Michael Walsh has stopped asking his cousin Tom Niland if he can feel anything when he squeezes his arm.
The farmer from Skreen, Co Sligo has been on life support in Sligo University Hospital for seven months, following a violent incident at his home, but Mr Walsh believes he has “some awareness” now which makes his situation even more traumatic.
“I stopped holding his arm and asking him ‘can you feel that’ because I think he was realising that ‘my God he is holding my arm and I can’t feel it. Is that the way I am going to be for the rest of my life?’” explained Mr Walsh.
“That is the way I interpret it and if I put myself in his place, I am not doing him any favours.
“I stopped doing that because at one stage I did actually see a tear come out of his eye,” explained Mr Walsh, one of Mr Niland’s closest relatives.
Hopes were raised that the popular 74-year-old farmer who lived alone might be on the road to recovery last May when there were reports he was more responsive.
Mr Niland, who has one eye closed since the incident last January, did start to follow people’s movements with his other eye and has also made an attempt to form words.
“He has that awareness. And that brings on another problem. The fact that he has that awareness means he can be very depressed,” said Mr Walsh.
“He also will have an awareness that everyone is walking around and he is just lying there in the bed and he cannot get up. He can’t move. I know the physios are there and they are trying to move him but he cannot feel anything so if you put yourself in his place, he must be thinking my God, I am going to be like this for the rest of my life.”
He said his cousin was now on antidepressants.
While reports that the 74 year old was in a coma were not strictly true, Mr Walsh said there had been little progress. There had been talk of sending him to Galway University Hospital for a plasma exchange treatment but Mr Walsh said he was told by doctors last week that there was little point.
“He’s as good as he is going to get – basically that is what he was saying to me,” said Mr Walsh. “He has no feeling from the neck down. He is still on a ventilator. He was never really in a coma. He was ‘out’ for a while more to do with medication. They never use that term [coma] even though it is very similar.
“His eye follows people around if they are walking by the bed. He has always had a sort of awareness but it is very limited.”
Mr Walsh said that in the first week after the incident at his home, Mr Niland was able to talk to him and to neighbours on the phone but “he took a turn after that. We expected him to come back from it but he never did.”
He said the family relished any sign that Tom might know them but at this stage he was unsure if his cousin actually knew who he was or whether, like the nurses, he was a familiar figure who regularly appeared by the hospital bed.
“He nods his head. I might say ‘can you see me’ and he nods but it is a very restricted nod because he can’t move from his neck down.
“They have been working on him in the hospital – they are great – and they try to get him to respond better, but they are restricted because he still has the tubes going into his throat, going in the hole in his neck. He is fed through a tube, breathes through a tube, gets his oxygen through that,” said Mr Niland’s cousin.
Because Mr Niland cannot cough or clear his throat or clear his lungs, there was always the worry of infection which could lead to pneumonia which could be lethal for him, explained Mr Walsh.
Describing the care in Sligo hospital as incredible, Mr Walsh said that throughout his visits there were always staff in and out trying to suction fluid to keep Mr Niland’s lungs clear. “They recently put a probe or a camera in to assess his lungs and part of his lung is collapsed.”
Mr Walsh said the family still hoped for a miracle. “We don’t really expect any improvement, not after this length of time. It is seven months now.”
He said Tom did try to form words. “He won’t have a conversation or anything like that. He does try. He did try to say my name. I don’t even know if he knows what happened to him. I wouldn’t even bring it up now.
“But it is pitiful. To see someone lying there, who was so active, to see him totally helpless, lying there and with nothing on the horizon, no hope on the horizon.”
Mr Walsh said the kind responses from so many people in Mr Niland’s community and from all over the country and from outside the country had been overwhelming.
“He’s been getting Mass cards, and relics and even an invitation to El Paso in Texas.
“I read all the cards to him.”
Three men have been sent forward for trial to the Circuit Court arising out of the incident at Mr Niland’s home.
Francis Harman, (54) of Nephin Court, Killala Road, Ballina, Co Mayo; John Clarke (32) of Carrowkelly, Ballina, Co Mayo; and John Irving (28) of Shanwar, Foxford, Co Mayo are charged with aggravated burglary with a knife at the house in Doonflynn, Skreen on January 18th last.
They are also charged with intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to Tom Niland contrary to section 4 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against The Person Act, and with falsely imprisoning Tom Niland.