'It felt like somebody had put a knife through the middle of my chest – I knew it was a heart attack & I had limited time'
There are two parts to the Mickey Coleman story – what happened before March 29, 2021 and what happened since.
Part 1 is the story of a Tyrone footballer who was a member of their 2003 All-Ireland winning squad and later became a semi-professional singer-songwriter. He recorded four albums and wrote ‘The Brantry Boy’ a tribute to his team-mate, Tyrone captain Cormac McAlinden who died in 2004 at the age of 24.
In 2011 he accepted an invitation to play football with the Tyrone GAA team in New York. “I came out with a young lad, a cousin of mine Kieran Campbell. We arrived on July 4, 2011. Seamus McNabb, a Dromore man picked us up at the airport.
“As we were driving away from JFK airport the fireworks were going off to mark July 4. I said to Seamus ‘They must know we are coming.”
In his late teens Coleman had spent a year in Philadelphia working as a painter alongside his uncle. But the lure of playing Gaelic football with Ardboe and later Tyrone brought him home. This time around, though, he stayed.
“Something just grabbed me about New York. I caught the bug I just knew it was somewhere I had to be.”
Life was good to him in the Big Apple.
He met his wife, Erin Loughran, a former New York Rose of Tralee, a year after arriving. He had been recruited as a last-minute replacement to perform on a Joanie Madden folk and Irish cruise.
“Just as I was getting on the ship in Miami my wife to be, her mother and sisters stepped out of the taxi beside me. They had also been booked to perform on the cruise.
“Erin had a fiddle case on her back which had a Tyrone and a Kerry sticker which I thought was a strange combination. We were introduced by Padraig Allen, a nephew of Tony Allen (of Foster and Allen fame).”
It transpired that Erin’s father Frank is a native of Pomeroy in County Tyrone while her maternal grandparents hailed from Moyvane in County Kerry. In August 2014 the couple got married in Moyvane and now have two sons, Micheál (7) and Erin (3).
Soon after his arrival in the US Coleman set up his own company Shoreline Builders. They initially worked as an asbestos abatement company but due to the wealth risks later switched focus and now concentrate on fitting out high rise buildings, installing dry walls, ceilings and masonry. They employ 120.
Coleman stayed involved in the GAA when he hung up his boots becoming the trainer of the New York U-14 Féile na nGael team which enjoyed unprecedented success at the Féile finals in Ireland.
Then on March 31, 2021 at the age of 41 his life literally stopped.
“We were still in the middle of Covid-19 but the lock-down had been lifted in New York. That day I asked Derek Barry, who is my director of operations, to go around with me to all the jobs we were doing. He thought this was very peculiar because I normally stay in the office.
“I don’t remember driving home but I do recall my wife was organising an 80th
birthday party for her grandmother. She wanted to go to one of the bars to arrange it and she asked me to delay my run and mind the kids.
“When she returned I went for a 5km run. It was a Tuesday and I remember the previous night I had agreed to make a comeback as a player with Rockland (GAA club) that season. Erin made me a sandwich. I ate the sandwich and she went up to bed.
“I leaned over to take of drink of tea, and it felt like somebody had put a knife through the middle of my chest. My heart started to flutter badly; it was going into spasm. I knew right away it was a heart attack and I knew I had very limited time. I could feel myself going greyish.
“Don’t ask me how I made my way up the stairs, but I did. I asked Erin to call 911 right away. She put a wet towel around my neck and the pain went away. I thought I was in the clear, but twenty seconds later the pain was back.
“I remember thinking ‘this is it I’m going to die here.’ I was banging my chest because it felt like there was something stuck inside me.
“The doctor later told me that I might have saved my life doing that because it kept enough blood flowing. The last thing I remember were two police officers coming into the house. I was on my knees and saying; ‘Please help me.’ Then I collapsed.”
Coleman had suffered a so-called ‘widow-maker’ heart-attack. His heart flat-lined three times before the ambulance reached the Montefiore Nyack Hospital, a 15-minutedrive from his home in Pearl River, in Rockland County in upstate New York.
On third occasion he was still two minutes away from the hospital and the medics performed CPR on him for six and a half minutes; he underwent emergency surgery during which three stents were inserted. He was then placed in a self-induced coma.
Fortunately, the hospital’s cardiac cath laboratory had been opened ten day earlier. Otherwise, it is unlikely he would have survived.
Initially his wife was told he has a six percent chance of survival; following the surgery the news was only slightly better his heart was functioning again, but medics had no idea whether he had suffered any brain damage.
He woke up three days later but remained gravely ill. “When your heart stops every stops, I had a very low liver function, I had kidney failure and double pneumonia. Then the real fight started.”
Part 2 of his life had begun...
“I changed an awful lot of things in my life. I started doing meditating and yoga which I never done. I changed my diet completely. When you wake up and can’t breathe, you will do whatever you need to breath.
“I have two young boys I wanted to be around.
“A lot of us think we don’t have bad diets but once you start reading food labels you start realising what you are putting into your body. I guarantee you if you can’t pronounce a food label then you shouldn’t be eating it.
“It is that simple. We are self-destructing. I liked my steak, but I haven’t eaten any meat in the past year. I now eat a plant-based diet. I try to eat mostly whole food and stay away from refined carbohydrates like white rice and white bread.”
Coleman made a phenomenally speedy recover. Initially he was told he would be spending 30 days in Intensive Care; he was released from hospital after 12 days. The doctors told him he survived for two reasons; his fitness levels and divine intervention.
Two weeks after he got out of hospital he began his cardiac rehab programme in the Nyack Hospital.
“The first day I walked in with the aid of stick. Thirty-six sessions later I was doing nine miles a week running and rowing. My metabolic rate has risen by over two hundred percent. It was the most they had ever seen – the normal increase is thirty percent.”
Spiritually the experience transformed his life. He is at pains to stress he is not anymore religious now than he was before he suffered the heart attack. He accepts that some will find this aspect of his story wacky. But for him it was real and life-changing.
“I had an out-of-body experience when I was in the coma and it changed my life. I got a taste of what is to come, and I would say to anybody there is nothing to worry about.
“I was floating over Rockland GAA club and I could see people praying for me. This energy was pulling me into the sky.
"I was going though; I was well aware that I had two kids, a beautiful wife and a good family. It didn’t matter. The feeling was so powerful; it was a complete feeling of bliss.
“I know exactly how it stopped. Though I was levitating to his energy in the sky this other energy was pulling me back. I opened my eyes and though I was still in a coma Fr Brendan Fitzgerald, a Tralee man was praying over me. I remember him saying ‘Mickey, you are going to be ok. You are in God’s hand and you are going to come out of this.”
“The next day when I did wake up my wife handed me an iPad and told me to about the local community having a healing mass in Rockland GAA club that evening for me. I said ‘I know. I have seen it already.’ In that instance my life changed for the better.”
“I now have a one hundred percent different outlook on life. I get up every morning and bless himself and thank God I have opened my eyes. I face every day with complete gratitude and thank God that I am alive to enjoy it.”
“I know it sounds a bit wacky to be talking about having an out of body experience. People who knew prior to all this know I wasn’t like that. But this was life changing stuff.
“I wouldn’t say I’m any more religious now. But I can certainly say I am one hundred percent more spiritual and without question I’m more connected to whatever that divine intelligence is.”
He acknowledges he works in a cut-throat business and though he still strives to succeed he does it differently now.
“The heart-attack impacted one hundred percent on how I do business. I used to get out of bed every morning in a reactive situation; ten and 15 jobs on and all the stress that comes with that.
“Before I put my foot hit the ground I was in a completely reactive situation. I don’t think it was any mistake that I took a heart attack. There is no way I could have kept going the way I was going.
“But everything I had focussed on in New York was worthless to me the day I had my heart attack. So, my perspective changed there and then.”
His recovery wasn’t totally straight forward; like many who survive a traumatic medical experience he suffered a bout of depression. But with expert help from a counsellor attached to Solace House – which was established in New York by Joan Freeman, the founder of Pieta House –he recovered.
Nowadays, his life is different but normal. He is allowed a glass of red wine with dinner. His cardiologist, a second-generation Irishman, laughed when Coleman asked him whether he could save up his nightly allocation for a weekend splurge.
He has ran a half marathon and plans to run a marathon before the end of this year. He has tentative plans to play football again and he is penning an autobiography.
Coleman joined thousands of Irish fans two weeks ago in Madison Square Garden to cheer on Katie Taylor when she beat Amanda Serrano in their World title fight. Who knows the man from Ardboe might write a ballad about her.
And incredibly he wouldn’t change what happened to him.
“This sounds ridiculous, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me without a doubt.”