Six hours in surgery, nine days in hospital, four scars on the stomach — “I've gone through the mill,” Tommy Bowe says with a wry smile.
BUT WING STAR TOMMY RELIEVED TO HAVE THE NIGHTMARE OF KIDNEY OPERATION BEHIND HIMAlarm: Tommy Bowe, seen here outside Dublin’s Aviva Stadium this week, has admitted he was frightened by his kidney scares
His departure from this season was accompanied with little fanfare. On Good Friday morning, the Ospreys broke the news that the Ireland winger needed an operation on a haematoma on his kidney.
The surgery would keep him out for four months, denying him a farewell to the Welsh club and ruling him out of Ireland's summer tour to New Zealand, but it proved more difficult than it appeared.
That weekend Leinster beat Cardiff and Ulster shocked Munster at Thomond Park. Bowe's woes were quickly forgotten as the season continued at its relentless pace.
While his international colleagues were ploughing on, the 28-year-old Monaghan man spent a prolonged period in the Mater Private in Dublin, before returning to Emyvale to recuperate under the care of his parents.
He is now on the mend and enjoying a rest, but he admits being ‘scared’ by the experience, which started so innocuously.
Bowe's girlfriend Lucy Whitehouse is a nurse at Barry Hospital in Cardiff and was practising taking blood pressure manually when she noticed something was wrong.
“She said, ‘Jaysus, that's very high’ and I told her, ‘You're not very good at your job’,” says Bowe, who has signed a three-year deal to return to Ulster.
It turned out she was, and after a visit to the Ospreys' doctor, Bowe (pictured) realised he had high hyper-tension. He was put on a watching brief but when he arrived into Ireland camp for the Six Nations, the doctors sent him to hospital for further examination.
“A lot of the tests came back normal until they did a scan on my kidneys and I had a large haematoma, or a large bruise, near my kidney and it was bending my kidney which looked like an hourglass, it was so distorted,” he explains.
“The blood was struggling to get through and it was releasing a hormone to tell my heart to pump harder.”
Bowe wasn't going to let the problem keep him out of the Six Nations and received the all-clear from his doctors. But once the tournament had ended, he knew it would have to be dealt with.
“Removing the haematoma was the best option,” says the Puma ambassador.
“It turned out it was very hard, a bit like a golf ball. It looked like it had calcified and could have been there for five years or so — they just don't know.
“A bruise gets smaller and smaller until it disappears — unless it calcifies. That means it hardens on the outside into a ball.
“The bruise was a lot bigger, but it got smaller and smaller and eventually got harder.
“I've had needles stuck into the side of me to try and syringe it out, but the eventual thought was to get it was removed.
“It was scary enough. I hear of boys going to operations week in, week out almost. I have been very fortunate not to have had an operation before this one and I didn't realise the length or size of procedure it was going to be.
“I was in surgery for six hours and I ended up in hospital for a lot longer than most guys with a knee operation. But it was the right thing to do and I'm feeling good now.”
The recuperation has given Bowe a break from rugby, something he hadn't had since bursting onto the scene in 2003. While the initial decision was a hard one to take, he believes he will benefit from the rest in the long term.
“This is the first break I've had from rugby for a summer almost since I started,” he says.
“I can't do weights, can't run too much and I've been swimming and cycling a bit. It is a great opportunity for me to recharge the batteries.
“I have been playing consistently since 2003-04 and it is something that has come at the right time.
“The Ospreys are in the Pro12 final and with the boys going on a summer tour, I would have liked to have been involved — but both mentally and physically I needed a bit of a break.”
He will up his training next month before pre-season at Ulster kicks off in July but the rest should do him good, potentially giving the province's new signing some buffer from
the early retirements that have been dominating the Irish rugby scene of late.
Shane Horgan, Jerry Flannery and David Wallace have all stepped aside, but it was Denis Leamy's decision to hang up his boots at 30 that hit the Ulsterman the hardest.
Bowe made won his first cap alongside Leamy and soldiered 28 times in a green jersey with the Cashel man.
“It is extremely sad and came as a shock to me,” he said.
“I'm nearly 30, I'm 28 now. It is scary for people our age to look at people like that retiring.
“But this is a very physical game, it is getting more and more demanding. We have better medical teams, we get looked after well but some of the knocks you get, it is hard. The wear and tear your body is under, there is very little you can do. It is a huge disappointment, I texted him. I've had some great times with him off the pitch as well as on it — he's a top man as a friend as well.”
As a result of the raft of early retirements, Bowe's mind has started to drift towards life after rugby.
“It is a scary proposition, it really is,” he says.
“I'm sure I'll have one or two opportunities, but it is the challenge of trying to find something that will match the intensity, the buzz I get from professional sport.
“It is something that you won't ever match, but you need something to keep you ticking.
“I have a degree in engineering and I'm hoping to do a diploma next year. I have thought about it, I have tried to get involved in businesses over the years. Who knows what I could do when I retire from rugby?”
He has a bit to go yet before crossing that bridge and Ulster fans will be waiting for his return to his home province with bated breath.
Bowe may have been through the mill, but he is close to coming out the other side. He's just hoping that his rejuvenation will help him last longer than some of his old comrades.
Tommy Bowe is a brand ambassador for PUMA, the official kit supplier to the IRFU. www.PUMA.com
Tommy Bowe on...
Moving home to Ulster: “It is a great time to go back. I would have loved to have been back for the Heineken Cup final, but they are making huge strides. You talk to the guys and they are all in good form. It seems to be a good place to be at the moment.”
Ospreys' chances against Leinster in Sunday's Pro12 final: “The Ospreys have a very good record at the RDS. I don't think they will be as nervous as some teams coming over to Dublin. They will have watched Leinster at the weekend and know what a top-class side they are, but it's a final.”
Ireland's hopes of beating New Zealand: “Irish rugby is flying at the minute in the provinces. They are going to be really match-hardened going over and really up for the first Test and you would suspect New Zealand maybe will be thinking there isn't much of a test coming. I think the first Test would be a great way of catching them.”
The difficulty of touring New Zealand: “During the World Cup it was a nice place to be and New Zealand is an out-doorsy place. During the winter, you go on Facebook and Twitter and everybody at home is sitting out in the sunshine, sipping cocktails and you're in a hotel with the rain pounding against the window, so it is tough — and then you have to play the All Blacks!”
Wales' international success v Ireland's provincial success: “It is the million dollar question. When I came back for the Six Nations Munster, Leinster and Ulster had performed really well in the Heineken Cup pools. But yet again, it didn't really get going for us. We don't have a good record against Wales over the last couple of years. A lot of their players have stepped up to the plate under Warren Gatland (pictured) and they play a pattern that we struggle with.”