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How super-fit Northern Ireland bodybuilder Mark Hegarty bounced back from near fatal illness

By Leona O'Neill

Just four years ago Strabane man Mark Hegarty was lying desperately ill in a hospital bed being fed through a tube and hours from death.

Today he is training for a bodybuilding competition and says everything has changed beyond recognition.

Mark has Crohn's disease, a condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system.

So ill with sepsis was the 29-year-old at one point that doctors had to remove his large intestine in an emergency surgery that they warned could have killed him or saved his life. He made a vow in his hospital bed that if he got better, he'd ensure that he'd give life his best shot.

"My Crohn's disease symptoms started when I was 15," he said. "It was a tough time because I was a teenager trying to get on with life. It was awful, I just wanted to blend in like everyone else.

"When I was around 20 years old it flared up really badly and wouldn't settle down. I lost four stone in three weeks.

"My immune system was attacking the lining of my digestive system. I lost lots of blood.

"From the age of 20 to 25 years old I was in hospital non-stop.

"I had blood transfusions and iron transfusions and drugs to weaken my immune system to stop the attacks. But my body was resistant to everything and the disease had weakened my intestine so much it had perforated it, from which I developed sepsis.

"It very quickly developed into a life or death situation which ended in me having my entire large intestines removed."

Mark's family were called to the hospital as surgeons prepared to operate on the critically ill hospital worker.

"It was a very serious situation," he said. "I am 6ft tall and weighed under eight stone.

"I was extremely ill and being fed through a tube. I had a huge abscess in my abdomen. I couldn't move and no one could touch me in case it would burst and kill me."

Mark had the surgery to remove his large intestine and was fitted with an ileostomy bag to collect waste products. He said he struggled with the thought of wearing the bag for a time.

"The surgery was the best thing that ever happened, in a way," he said. "I resisted getting it for a long time, as most people do but then it was forced upon me. There was certainly a stigma attached to having ileostomy bag back then, there seems to be a lot more visibility now. It was a taboo.

"You just never know how people are going to react to it. I have had a few problems in the past, but most of the time people are fine with it.

"The bag is just part of who I am now," he said.

"Having the surgery has made such a positive change in my life. I can do things, go places. I am able to lead a normal life, advance my career. Before, when I was ill, I was constantly off sick. Trying to bring my career on was impossible. I can go to the gym now and keep fit."

Not only is Mark going to the gym five days a week, he has his eye on winning a prestigious bodybuilding competition later in the year.

"I started to focus on keeping fit about a year after my operation," he said.

"I took it very easy to begin with, just walking, jogging then running then weight training.

"I went to see trainer Noel Smyth and did a transformation boot camp with him.

"I explained my condition and he adjusted my diet and I have noticed so many changes in my health, my body and how the drugs I'm on work better.

"I have my eye on the Transformation Prize at the XFS Fitness Showcase which is happening in October in Derry.

"I am proud of my achievement and how far I've come.

"When I looked at myself in the hospital bed and I had a drip coming out of both arms, a tube up my nose and staples holding my abdomen closed, so weak and sick I thought I would never get over it.

"But I made a promise to myself in that bed that I wasn't going to let it stop me, that I wasn't going to lay down to this and that I would give this life everything that I had.

"The person in that hospital bed, and the person training in the gym today are two different people.

"I never in a million years thought I'd get to this stage. I am so lucky."

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