Doctors have hailed Mark McGovern’s recovery as a miracle, after the Fermanagh GAA player sustained a serious brain injury following an off-the-ball incident in San Francisco last June.
Speaking from San Francisco, in one of his first interviews since the incident, McGovern, 23, told the Irish Voice that he has a blurred memory of the events of June 25.
Only five days after arriving on the West Coast, during his first appearance with the Ulster club in San Francisco, McGovern was allegedly struck by a member of the opposing team in the second half of the game.
A San Francisco Celts player, Patrick Power, 26, was arrested in relation to the incident but was released without charge pending further investigation. He was handed a 96-week Gaelic games ban from a San Francisco Competitions Control Committee.
Meanwhile, McGovern has been advised by doctors he will never play Gaelic football again.
“I remember the first half of the game,” said McGovern, who has been left with colossal medical bills amounting to more than $1 million for his treatment in the U.S.
“I remember where the ball was, and running towards it, I went to go for it and the next thing I knew I was laying on the ground. I cannot really remember waking up,” he told the Irish Voice.
“Even the doctor told me that some doctors wouldn’t have even tried to keep me alive. I must have been in a bad state, death was at the door. Definitely God or someone was looking down on me.”
Following the incident McGovern was immediately rushed to San Francisco General Hospital where he remained in critical condition for over two weeks.
“The kind of injury that Mark has was deep inside the brain. It's the kind of injury that we see when someone has had a high speed motor vehicle accident, like crashing at 60-miles an hour and the car rolls over,” Professor Shirley Stiver, a neurosurgeon at San Francisco General Hospital told the BBC.
“Many times similar patients with a very similar neurological exam or a very similar x-ray picture would have died on the scene,” Stiver added.
Back at home in Belcoo in Fermanagh, the phone call from San Francisco came at 6 a.m. on the Sunday morning following the incident.
McGovern’s sister Grace recalls the moment vividly. Mark being the youngest of four siblings, when they first heard the news the family feared the worst.
“I went up and saw my sister outside the house crying on the phone. When I asked what was wrong she said, ‘It’s the child,’ as she’s the eldest. ‘He’s is in a coma in San Fran after an injury,’” Grace told the Irish Voice.
“We were told you need to get out here ASAP and that he may not make it through the night. Within a couple of hours there were around 20 people here in the house. It was almost like a wake.”
By two o’clock that day McGovern’s parents were on board a flight destined for the U.S., while his sisters and girlfriend Jessica followed on Monday. On the trip across the Atlantic the family was
concerned Mark’s condition would have deteriorated.
“We were just holding our phones by our sides. We were thinking people were holding out on information and feared that Mark had gone,” Graces said.
When they arrived at San Francisco General Hospital it was difficult to see a normally energetic Mark lying in a coma.
“I remember seeing him in the bed. There were machines everywhere, bleeps going on and tubes down his throat and he was lying there lifeless,” Grace recalls.
“In the first two weeks they were just trying to save his life,” she added. McGovern remained in a coma for five weeks, during which time his family maintained a bedside vigil.
As well as battling with a brain injury, he also contracted pneumonia and MRSA, but despite his weakened state he miraculously fought the viruses off.
Grace, who was forced to cancel her wedding due to the incident, recalled the difficult first weeks.
“Basically we just sat and waited,” she said.
“Every day he gave us something. The first day he flickered his eyelid, the next day he flicked his finger.
“The nurse warned it was probably his reflexes but I’m certain Mark knew we were there, subconsciously,” she says, recalling the tenacity of her brother.
McGovern himself barely remembers emerging from his coma, “When I woke up first it was very strange,” he said. Unable to talk or walk, doctors warned the recovery process would be slow.
“It’s very frustrating, when you know you can do stuff,” he says.
In early August, McGovern was transferred to Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco to undergo an intense regime of rehabilitation. His daily routine included speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Doctors told the family that McGovern had a long road to recovery.
“He couldn’t brush his own teeth, he couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t eat certain foods, and he could barely stand,” Grace recalls.
It was Mark’s girlfriend, Jessica, who played an instrumental role in him regaining his speech.
“It was Jessica, my girlfriend, she got me talking again. She got me to say my name and where I am from,” McGovern recalls.
After almost two months of rehabilitation, the young Fermanagh man has stunned healthcare professionals with his dramatic recovery. At the end of August he was released from full-time care and remains a daily outpatient visitor.
Still undergoing daily rehabilitation therapy, McGovern’s determination has played a pivotal role in his recuperation. “I am trying really hard. They are pushing me harder. That’s all the better for me as I like hard!,” he says.
McGovern is due to travel home to Ireland at the end of this month by boat, “My brain doctors advised me not to travel by plane,” he says, adding that the return can’t come soon enough.
“I can’t wait to go home and watch TV and eat Irish food,” he said.
Speaking about the other player involved in the incident, McGovern described the 96-week ban as disgraceful, adding he has some questions for the Celts GAA player.
“I would love to know why and what was his problem,” McGovern said. “I would like to get inside his head and say, ‘What were you thinking?’”
Though he will no longer be able to play Gaelic football, McGovern has a refreshing positive outlook.
“That was very hard but I looked at the bigger picture. It was my life at one stage, but I will definitely be involved in the club as manager or trainer,” he said.
Fundraising efforts both at home and abroad have begun to contribute to McGovern’s mounting medical bills. Although he had taken out insurance for his summer trip to the U.S., it did not cover contact sports. As a result the family are left with a crippling debt.
A fundraising event will take place in Yonkers this Sunday at 3 p.m. at Moriarty’s, 986 McLean Avenue. Check donations can be mailed to Mark Owen McGovern Rehab, c/o Mark McGovern Fund, 117 Dalewood Way, San Francisco, California 94127. For more information log onto http://www.support4markmcgovern.com/
Both McGovern and his family would like to express their sincere gratitude for the support they have received thus far.
“We will be forever grateful,” Grace said.
The family would also like to appeal for any eyewitnesses to the attack to come forward.