Waterford native Ian St John had a young wife and family, a dream job as a PGA Professional and his whole life in front of him when he was struck down with cancer and then paralysis. His ongoing battle to walk again and the support he receives from friends and family serve as lessons to us all.
Ahead of the Friends of Ian St John Golf Classic set for Killeen Castle on October 7, we caught up with the Tramore professional whose life was cruelly put on hold just as he looked to be living out his dream. Details of how we can get involved in the golf classic are listed below but with over €5,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, and a team of four for the Jack Nicklaus designed, Solheim Cup layout coming in at a very reasonable €280, the Friends of Ian St John are hoping for a big response.
When I got off the phone to Ian St John, I knew I’d spoken to a very special man. We had been trying to line up the interview for some time but such was the intensity of his rehabilitation programme and my insignificant life, we struggled to ever make it work. The feeling that washed over me when I hung up the phone suggested that our chat was worth the wait.
With a name like Ian St John, you’d think this feature was meant for a football magazine but the Liverpool fan’s story very much belongs to golf. With his football dreams ended by a cruciate knee ligament injury at the age of 12, he took up the game, going along with his parents, Oliver and Josephine, to the local club in Tramore to hone his skills.
He proved to be a talent quite quickly, helping Tramore to win the Irish Schools championship in Massereene in ’95 while still maintaining that “we should’ve won the double” as they narrowly missed out on Fred Daly honours in the All-Ireland too. His aspirations for the game as he went through the ranks were quite simple: “I wanted to win Majors!” Yet with his handicap stuck at one and green jackets becoming a farfetched dream, he went to WIT to study and completed a degree in business instead.
He followed that career path for two or three years but number crunching and business plans always paled in significance to golf. With his true passion proving undeniable, Ian took a leap of faith in a bid to force his way into an already oversaturated industry. As luck would have it, a job opened up in Rush golf club in 2013– an oasis in the desert of opportunities in the industry at the time.
“I heard about it in October of the previous year and I’ll tell you honestly, I cancelled Christmas to research everything there was to know about the place,” said Ian. “There were no head jobs going at the time at all. I had a great teaching academy running down in Waterford but I wanted to have my own shop, do my teaching – I just really wanted to be in a golf club. I did everything I could to get that job and fortunately enough, that’s how it worked out.”
With all his stars aligning – the dream job, a beautiful wife and daughter at home and one more on the way, Ian was set. Little did he know that three years later, he would be lying on his back in a hospital bed in Beaumont Hospital trying to digest a cancer diagnosis and paralysis all at once.
“I’m pretty fit, pretty healthy – I had no idea what was going to hit me.”
But with more tests to run, all Ian could do was just lie in his bed and wait to learn his fate.
“It was the repetition of the pain of thinking, ‘I’ll never walk again’ that probably hurt the most,” he recalled. “I remember asking a neuro surgeon if he thought I was going to live and he told me he didn’t know. It was the most pain I ever experienced in my entire life. It was unbelievable. Frightening… absolutely frightening.”
As time went on and consultants came and went, the true extent of just what Ian was facing soon rose to the surface. It was a conversation that Ian will never forget for the rest of his days but the consultant’s positivity may well have been Ian’s saving grace.
“He said ‘it’s Non-Hodkins Lymphoma of the spine, the one you’d kind of want if there was such a thing. It’s very fast and we have to go straight at this. It’s going to be intense. You’re a fit guy, very positive from what I hear and that’s going to stand to you’.
“I went from thinking ‘I’m going to die’ to, ‘Ian you’ve a chance’. I looked at my family and said ‘no one’s getting upset here, this is what we’re going to do. We can forget about the legs, we’ll deal with them later and let’s just have a go at it’. That was it. I started chemotherapy the following week.”
Ian went through his first round of chemo on the Thursday of that week and woke up on the Friday thinking “sure this is grand”. On Saturday he was singing a very different tune. He woke up shook, feeling terrible, but that was nothing to the hell on earth that was soon to follow.
“The following week they came back to me saying that we had to change the whole treatment because the cancer was spreading so fast. I went from having bags of chemo pumped into me for five hours a day to having bags of chemo pumped into me for 22 hours a day, five days in a row!
“I can tell you, and this is no joke, if someone had a bullet, and I said this to my parents and my wife at the time; I would have been flipping a coin – I never felt as bad in my entire life.”
Having lived an active life, Ian was now actively fighting for survival. There was no adjustment period granted. And if it wasn’t for the Oncology Team at Beaumont Hospital, he wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
He concedes that there’s too many people to thank for getting him as far as today but he gives special mention to Dr. Oscar Breathnach and Professor Liam Grogan for their sensational skill levels and attention to detail. “I honestly can’t say enough about them.”
Still, even with the best Oncology team in the country waiting on him hand and foot, could anything prepare someone mentally for the eight months he went through in Beaumont Hospital?
“Psychologically-wise, I’m getting a double whammy. I’m getting cancer and I’m paralysed; my whole movement is the radius of about the length of my arm. My whole room is set up around it; water, fluid, tablets, call button, and I’m sitting around looking at four walls.
“So, I got a PlayStation! I hadn’t owned one in 20 years and it was Oscar who set it up and we used to play FIFA on it together. He’s a sensational Doctor,”- for a second I honestly thought he was going to say FIFA player!
To hear him speak about what he’s gone through you’d have to have a heart of stone not to get emotional. His courage and positivity is truly remarkable and his ability to laugh in the face of such adversity is more special still. But I could hear the regret in his voice too. How could you not harbour some sense of sadness at such an awful dose of bad luck?
He came home in June 2017 after eight months in Beaumont and three months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital to an overwhelming welcome. Having spent nights in hospital at times wondering if he’d ever come home at all, he was now being heralded as an inspiration, a title he would happily live without.
“Everyone talks about you and how you’re an inspiration but believe me, the last fecking thing you want to be is an inspiration. I would rather all these people being around for me winning the British Open and I’m returning to a hero’s welcome. But the support has been phenomenal and it does get you through it.
“I have to mention John Caulfield at TaylorMade. He’s one of my best friends and he was a bit of a saviour to me. He’s come to see me an awful lot. Everything from helping around the shop to organising fundraisers, Johnny was the man, unbelievable.
“I could name so many others. All the people that kept me going, who staged events, raised money without my asking. And that’s what really helps you. It might be a cliché but it’s a fact.”
As great as the people at Rush golf club were to Ian throughout the whole ordeal, he decided to resign from his position as Head Professional in October 2017 due to his paralysis.
“I still get emotional when I think of it because I absolutely loved the place. Some people say the politically correct thing in that they’ll miss something when they actually hated it but I genuinely loved that job. I made so many friends at the club. It was my dream job. I didn’t get it until I was 35 so I’d waited long enough for it and I truly miss it.”
His full-time job now is one he wouldn’t wish on anyone – a regiment of constant physio and rehabilitation-everything from walking with an exoskeletal machine in Cork to aqua-therapy in the pool every Monday, all the while trying to find a balance between spending time with his wife and two young children. To make matters even more difficult, his youngest was born in September 2016, a month after Ian started his chemo.
All things considered, does he ever wake up and think, why me? Or get down on himself and curse the high heavens? Because if anyone would be entitled to do it, it’s Ian St John.
“Look at my wife. She’s got a toddler, she’s just given birth to her second child. Her husband’s paralysed and fighting cancer, you know, it’s a phenomenal ask. Luckily the support from both our families has been unbelievable. I can’t say enough about them. It’s these people that get you through it.
“Paddy Monahan from the Paralympics team came into me and he asked me what level I was at and I said ‘ah, T-8 to T-10’. ‘Very good one to have,’ he said, ‘great one to have! You’ll do a lot from there’, and you go, are you kidding me like, I’m paralysed!
As we spoke on the phone that day, Ian told me that his cancer was in remission. He still had the shadow of a three-monthly scan hanging over his head that would always raise doubts of his sickness returning but the longer he remains in remission, the more positive he can be. His goal from the outset was to beat the cancer and then tackle the legs, to which I asked, do you think you’ll ever walk again?
“I remember doing testing in Trinity and I spoke to Mark Pollack. He was blind, fell off a second story house and became paralysed and now he’s an adventurer – the first person to travel to the South Pole blind and paralysed. Unbelievable stuff!
“So, do I think I’ll walk again? Yeah, I do think I’ll walk again. Whether it will be robotically or not – I don’t think it will just be me, hopefully technology will help. But I think I’ll do it.”
For now, he’s focussing on getting better while taking up a weekly slot on Waterford Radio alongside Matt Keane to discuss his true passion, golf.
“Talking about people giving you perspective,” he continued. “Kevin Casey was the sports anchor for Waterford Regional Radio and he died in January 2017 from cancer. When I was diagnosed, he rang me quite a few times and when I heard he’d passed I got an awful shock.
“It stuck with me. He was a lovely, generous guy going through his own battle but he’d still text me to say things like, ‘this will happen Ian’ and ‘don’t worry about that.’” He paused for a breath. “Yeah, honestly, I get very upset thinking about him.”
Whether he likes it or not, Ian St John is an inspiration and his strength and resilience can only be an asset to those fortunate enough to spend time in his company. I didn’t know Ian before his story came across my desk, and I wondered if the man I was talking to now was the same guy mentally as the head professional in Rush?
“Oh, I’m a billion times tougher,” and the way he said it you could only believe it too. “I’d love to get out and play a round of golf now, you know? There have been very tough days and probably many more ahead but my family and friends are what I focus on.
“I mean, I got cancer and paralysis. Sweet Jesus, one of those is bad enough. The world health organisation class paralysis as the worst injury you can get and it certainly is. You see a person in a wheelchair and their legs are gone and you think, ‘aw God that’s terrible’, but it’s behind the scenes that is so unbelievable. It’s a psychological battle every day of the week, never mind the physical.”
I didn’t ask him of regrets, I didn’t need to, and though it took him a while to come ‘round to the idea of watching golf on television, he tunes in plenty now.
“My last game of golf was on the Old Course at Ballyliffin so it’s not a bad way to finish… but God, I would love a round of golf.”
I joked with Ian as our conversation drew to a close that he’d probably get a game playing centre-half for Liverpool the way things were going for our beloved club at the time, and it’s funny that I never second guessed for one second that he’d laugh. Since then our club has enjoyed a remarkable upturn in fortunes and although Ian’s daily battle remains ongoing, who’s to say he won’t enjoy a full recovery too?
How we can help
The road to recovery for Ian has been, and will continue to be, arduous and expensive but treatment and travel costs have been worthwhile.
With that being said, The Friends of Ian St John are reaching out for our support ahead of a Golf Classic at Killeen Castle on Monday, October 7th to help raise much-needed funds for his ongoing rehabilitation.
With over €5,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, to enter a team of four for the midday shotgun at the stunning Jack Nicklaus designed, Solheim Cup layout will cost a very reasonable €280. The round of golf will be followed by a dinner and raffle.
To enter a team in the Golf Classic, email your fantastic four along with your team name, captain and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, contact event organiser, Seamus Muldowney on 057 864 5654 (landline) or 086 059 6114 (mobile).