Cork amputee’s triathlon quest to honour his late wife

In 2018, Sean O’Leary lost his leg. Five months ago, he lost his beloved wife. The Ballyvolane man tells CHRIS DUNNE about his quest to get fit in her honour
Cork amputee’s triathlon quest to honour his late wife

Sean O'Leary weightlifting as he prepares for his triathlon quest.

EVEN though Ballyvolane man, Sean O’Leary, lost his beloved wife, Rose, in October after a brave battle with aggressive cancer, she still walks by his side.

“I want her back,” admits Sean, aged 51. 

“I go through tough days missing her. My biggest supporter going through my ordeal was Rose.”

The ‘ordeal’ to which he refers was having his right leg amputated below the knee three years ago, after he contracted a rare bone disease called Chronic Osteomyelitis.

Sean and Rose were a great team, through good times and bad. They renewed their wedding vows 25 years after they tied the knot, on September 36, 2020. Sadly, Rose died just four weeks later, on October 26.

POIGNANT DAY: Sean O’Leary and wife Rose at the renewal of their marriage vows to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on September 26, 2020, four weeks before Rose passed away
POIGNANT DAY: Sean O’Leary and wife Rose at the renewal of their marriage vows to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on September 26, 2020, four weeks before Rose passed away

The couple had witnesses by their side for the renewal of their vows.

“Our sons, Seán, aged 24, and Kyle, aged 18, were at the ceremony too,” says Sean proudly.

Rose was a doer and a driver.

“When she was well, she drove me up and down the country to hospitals and surgeons to get me back on my feet.”

“Professor Seamus O’Reilly and his team did everything they could to get Rose through. 

“Now she motivates me to keep going. When I slump, I say, right, OK; get on with things.”

And he is getting on with things.

Sean is taking part in a triathlon to try and raise some money for a new prosthetic so that he can make further strides in challenging himself. It is also a quest to honour his late wife, who wanted him to get fit in recent years.

His fitness drive began innocuously enough.

“I brought my son Kyle to SBG in Northpoint Business Park,” says Sean. 

“Kyle is very quiet and he wanted to start kickboxing classes. So I said I’d go down to the gym with him when he was starting.”

Sean O’Leary, wife Rose and sons Seán and Kyle at the renewal of their marriage vows to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on September 26, 2020, four weeks before Rose passed away
Sean O’Leary, wife Rose and sons Seán and Kyle at the renewal of their marriage vows to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on September 26, 2020, four weeks before Rose passed away

One of the coaches approached Sean. 

“He asked me would I be interested in training!”

Sean thought he was hearing things.

“In my own head, I thought, he doesn’t realise I’m an amputee, even though I was wearing shorts at the time!”

Sean put the coach in the picture.

“I told him I wore a prosthetic leg. He said, ‘why don’t you challenge yourself?”

What did Sean think of that?

“I thought, why not!”

Sean didn’t hang about.

“A few days later, they showed me around and I did my first class at SBG there and then. Some of the exercises were modified for me but I was doing the same as what everyone else was doing.”

But he’s not doing what everyone else is doing now. Sean is in training for a mini-triathlon to raise funds for a new prosthetic leg so that he can challenge himself even more.

“I think everyone needs a challenge, to have a goal,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Sean has come a long way since his health struggles began: his weight ballooned up to 20 stone at one point and he lost seven of it.

“In 2012, I started getting a pain in my heel,” recalls Sean. “The bad pain affected me most when I lay down and it kept me awake at night. It began to get worse and began to affect me during the day-time.”

Sean didn’t go to the doctor about the pain and hoped it would eventually go away.

“I did nothing about it,” admits Sean, who played GAA and drove a taxi for a living.

But then, when he couldn’t walk anymore and was unable to put on his socks or shoes unaided, he had to do something about the pain.

“In July, 2013, I couldn’t walk anymore and I had an MRI. At first the doctors thought it could be cancer.”

His bone had disintegrated. 

“The bone was so soft, it was mush,” says Sean.

“It poured out. After more tests, they discovered it was a rare bone condition called Chronic Osteomyelitis. I had never heard of it. About one in 200,000 people contract it.

“I was put on medication. I had an operation to clean out all the bone that had been eaten away and calcium put in to try and create bone.”

Things didn’t improve.

“The disease started getting worse and I was back in hospital,” says Sean.

“I was on medication to control the pain, but then my body started rejecting the meds. I had boxes of drugs at home.

“A specialist in Limerick told me it was really bad and I had virtually no heel bone left.”

Sean O'Leary shows his before and after weighloss.
Sean O'Leary shows his before and after weighloss.

More action was required.

“His suggestion was to take bone from my hip and graft it on to my foot to fuse. That was done, but a couple of months later the bone was eaten away.”

Was there a risk the bone disease would travel to the rest of his body?

“Yes,” says Sean. “There was concern that the disease could travel.

“I was told, ‘your foot is like a volcano. It is smoking and bubbling away.”

The serious condition was going to erupt sooner or later.

“The pain was constant so they put a spinal stimulator in my back to try and help the pain.”

But there was no relief from the crippling pain.

“That didn’t work either,” says Sean, who, with the pain chipping away at him, began to feel down.

“Eventually, I was sent to Dublin and the doctor there said the disease could likely spread to my organs and other bones in my body and could become life-threatening.”

Drastic action was required.

“It was decided I would have to have my leg amputated,” says Sean. "I had that done in September, 2018.”

He was 49 years old. How did he feel about that decision?

“I was relieved, to be honest,” says Sean.

His world had shrank by then to sitting on a chair looking out of the window.

“I had no life whatsoever,” recalls Sean. 

“I sat in the chair every day staring out the window. I had become fully dependent on other people for the simplest tasks, even to walk out to the kitchen to have my dinner and walk back to the chair again. Piling on the weight, I got very down.”

Was there any answer to his plight?

“I had to find an answer,” says Sean.

There were others in his corner.

“My GP was fantastic to me.”

How did he feel losing his leg?

“I was heavily sedated and after two days I stood up and looked down and thought ‘Oh my God’. It frightened me. But I knew I wouldn’t have such pain ever again.”

He had a bit of pain getting used to his first prosthetic leg in May, 2019.

“It was pressing on my skin. I found it hard getting used to the crutches, but persevered with them walking around the house.”

He had a different kind of pain and a few teething pains getting used to the prosthesis, including infection.

“I had phantom pains!” says Sean. 

“And I got a terrible itch. My leg used to jump of its own accord.”

Gradually, Sean got his act together and decided to take on the challenge to lose weight and get moving.

“When I did the classes, I’d think, I can’t believe I did that! I started enjoying it, working with the people there who were so encouraging. They never saw a disabled person.”

Sean O’Leary, in training.
Sean O’Leary, in training.

They saw a warrior.

“This dude has the spirit of a warrior of a legion of assassins!” says Marlene Griffin, who runs SBG with her brother Liam-og Griffin.

Sean is a tough cookie.

“Tough is not how you act,” says Marlene. “Tough is how you train.”

“Eventually I got addicted to the gym,” says Sean.

“Everyone there was so supportive and so encouraging.”

He gained confidence and lost a phenomenal seven stone in weight.

“I kept challenging myself all the time,” says Sean. 

“I’m now down to 83kg.”

It was onwards and upwards for Sean.

“Currently, my prosthetic leg isn’t suitable for training. It is basically to get you from A to B.

“Doing the triathlon, I’m hoping to raise €10,000 to pay for a new prosthetic. SGB are helping me with it, taking part too.”

Sean is moving ahead with his plans.

“I am going to swim 1km and cycle 20km.”

He’ll walk before he can run.

“I can’t run! So I will be walking five kilometres and hopefully I can raise the money.”

He has massive support behind him.

“Rose wanted me to get healthy and fit so that I can be there for the boys,” says Sean. 

“I think she knew she wasn’t going to get better and that’s why she pushed me so much; so I could be healthy for our boys.”

Sean also got healthy so he could support his wife when she was ill.

“As she got weaker and began going downhill, I was able to help her out,” says Sean.

Rose kept tabs on her husband.

“Every time I had training, she would remind me,” says Sean. “She was always pushing!

“During Level 5 restrictions, I dropped her off to the hospital one day and I wasn’t allowed back in again. But she reminded me that I had training later that day. Five days later she was dead.”

With Rose’s unwavering encouragement embedded in his bones and in his heart, there is no stopping Sean now.

“This is what is driving me now,” he says.

“Every time I go training and training here at home during lockdown I think of Rose.”

He thinks of something else.

“I sometimes wonder how the hell I got through it all.”

And he knows something else for sure.

“I think Rose would be proud of me.”

To donate see gofundmepage here: Sports Prosthetic Fundraiser.

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