row.
He’s played on bigger stages, but no game of football has ever meant as much to him.
“Even though it was a club League game last night it just meant everything that we got our first win in that senior grade in about 30 years,” says Kieran.
“I was thinking to myself when I got home, that even after all those struggles, that moment was something else.
“I kept telling my brother how amazing it was and how much it was worth it to be back for that moment.
“Even in the dressing-room I was just very appreciate of the lads welcoming me back and giving me a little round of applause.
“Those kind of things made it all so worth it.”
Andrew wants to tell his story in the hope that it can help others who are now enduring the same sort of test of mind and body that he went through.
If I could give somebody who's struggling just that little bit of encouragement, then it would mean the world to be honest
His conviction is that there should be no stigma attached to having an ileostomy, nor should it be any barrier to living as full and rewarding a life as anyone else.
“I want to show those people who are going through those hard-times that they can still achieve anything they want,” says Kieran.
“What really struck me when I went to my first rehab session in DBSM was when one of the members told me a story about how a sports-mad nephew of theirs who was only 12 years of age had got very sick and was likely going to have to have a permanent ileostomy.
“That person was so delighted they could say to their nephew now that they know a guy who plays sport to a decent level, who has a great outlook on life, who has recovered, and is going out and enjoying himself.
“Just to be able to show that young guy that your life isn't over, there's no stigma. There are people going through what you've gone through and they're able to live a great life and do whatever they want.
“My message to others is that you’re no different to anybody else. You're still a Ferrari, you just have a different part to your engine, you're tuned a tiny bit differently. You can still perform up to that great level that you want.
“It would be great to show those people who are out there who maybe mightn't be as confident that there is hope and there is life at the end of the tunnel.
“If I could give somebody who's struggling just that little bit of encouragement, then it would mean the world to be honest. Because you have to turn negatives and challenges into positives.
“Your mind is like a garden. You have positive and negative thoughts which are flowers and weeds, and every day you get to pick which of those you get to water.
“So 100 per cent of the time, water those positives and you should be in a good place by the end of the day.”
While Andrew was prevented from playing football by illness he filled the void by helping out with coaching his club’s minor team.
He was spotted on the side-line at a match by the Monaghan County Board’s Health and Wellbeing Officer, Cathal Hand, who reckoned his personality made him ideal candidate to become a tutor with the Dermot Earley Youth Leadership Initiative (DEYLI).
Fully supported by the family of the late great Dermot Earley Snr, DEYLI is designed to support the next generation of young GAA leaders in achieving their full potential and in doing so to make their mark in their clubs, their counties, and beyond.
It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Andrew Kieran to inspire those who sign up.
“It’s about developing the person and helping those young people as best they can at a time which can be very traumatic and turbulent when you're going through puberty,” he says.
“If we can help them develop as people on and off the field, then we'll help create a much better generation.
“It doesn't have to be for someone who's the captain of the football team or anything like that. Leaders aren't always the loud, dominant type in the dressing-room or in life.
“Leaders can sit back and make decisions while weighing up all of the options. There are so many leadership qualities that everybody has.
“So if we can open their eyes to all of these different qualities and skills and help develop them, then that's the goal at the end of the day. Anyone can become a leader.”
As well as helping others to lead more rewarding lives, Andrew is determined to practice what he preaches himself in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Further down the line is the prospect of further surgery that would give him a functional bowel again, but before then he wants to simply enjoy his life in a way he couldn’t for three years.
“I'm going away inter-railing across Europe with my twin and friends in a couple of weeks,” he says with obvious relish.
“That's something I wouldn't have been fit to do while I was sick. We're going for 16 days.
“Starting in Berlin, finishing in Croatia. It's going to be an absolutely terrific time.
“There's 11 of us lads going and we're going to have great craic and really enjoy ourselves in a way I haven't been able to for a while.
“I can just enjoy myself and not worry about anything else really, which is an absolutely great feeling.”
“I really appreciate everything a lot more now that I've gone through that sickness and gone through those dark days.
“Everything from a sunny day to a nice comment or bit of kindness from somebody.
“You really do start to appreciate I suppose human qualities that maybe at my age you might have overlooked and things that maybe weren't important may become more important to you now.”
Andrew Kieran went through a hellish journey for three years.
But maybe what he’s learned about life along the way has ultimately made it an empowering one.
Go here for information on how to sign up for the Dermot Earley Youth Leadership Initiative.