A bang to the head in a tackling drill in December turned Therese McCafferty’s world upside-down.
The Termon woman played the full hour last Saturday evening as Donegal defeated Monaghan by 14 points in the Ulster semi-final.
That she can be expected to face Armagh in Sunday’s final, she says, represents something of a personal reflection given the five months of hell she went through.
The pharmacist was off work for two months, was left unable to sleep and even basic day-to-day tasks became a chore.
“I was struggling with everything,” she says.
After colliding with a team-mate at Donegal training on Christmas week, McCafferty knew that something was up.
It was only three weeks later she got it confirmed.
“I didn’t go out all over Christmas and when I went to work, I knew I wasn’t right,” she says. “I didn’t go back to football.
“I was away on holidays after Christmas and couldn’t really enjoy it. If I even went for a walk, I’d get dizzy. For the first time in my life, I had to call in to work sick.
“I couldn’t think straight and it was a struggle to talk to people.”
Three weeks later, her doctor confirmed that she had Post-Concussion Syndrome.
She didn’t work in February and March and was under the care of Dr Kevin Moran, who works closely with the Donegal teams.
“He banned me from looking at screens – any screen – and I went for four months without watching TV,” McCafferty says.
“I would go for a walk during the day and be ready for bed at five or six o’clock. I’d just lie there, not able to sleep until three or four o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t even read because I couldn’t concentrate. No phone. No TV. It actually hurt to talk to people.
“It made me feel so down. I learned to slow down and appreciate the small things.”
McCafferty’s condition got worse, to the point where eating was even off the agenda.
“With concussion it’s really important to eat properly, but I lost so much weight, even though I was in the house the whole time,” she says.
“I wasn’t feeding myself properly. It felt too complicated even making tea and toast. It was like: ‘Oh, Christ, how will I do this?’
“It was this mad pressure in my head all the time. I had really bad dizziness and felt like the whole place was rocking.
“I only started to eat when I realised the weight I’d lost.”
Dr Moran referred her to the Specialised Brain Unit at St James’ Hospital in Dublin. Prescribed medication by medics there, she was returned to exercise.
“I thought they were crazy,” the Donegal half-back says.
“They started me swimming and jogging. I couldn’t understand it. It was taking me two hours to walk 5k, but they wanted me to jog! But I built it up and it really helped me. It was slow and steady, but it worked. The medication helped me to sleep too.”
McCafferty took time out from even going to watch Donegal’s games, but her team-mates, particularly the close-knit bunch from Termon, would call regularly. Maxi Curran kept in touch, too, and just as the National League was coming to a close, McCafferty was about to make her return.
“I got chatting to Maxi about maybe returning just after the League, even though I wasn’t back in full-contact stuff,” she says. “I didn’t want to rush anything and was still seeing the doctor regularly. At that stage, getting back to health was more important than rushing back for football.
“I knew that I was so bad I was never going to make the League. But it was hard not to think about rejoining. I knew that the squad had serious potential and I was always thinking away about June and coming back.”
She kept her fitness topped up by doing yoga and found she was back to her best in no time. Kate Keaney and Roisin McCafferty – who both suffered bad concussion injuries in recent years – were a source of assistance during the bad days.
When she finally retuned to full contact training in May, it felt like the end of what once seemed an endless journey.
She says: “I was definitely nervous and people always ask away how do you go into contact again, but you just do. You kind of just get on with it and get over the fear that way.”
When she ran out at Healy Park last Saturday with the Donegal number 5 on her back, few watching would’ve known the path she’d taken just to get back on the turf again.
“It was a great personal achievement and it was like a personal reflection of how far I’d come,” she says.
“I’ve never had an injury before that actually took over my life. When you pull a hamstring, you can still go to the cinema and can still work. This took over five months of my life and couldn’t even talk to people at a stage.”
It could be a year before she’s at what could be considered ‘100 per cent’ and while her memory hasn’t fully returned, medics are content she can play now with no side-effects.
Her’s is something of an inspirational tale, yet a cautionary one too for those who perhaps don’t treat concussion with the concern it deserves.
“I was told twice in casualty just to go home and rest,” McCafferty says. “I was given very little information on how to treat it. I do feel there is an awful lot of stuff like ‘aww you’ll be grand’ with concussion, but definitely teams and players need to be aware of the seriousness of it.”