Just under nine months ago, Ireland scrum half Kathryn Dane’s life took an unexpected turn when she suffered a brain haemorrhage while training in the IRFU High Performance Centre. Ciaron Noble reports for IrishRugby.ie.
Dane is making a good recovery, but is still some time away from returning to the playing field. She admits that the whole experience has changed the way she approaches her life now.
“Before, I used to go through life at 100 miles-an-hour, and not really appreciate the good things or achievements or learnings that I’ve had,” admitted the 26-year-old.
“Since the stroke I’ve realised that when you’re in those dark places you start to see all the light you have in your life.
“For me I have an incredible army of friends, team-mates, and family around me that are just incredible. It shows you the strength that you have in numbers.”
The public found out about the brain haemorrhage back in February when Dane shared details of her recovery on Instagram account.
The incident happened on ‘a normal day of training’. She began to start feeling unwell while doing a gym session with strength & conditioning coach Ed Slattery in the IRFU HPC in Blanchardstown, where she was rehabbing a previous cruciate knee ligament injury. She recalled the events of that day.
I just got this massive pain behind my right eye in the back of my head. I didn’t feel great, but up until that point I was 100%, I was feeling fine.
“Ed noticed straight away that my face had dropped. I didn’t notice it had dropped, but I didn’t feel great and he quickly got the team doc, who was actually in the gym at the time, to have a look at me. They knew straight away I’d had a stroke of some description.
“I went to the medical room. Lots of reassurance. They got me an ambulance and I think I was in Connolly Hospital within around 15 minutes, which was really lucky.”
Dane, who was part of the first batch of players to be fully contracted to the IRFU Women’s 15s High Performance Programme, says she was later told that her haemorrhage was cause by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), something that she never realised she had.
The incident was obviously very shocking for her at the time, but the Enniskillen native feels very lucky that it happened where it did.
“The speed at which the thing took hold was incredible. I think I had immediate left-sided weakness, I needed help to get myself off the gym floor into the medical room, so thank God I wasn’t on my own on a gym floor, that I had been in the HPC which is so close to Connolly and Beaumont Hospitals where I needed the treatment straight away.
“I’m so, so thankful for being involved and being here at the time. I would have had a totally different outcome, and as you know with these things, time is everything.
“I was really lucky that it happened where it happened, because it could have happened on a rugby pitch in France or Italy.
“It was by chance that it happened there, and I do really believe that it was supposed to happen (there). I know it’s a (bad) card to be dealt, but it’s just a chapter in my story that I’ve had to overcome.”
Dane is a chartered physiotherapist who is currently working towards completing her PhD. Her medical knowledge helped her to stay calm throughout the ordeal, but on the other hand, it acted as a hindrance as she was well aware of the challenge that lay ahead of her.
“I knew exactly what was happening. I’d treated patients with strokes in the past as a physio. Not in the crazy acute stage that I was in, but it did help.
“I also then remembered patients who’d had multiple strokes from the exact same thing and I thought, ‘Oh, is my life going to look like that?’. I don’t want to be one of those people who has to keep looking over my shoulder.
“It is beneficial to have that knowledge but, at the same time, ignorance is bliss sometimes,” acknowledged the Old Belvedere back.
The long road to recovery was the toughest battle for the former Ulster Senior Women’s Player of the Year. It took her a bit of time to really process what had happened to her.
Spending two weeks in hospital was the only the beginning. It was followed by difficulty to sleep and frequent headaches. It was an emotional time for Dane.
“To be honest, it wasn’t until two or three months after that I actually started to digest and process it. That was really, really emotional and difficult to come to terms with.
“I was just in survival mode, trying to sleep and eat and recover as much as I could, and I don’t know whether it’s the elite athlete in me, but we’re not used to making time for the emotional processing of these big injuries. That was probably the biggest step in my recovery.”
The Trinity College PhD student is undertaking some trailblazing research on injury effects of tackling in women’s rugby. She has been able to use her academic targets to her advantage during her break from the sport.
“In terms of the PhD, it’s been a massive distraction for me. I’ve not been able to stay idle for any length of time throughout this recovery. Thankfully my supervisors know me only too well, so they let me continue my work.
“I looked this morning, I’ve published three papers since it happened last November so I really have been keeping the whole thing going.
“I’m so grateful that I have that to be a difference off the field for women in terms of that tackle research that I’m doing. It’s frustrating not being on the pitch but I know I can make a difference off the pitch in a way.”
Since making her international debut in 2019, Dane has won 23 Ireland caps. Getting back playing for her club, province and country remains a major goal, but it is still early days on that front.
Emphasising that it is very much a ‘day by day, week by week’ approach, she admitted: “I’m very, very lucky that I’m in the full-time programme doing all my gym sessions and conditioning sessions.
I’ll hopefully be running in the next four weeks. I want to make sure I am in the best place physically before I even begin to make that decision about returning to contact and returning to play.
“I’d love to play but I just have to take these steps beforehand, like any other injury.”
This difficult period in her life has taught her to appreciate everything that she has achieved so far, with Dane adding: “I have so many opportunities through sport and my PhD that I never really appreciated before.
“Now I’m going to be properly grateful for what I have and enjoy rugby and all the moments that I have. I think I did take it for granted before.”