Cork artist thanks medics who saved his life

When West Cork artist John Kelly fell dangerously ill, the local First Responders saved him. Now he’s giving them something back, says CHRIS DUNNE
Cork artist thanks medics who saved his life

VIP VISITORS: John and Christina Kelly with Bob Geldof and Jeanne Marine and Kato the cat at Reen Farm. The Kellys showed them around their famine memorial in 2018.

THE reason that West Cork-based artist and sculptor John Kelly is alive today, is thanks to the astonishing professionalism of the Cork First Responders Unit and the staff of CUH.

John suffered a near-death experience two years ago, and has good reason to be grateful.

“The experience, I think, will never be behind me. It was an extraordinary recovery. I feel very different about life now,” he says.

John’s loved ones have reason to be grateful too.

“I asked at one stage is John going to die?” recalls his wife Christina. “And I was told, yes, probably. I am so grateful John is still here with me and our son, Oscar.”

John, who spent 45 days in hospital and who was not expected to survive, is now donating the proceeds of the sale of one of his paintings to Cork First Responders Unit.

“In gratitude for saving my life, I am offering the proceeds of my painting, Castlehaven, which is included in the Sotheby’s auction on September 9, Irish Art, to Cork Rapid Response Unit.”

John says no generous gesture will ever be enough to thank the medics.

“How do you repay the people who saved your life?” he asks.

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine, John always looked on the bright side of life.

“I have a lust for life,” he says.

What happened the day he nearly lost his life, two years ago?

“I don’t remember anything after I collapsed,” says John. “Until I woke up in hospital five days later.”

Christina can recall every waking moment of that fateful day, August 12, 2018, at their home, in South Reen, near Skibbereen.

“John had been to lunch with our friends, David and Patricia Puttnam,” she says. “I didn’t go to their house because my friend, who is a radiologist, was visiting us taking drawing classes.”

Christina was curious about who was at the lunch and wanted all the details.

“I was being nosy!” she says. She wanted to know how the other half lived.

“I wanted to find out who was there and how everyone was. John sat down on the chair and he just stared at me. At that point my stomach just flipped.”

John and Christina Kelly on Reen Farm, South Reen. It contains a famine memorial and a ‘Think and Thank’ garden. Picture: Oscar Kelly
John and Christina Kelly on Reen Farm, South Reen. It contains a famine memorial and a ‘Think and Thank’ garden. Picture: Oscar Kelly

Christina had a sense of foreboding. After John’s father died the year before, in 2017, John’s own health began to take a downward spiral.

“I caught flu in Australia when I had gone to be with my father,” says John. “And then again when I returned to Ireland. It was strange, because at that point I was very fit and healthy.

“At one stage I was brought to hospital with a suspected stroke. The neurologist said I had the healthiest brain he had ever seen. Yet, I still had symptoms that didn’t go away; fatigue, disorientation, anxiety and mood swings. It was a very confusing time.”

Christina, who knows John inside out, got him to try to say the emergency word they had agreed upon if his symptoms ever deteriorated. That day, they had.

“When he just stared at me, I told him, say ‘hippopotamus’. John just replied; ‘ya, no. OK’.”

It was time to act.

“I had to call the ambulance,” says Christina. “There was on Vodafone reception. We have a very long, thin house here in Reen. I ran off to the landline to make the call. John went upstairs. Oscar followed him, thank God. That’s when the seizures started.”

Christina’s friend went upstairs too.

“She put John in the recovery position. He was going blue. She did what she needed to do to get him breathing again.”

John did what he needed to do.

“I remember Oscar was at the end of my bed and I reached my arm out to him, and he reached out to me.”

Christina continues: “The ambulance knew where to come to, but it could be too late when it got here.

“Oscar rang a friend whose mother phoned a local guard and he bleeped a local GP, Matt Dahm, from Clonakilty, who is a First Responder.”

The Gods were smiling on the man who had a lust for life. Matt was at a football match nearby.

“He arrived here on his motorbike within six minutes,” says Christina. “He was on the scene before the ambulance, which took 20 minutes to get here.”

What was Christina thinking at this crucial stage?

“I can be anxious,” she admits. “But I stayed calm in the emergency. I let the medics do their job and didn’t interfere.”

She had help from her friends.

“Our neighbours came and they held John’s hand and they comforted Oscar.”

John was stretchered down the narrow staircase to the ambulance.

“We had to take down the pictures from the wall up the stairs,” says Christina, picturing him leaving the house that day, not knowing if he would ever return.

“John was seizing constantly. It was awful.”

The ambulance was bound for Bantry Hospital as it was suspected John wouldn’t make it alive to Cork.

But there were more real-life heroes en route.

“Dr Jason van der Velde, an extraordinary trauma doctor who lives in Clonakilty, met the ambulance at the junction to Bantry,” says Christina. “He jumped into the ambulance and attended to John. Dr Jason knew the medications required for him were available in CUH. That’s where he had to go.”

The ambulance continued on its mission to get John to the hospital in time. John was in good hands.

“The guys in the ambulance held his head and they stroked his hair. Only for all those people who helped John that day, he wouldn’t be here today,” says Christina.

John is one of the lucky ones.

“At CUH, a radiologist spotted micro-spots of blood on John’s brain that indicated a very rare condition, a type of vasculitis. Even then, they didn’t know exactly what it was.

“They put John in an induced coma for four days because he was bleeding so badly,” says Christina.

She had to ask the question. Would John survive?

“We were warned if he came through, that John would be very ill for a very long time.”

But the Gods, on John’s side, were still standing by.

“I’m not religious, but I felt the power of prayer,” he says. “Friends went to Knock and said prayers for me. People told me they had me in their prayers. My older sister Margaret flew over from Australia to be near me. CUH made huge efforts to get me well, liaising with USA-based consultants, and getting more expert medical advice from abroad.”

John Kelly's painting Castlehaven, which he is auctioning off for Cork First Response Unit
John Kelly's painting Castlehaven, which he is auctioning off for Cork First Response Unit

John is a miracle man.

“At the hospital, they called him a miracle!” says Christina.

He is a true Aussie too.

“At the hospital, they said they realised I was like a boomerang, bouncing back again,” says John, smiling.

Oscar is a chip off the old block.

“During it all, he never wavered,” Christina says.

“He was doing his Leaving Cert in school in Dublin. I’d go and check in with him and I’d head straight back to the hospital. I thought, I have to look after John, I have to look after Oscar, and that’s what I did.

“The kindness and consolation of friends and neighbours was just wonderful. I stayed in Brú Columbanus, an extraordinary place. I made juices for John and brought them to him in the hospital. The staff allowed me to stay very late.”

Christina and the caring staff at CUH watched over John day and night.

“He spent 45 days in hospital,” Christina says. “We have to thank CUH for their efforts in getting him better.”

John got out of hospital in October that year, in time to show Bob Geldof around the famine memorial, the ‘Think and Thank garden’ at Reen farm.

But then John got sick again.

“He got worse and worse,” says Christina. “He wasn’t reacting well to treatment.”

Christina had to bring up the dreaded question once more.

“Is he going to die? I asked the consultant. He said; probably.”

But the miracle man, the boomerang, defied the odds.

After intensive international consultation, the medical at CUH determined John was allergic to a particular medication.

“They swapped what they were giving him,” says Christina.

And John bounced back.

“I walked out of the hospital and went back playing tennis, and painting,” he says.

Today, John is living the life he imagined.

“It has been an extraordinary recovery,” he says. “My condition is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life, but its in remission.”

John, having almost died twice, looks at life from both sides now.

“I feel very different about life now. You come out of something like this and you view the world very differently. I want to thank everybody who saved my life.”

He’s making his mark.

“When I got out of hospital, it was confirmed my painting was collected into the Yale Centre for British Art. That was something I could only ever dream about.”

Christina often thinks she is dreaming.

“He doesn’t shut up now!” she says. “John is so energetic I often think I preferred it when he was in hospital! I feel shameful!”

Can he say Hippopotamus?

“He sure can!” says Christina, laughing.

John Kelly is a walking, talking miracle man.

Castlehaven by John Kelly is included for auction at Sotheby’s, including a works from a collection from Sir Michael Smurfit, London, on September 9, the proceeds of which will be donated to Cork First Rapid Response Unit.

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