Eugene Cloonan - Recovery from Chronic Back Pain

Testimony from hurling All-Star Eugene Cloonan

Some years ago, there was a television advertisement featuring several top GAA players walking on water. While the idea was to depict an air of invincibility and immortality surrounding these stars, the reality is that behind every successful athlete is a litany of injuries and aches. Galway All-star Eugene Cloonan knows this only too well.

Having suffered from severe back pain for years, the young hurler had tried every medication and treatment available to him, all without success. Here he explains how four days of bio-energy treatment changed his life.
"I don't think anyone understands how bad it is until they experience it themselves" Eugene reflects. "I had been suffering with back pain on and off since 2003, but every day for about a year from March 2009, I was in constant pain. I had tried absolutely everything, chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncture, physio's etc. The pain was always confined to my lower back and hips, and it would sometimes be strong enough to wake me. When I was in bed, even turning from my left side onto my right side could take an hour and would almost leave me in tears."

As a result of the level of pain Eugene was experiencing, painkillers had become a necessity. Unfortunately however, the medication he was taking did little other than set in motion a long run of ill-health.

"The pain was getting worse as time went on and even the smallest things were becoming the most difficult. For instance, getting in and out of the car was agony. I even used to avoid going to watch matches because I wouldn't be able to get into the car after having been standing for an hour. At first the pain would come and go. I could train one week and be absolutely fine, but the following week, I might not be able to move. It would flare up overnight. I remember training during the week for a match on Sunday, and on the morning of the match, I literally couldn't get up. I rolled on to the floor and stayed there until about six o'clock that evening. My whole body had just seized up. The following Wednesday however, I was able to go back training again. It was so unpredictable."

He went on, "It got to a point where I was in so much pain that I was ordering painkillers from America. When Michael Jackson died, I remember a newspaper had listed all the painkillers he had been taking. One of the medications on his list was the one I had been taking, which admittedly shocked me. I always knew they were only going to be a temporary solution to the pain, and I was more than fully aware that if I didn't stop the medication, I would cause more damage to my body. Unfortunately however that was easier said than done. The pain was so bad that it wouldn't mean anything for me to take ten Neurofen in a day. I was in such agony at the time that I just didn't care what damage they were doing if it meant I could get even an hour of relief. Medication literally became part of my daily diet. I would take Difene with breakfast! They were also part of my gear bag as I would sometimes have to take them at half time during matches. The pain was so bad that I had to bring the painkillers everywhere with me."

As any GAA player will testify, there really is no spirit more forlorn than that of an athlete removed from the action. Eugene, whose powerhouse ability to change the complexion of the scoreboard had won him countless sporting accolades, was suddenly finding himself having to share his championship season with various threatening pluralities.

He explained, "In the summer of 2008 I was back playing with Galway. As I was training, I received a belt of a sliotar to the eye. The following evening I met the team manager Ger Loughnane who told me I could still participate in the matches on Saturday and Sunday if I felt up to it, which I did. I actually went on to play four matches over the following seven days. My doctor had set up an appointment with a specialist to have my eye checked, however as I had been late returning from the match in Cork the night before my appointment, I was tempted to cancel it. Luckily however I went ahead with it because when the specialist examined my eye, she discovered I had a detached retina. In fact she said it was barely hanging on! She went mad when I told her that I had been out playing matches! I had to return to the clinic at 6pm that evening to see the surgeon and by 6.30pm I was on the operating table. Had they not operated, the retina would have eventually come apart and I would have undoubtedly lost my sight. The operation went well and I was given some medication to take. After a few weeks, I was back playing but it wasn't long before I was back in hospital again."
While the painkillers carried their own risks, it was the medication from the eye operation coupled with the medication Eugene was taking for his back that led to an even more serious condition.
He explained, "I had played a Championship game one Saturday during which I received a belt to the knee. The following Monday evening I felt my legs begin to swell but I assumed it was as a result of the on-field incident. I woke with a pain in my leg but when I stood up, I fainted and hit my head against the table. There was no one in the house apart from my brother Cormac who fortunately heard me fall. I was out cold, so he carried me out to the car and drove me to the Galway Clinic. I regained consciousness on the way in but I had no idea what had happened. When we arrived at the hospital, I told the doctor about the injury I had sustained during the match and how I thought I had fractured my leg. They carried out x-rays and scans but couldn't find any broken bones. They told me I had cellulitis which is a virus underneath the skin. The cure was a three day drip, which I underwent. By Friday however, my condition was getting worse. The surgeon said he would have to open up the leg and clean it out completely. Unfortunately that then became infected and three weeks later I was still in hospital. When I was released from hospital on crutches, I went to my doctor to enquire why this condition had even happened in the first place given that I had been so fit. He explained that cellulitis was a side effect of one of the injections I had been given for my back. The following November I could feel the pain in my leg again so I went straight into the hospital told them to put me on a drip. They wanted to give me tablets but I insisted on the drip. It was disappointing because the back had been good and I wanted to give the hurling my best shot that year. As a result of medication, the cellulitis occurred and that ruled me out of playing hurling for the remainder of the championship."

While although Eugene always knew the tablets were a temporary measure to combat the pain, an accidental overdose made him realise the full extent of the risks associated with long-term medication.

"I was training a hurling team at the time and our training sessions would begin at 7pm. On the training day, I took two Zydol painkillers at around 4pm and another one at 6pm so that I would be physically able to walk the pitch during the session without being in agony. Following the training, as we were talking about a match we had coming up, I could feel myself nodding off. I thought it was just a dizzy spell so I didn't pay much attention to it at the time."
Eugene went on, "I had a funeral to attend in West Clare following the training session and as I was driving through Athenry on my way to Clare, I could feel the dizzy spell creeping up on me again. I felt like I was blacking out for a second or two. When it began to get worse, I pulled the car over and phoned a friend of mine who brought me to WestDoc in Craughwell. I explained to the doctor what had been happening and I also mentioned the painkillers I had taken earlier. He told me I had taken three days worth of Zydol since two o'clock that day and that was the reason behind the blackouts. I had effectively overdosed without realising it. I was sent to A&E but other than checking my pulse and running a few tests, there was nothing else they could do other than warn me not to do it again!"

With the back pain and the medication now both taking their toll, Eugene contacted Michael O'Doherty in a bid to seek a solution once and for all.
"I had first met Michael through hurling some years earlier, around 2002, but I was re-introduced to him in 2009 when a friend suggested that I try undergoing bio-energy to help with my back pain. I made contact with Michael, and he saw me in his clinic in Ennis the following week. I remember making my way from my car to Michael's clinic and as I went along, I was holding on to the street railings, I was in so much pain. It sounds extreme but for a year and half, that had been normality for me. I began my four day treatment with Michael on a Tuesday and by Friday I felt great. When I left his clinic, I could have ran home. The pain hasn't returned and I haven't taken so much as a painkiller since. At one point, prior to the treatment, the pain was so constant that I had almost given up hope. I genuinely didn't know what I was going to do. I had tried absolutely everything and nothing worked so I just began to assume that it was always going to be a part of my life. Since undergoing the treatment however, the pain has practically disappeared, which is amazing considering it had been occurring 24 hours a day. Naturally, I still have to mind my back, but I am very comfortable compared to the pain I used to go through."

As part of the treatment, Michael also made a few changes to Eugene's diet. First on the elimination list was sugar.

Eugene explained, "I was relatively healthy to begin with, although when I stopped playing, the diet did begin to dwindle slightly. Michael however encouraged me to cut out all sugar and to increase my intake of water. I remember being at a wedding and drinking Lucozade all day. It was the first time in a few months that I'd had sugar, and the following day, I was crippled with back pain as a result of it."

When Eugene reflects on the experience in its entirety, one element that stands out is a discussion he shared with Michael about the future of his hurling career.

"All I wanted to do was get the back fixed and return to playing" he recalls. "I had a great chat with Michael one night about the hurling, and he was quite frank with me about the matter. He made it clear that it wouldn't be worth returning to the field and risking an injury to the back. That year I had been down in the dumps over not playing, but Michael was so extremely positive about things that he put it all into perspective. Following our chat, I was clear in my own mind that I had to give up the hurling. I drove home afterwards at around two o'clock in the morning and I distinctly remember feeling very content and happy with the decision I had reached. I told my father the following morning, but I think he already knew I couldn't return to the playing field. I do miss the sport terribly. When some lads stop playing, they can just walk away from it. I'm the complete opposite. When I stopped playing, it was a huge part of my life over. I had, after all, been playing since I was a kid. I'm training our minor team at the moment so at least that gives me my hurling fix."
When it comes to their health and fitness, athletes walk a fine line between victory and defeat. Taking his own first hand experience into account, Eugene is now keen to emphasise both the physical and psychological advantages bio-energy would possess for athletes.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, bio-energy would be of great benefit to athletes. If I had gone to Michael O'Doherty when I was fully fit and still playing, it would have been of huge benefit to me. When you are playing, there can be a lot of bad energy around you. You're in the public eye and you are an open target for criticism. If I had known about it back then, I would definitely have tried it."

The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore the physician must start from nature, with an open mind.
Philipus Aureolus Paracelsus

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