Rachel’s road to recovery after unimaginable loss and ill health

CHRIS DUNNE talks to Cork woman Rachel Gotto, about rebuilding her life, having lost her brother to cancer, then her husband in a diving accident — when she was six months pregnant — and her diagnosis with a brain tumour.
Rachel’s road to recovery after unimaginable loss and ill health
Rachel Gotto has written a book about her life.

WHEN Glandore woman Rachel Gotto lost the love of her life, she found another. But in a cruel twist of fate, the mother of one lost her brother Dominic to cancer and then her husband Nic in a tragic diving accident, becoming a widow at just 29 years old.

“I was very close to my brother, Dominic, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 26. We were typical ‘Irish twins’,” says Rachel. “We travelled the world together to try and find a cure for his cancer. It became my life’s purpose.”

Now the Cork woman has written a book, Flying on the Inside, where she writes about the 15-year journey of facing insurmountable challenges including being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and a dependence on benzodiazepines.

Remembering her brother, she said: “Dominic fought hard. Before he died, he said, ‘It’s OK, Rachel. I tried.’ I think my anger disappeared then. But it was like I died.”

Rachel, who had given up her job running a restaurant to devote herself to Dominic and to his quest to get well, felt her life was empty when she lost her beloved brother.

“There was a huge void in my life,” says Rachel. “Everything was insignificant in my life.”

When Nic sailed into her life, Rachel realised you can love more than one person in a lifetime.

“Nic, who was a fisherman, moved into my life fairly quickly after he came into the restaurant. Later he looked for me in the Glandore Inn. We got talking and he was there for me after I lost Dominic.”

Rachel's brother Dominic.
Rachel's brother Dominic.

Rachel thought having the spark of love in her life again was too good to be true.

“I felt terribly guilty, having a future with possibilities, having my health, feeling alive again, being happy again.”

Life began again in the beautiful surroundings of Union Hall.

“We got married in December, 1997. Nic was 14 years older than me. But he got me. He loved my wildness,” says Rachel.

“He was kind, steady and bright. We enjoyed the same things, the outdoors, scuba diving and the beauty of nature.”

Rachel’s new-found happiness was a whole new world for her.

“Nic introduced me to the wonderful underworld of the sea. I was healing.”

And she fell pregnant.

“I hadn’t thought about getting pregnant,” says Rachel. “I was very excited.”

Nic was delighted about the baby too, but he didn’t live to see Nicola born.

“He was dead by July,” says Rachel, recalling the fateful day her life changed irrevocably.

“I was six months pregnant, and we were on a diving trip with clients of our recreational diving business. I waited in the boat for Nic to return.”

But he never did return to his wife and his unborn child.

“His equipment malfunctioned on the wreck of Kowloon Bridge and he drowned.”

When a member of the lifeboat crew looked into Rachel’s eyes and said; ‘I’m so sorry’, she died a death for the second time.

“When I saw his limp body being winched up from the boat by helicopter going to Cork airport to the hospital, I convinced myself Nic was sick, not dead.”

The tragedy occurred in July, 1998, and Nicola was born that December.

“I had lost everybody I ever loved,” says Rachel. “I knew I was pregnant. I didn’t want the baby. I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I wasn’t sleeping.”

Rachel later resorted to alcohol and cigarettes to cope with her grief.

“I never asked for help, even after having an awful birth and feeling traumatised,” says Rachel.

“I never voiced the pain. I know now it is so important when you are isolated and fall by the wayside to ask for help. If I had reached out and asked for help, I could have avoided years of misery.”

Mother and daughter, Rachel and Nicola Gotto.
Mother and daughter, Rachel and Nicola Gotto.

As a grieving widow with a new baby, living alone on a hill, Rachel was bereft.

“There was nothing left in me,” she says. “I was hallowed out. I was an empty vessel.”

She was heart-broken.

“My mother did her best to help out,” says Rachel.

“Dad was an invalid. When they went home at night, there were relentless nights of loneliness.”

In another unbelievably serious blow, Rachel was diagnosed with an inoperable benign brain tumour in 2005.

“I thought my strange symptoms were down to the trauma after everything that had happened,” says Rachel.

“I lost the use of my legs one night and another time I couldn’t figure how to get out of the car.”

Things got worse.

“I had a seizure one night and Nicola found me unconscious. I woke up with her jumping up and down on me shouting, ‘don’t die Mummy!”

When Rachel was whisked off to CUH and the doctors told her she had an inoperable brain tumour, she was knocked for six.

“I thought they must have made a mistake,” says Rachel. “The absurdity of it!

“Doctors were not optimistic for my survival and I was advised that it might be prudent to begin making arrangements for Nicola as the prognosis wasn’t good.”

But Rachel was not giving up easily.

“It was sobering and unjust. I wasn’t ready to die,” Rachel adds. “I began touring hospitals to find someone who could offer me hope.”

Richard Nelson was a cutting edge neurosurgeon in the UK and was willing to operate but he told her to be prepared for paralysis on her left hand side.

“It wasn’t a choice to make but a decision. I had prepared myself to die, writing my will and letters to Nicola for when she was older.

“I hadn’t prepared myself for a life of paralysis which is what happened. After 13 hours of surgery I was left paralysed on my left side.”

Rachel was moved to a brain injury unit in Bristol before returning home to her daughter, cared for by her family.

“The use of my leg returned quite quickly,” says Rachel.

“But it took years and years for my left arm to improve. And I was left-handed. I had been through so much; now this.

There were further challenges ahead.

“I developed epilepsy, which was like being possessed from the inside out,” she says.

“My left arm and leg would take on a life of their own. It was a miserable painful time. I was deeply anxious, depressed, paranoid and agoraphobic. My rational thinking was obliterated. I was constantly told this was my life. It was tough.

“Nicola was at school. I slept all day. I had a huge physical dependence on benzodiazepines for nine years. I was like a zombie; no connection, no motivation, no emotions.”

But she fought back.

Rachel Gotto lost her beloved brother and then her husband, while six months pregnant.
Rachel Gotto lost her beloved brother and then her husband, while six months pregnant.

“I wanted to offer my daughter a life with a mum who was emotionally available,” says Rachel. “I simply had to get well.

“I began the process of growing my strength, both on a physical level and emotional level.”

Where did her fight come from?

“It was something that grew,” says Rachel.

“Benzos are not something people can come off easily. I did my research and gradually weaned myself off over two and a half years. I took my last dose on May 27, 2013.”

The withdrawal effects were not nice.

“It was a horrendous time,” says Rachel.

But she survived and today, like her daughter, Nicola, she is thriving. The only reminder of her paralysis is her left hand that doesn’t work to full capacity.

She now lives a full life in Barna, working as a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Rapid Transformational Therapist, living with her partner, Malcolm, a clutch of hens and their Elke hound, Echo. She is grateful to feel truly alive.

“I‘m working on becoming a mentor and life coach moving into motivational speaking,” says Rachel.

“I want to help people. I can understand if you’re hurting. It is possible to establish new thought patterns that support happiness rather than sabotage it. I want to inspire others that they too can overcome whatever life throws at them, and enjoy a quality of life they previously believed impossible.”

She showed her mettle to prove the impossible was possible.

“I donned my armour and I got through the toughest times.”

For Rachel, nothing is impossible. She is currently working with a literary agent and Flying on the Inside is set to be released shortly.

“I saw the wood for the trees. In my fifties I’m really living again.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content


Called Droid, our next story is about a boy who designs a robot at UCC and chaos ensues. It was written by Margaret Gillies, from the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC.

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more