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Dial be back Gareth O'Callaghan on the 'biggest fight of his life' as he returns to airwaves

The 60-year-old presenter was first diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) in June 2018, but the symptoms, similar to those of Parkinson's, go back four years earlier.

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Gareth O'Callaghan will make his comeback on Classic Hits

Gareth O'Callaghan will make his comeback on Classic Hits

Gareth O'Callaghan will make his comeback on Classic Hits

WHEN legendary Irish radio DJ Gareth O'Callaghan was diagnosed with a rare, incurable neurological disease in 2018, he thought it was the end of the life he loved as a broadcaster.

Nearly four years later, Gareth is set to return as king of the airwaves with a new show on Ireland's Classic Hits Radio on Saturday week.

The 60-year-old presenter was first diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) in June 2018, but the symptoms, similar to those of Parkinson's, go back four years earlier.

"Very little is known about this disease it's so rare, but they usually find that people who are eight years in would be extremely incapacitated, and it's almost a given that their voice is gone," Gareth tells the Sunday World in an exclusive interview.

"I'm so lucky that I can still walk around, be very physically active and I can drive. I think I'm lucky that while other parts of me are getting weaker and more unpredictable, the voice remains strong, and without the voice, radio is history.

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Gareth in studio during his popular 2FM afternoon show in 2002

Gareth in studio during his popular 2FM afternoon show in 2002

Gareth in studio during his popular 2FM afternoon show in 2002

"My fear in the long term is that it will disintegrate, but I just can't wait to get back on air for as long as I possibly can."

However, the much-loved radio icon faces a daily battle with excruciating pain, and his medical team is currently trying to find a way of managing it.

"The pain is extreme," Gareth says. "Back, shoulders, legs, feet, toes, hands, fingers… anywhere there is a muscle and a nerve it affects it.

"We are trying to work out a programme of pain management where you take enough of the medication to kill the pain without turning into a zombie. I'd rather tolerate some of the pain and be lucid and conversational.

"Sometimes the pain can be so bad that it would be very easy to crawl into bed and dope yourself to the gills and try and sleep through it.

"This disease progressively just takes you apart and eventually it kills you. Someone said to me that MSA is nature's cruellest experiment. That describes it to a T because, like motor neurone disease, eventually you are just left with the use of your eyes and that locked-in syndrome. But I don't think that far ahead."

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Gareth reveals that he has been approached by groups supporting voluntary assisted dying.

"I know there's a conversation around assisted dying at the moment, and a couple of groups said, 'Would you align yourself with us and give us some support?' I said, 'I love the work you're doing, but I'm not ready to even discuss any of that at the moment because I'm too busy, I have too much living to do.' Eventually it will come for me, but I'm putting up the biggest fight of my life."

Gareth, who now lives in Cork, told how he is enjoying the support of his wife, Paula, whom he wed in September 2020 after five years together.

And he reveals how he feels his old friend, Tony Fenton, had a hand from beyond the grave in bringing them together.

"We met in 2015, the week after Tony Fenton died," he tells me. "The radio station was doing a promotion in Cork and they asked me to come along. I was feeling down over Tony, but they persuaded me to go…and had I not come along I would never have met Paula.

"I had this strong feeling…I remember Tony saying to me a couple of years before he died, 'Hey man, are you shacked up with anybody?' Don't tell me you're still ridin' solo?'

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Gareth O'Callaghan

Gareth O'Callaghan

Gareth O'Callaghan

"I said, 'Yes I am.' He said, 'I'm gonna have to pull a bit of the old dude magic and see if I can set you up with a beautiful woman.' Tony was the epitome of charm, a wonderful guy, there'll never be anybody like him again, he was just unique.

"I remember when I met Paula that night it was the first thing I thought of. I could imagine Tony standing there saying, 'Alright dude, you owe me one!'

"I just looked at her and I thought, Wow! I remember I had Tony's voice in my head saying, 'Dude, don't f**k up here!' I just walked over to her and I said hello and we got talking," he says.

"We had a drink and I said, 'Do you mind if I give you my number?' So I gave her my number and said, 'Now ring it.'

And it started from there. "It was a long distance relationship at first, but when I got the diagnosis in 2018 that's when everything changed. I said to her, 'You can't hang around, this is going to get very, very bad and it's not fair to you.'

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O'Callaghan is excited to get behind the mic

O'Callaghan is excited to get behind the mic

O'Callaghan is excited to get behind the mic

"Paula is 15 years younger than me. I said, 'You have so much living to do and I don't want you to be trapped by this thing.' She said to me, 'What are you talking about, I've said it to you before and I'll it again, I'm not going anywhere! We'll face this together."

Gareth, who also suffers from asthma, is facing his challenges with a sense of humour. Just before Christmas he was rushed to hospital after collapsing while cleaning out a hamster's cage.

"Hamsters give off a scent, it's a kind of protective thing, that for some people can have a horrific effect, particularly those with asthma," he explains.

"I didn't know that and I had a near-fatal asthma attack. It felt like I was drowning. Paula called an ambulance, and I was rushed to hospital where I was stabilised and spent the next three weeks.

"I just thought that after all my battles, how embarrassing would it have been if it was a hamster that got me in the end."

Gareth O'Callaghan will launch his new 10am-2pm show on Ireland's Classic Hits Radio on Saturday February 12

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