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'Death's door' 'How a five-star hotel break left me fighting for my life in a coma'

The permanent scarring on her lungs, the "terrifying" bouts of unpredictable fatigue and the fact she had to give up her part-time job and voluntary work are a daily reminder of the impact it has had on her health.


Mary Kelleher

Mary Kelleher

Mary Kelleher

Although it has been five years since Mary Kelleher contracted Legionnaires' disease, it left a mark that will last a lifetime.

The permanent scarring on her lungs, the "terrifying" bouts of unpredictable fatigue and the fact she had to give up her part-time job and voluntary work are a daily reminder of the impact it has had on her health.

A romantic trip to a five-star hotel and spa to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary ended with her in a three-week induced coma fighting for her life.

"I never thought going to a five-star spa would nearly kill me. I've lost a lot because of Legionnaires," the 55-year-old said.

The damage done by the disease puts her into the high-risk category for Covid-19, and she now has to be "ultra- careful".

"I do my shopping early, I avoid crowds. At the same time, I feel it's important to try to live life as normally as possible as this is what it's going to be like for some time," Mary said.

She and her husband Jer, who are from Waterfall, Co Cork, decided to splash out on a stay at the Muckross Park Hotel and Spa in Killarney, Co Kerry, as a special treat to mark 25 years of marriage in 2015.

However, lurking in the water of the cold spa facility was an unwelcome guest that put her at death's door.

"On the worst days, I'd love to be able to just plug myself into the wall and recharge the batteries, but sadly that's not possible," she said.

A couple of days after returning home from Kerry, she started to develop flu-like symptoms. There were headaches, tiredness, muscle aches and a loss of appetite.

"I'd been lucky enough to enjoy good health all my life, so having to go to a doctor would be very unusual," Mary said.

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"Some mental confusion started to set in then.

"My family told me I was looking very unwell and I went to South Doc, where I was told I needed to go to hospital with suspected pneumonia.

"The last thing I remember was being in a ward in the Bon Secours hospital in Cork before I blacked out."

While Mary was in a coma, doctors diagnosed Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia caused by the waterborne bacteria legionella.

People can contract it when they breathe in small droplets of water in the air or mists that are contaminated.

It is a rare but potentially deadly disease.

In Ireland last year, 21 cases were reported to the HSE.

"I've been told not many people my age survive Legionnaires', so I'm lucky to be here," Mary said.

When she left hospital after six weeks of rehabilitation, it was like starting from scratch - she had to learn how to swallow and walk unaided.

One of the major lasting symptoms has been the regular bouts of fatigue, which come on without warning.

"I tried to go back to work on reduced hours but the fatigue was too much. I would go into work and have to spend the next day in bed," Mary said.

Following the findings of the investigation into her illness, she pursued a personal injuries case against the hotel and NCH Ireland Limited (Chem Aqua), a company that specialises in water treatment solutions.

The case was settled in the High Court earlier this year, with the terms remaining confidential.

An apology was issued by the hotel and Chem Aqua to Mary and her family.

The hotel has since made a "significant investment" in the facilities and a best practice legionella prevention programme has been introduced.

"The cold spa facility that was believed to be the issue in this case was removed and the chemical dosing equipment in the spa was replaced to ensure it had a best in class system," the hotel said. There have been no further incidents since.

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