Catching Covid has been an all too common experience in Irish society in recent years, but for former music director of The Late Late Show Frank McNamara it was “one of those life-changing moments”. He had “the right one”, the Delta variant.
Last year, McNamara was unwell for a week, but on day 10, just when things seemed to be getting better, he tried to go from his bedroom to his bathroom and suddenly found he couldn’t breathe.
He fought his way downstairs and asked his wife, former RTÉ presenter Theresa Lowe, to call A&E. His son rushed him to the hospital, where he was put on oxygen. McNamara knew he had some underlying conditions – clogged arteries and emphysema – but further testing revealed he had something he hadn’t suspected; esophageal cancer.
The news was brought to him “very gently” by Dr. Deirdre O’Donovan, a gastroenterologist at Blackrock Clinic.
“She immediately contacted surgeon William Rob,” says McNamara. “So he took over and came to see me at the hospital that night because that’s when I was admitted. He assembled a whole team and told me what was going to happen.” The surgery was supposed to be “non-invasive,” but McNamara wryly notes that he ended up with 19 holes in his body anyway.
“I’ve had an operation, but it’s two operations in one. First they go into the stomach area and remove part of the stomach that was under the huge tumor; about the size of a tennis ball,” he says.
“Then for the second operation they go into the chest and remove most of the esophagus and all the lumps, then pull the stomach into a banana shape and use that to replace the esophagus. So the stomach ends up in the chest and has a much smaller capacity.”
At the time of the surgery, it was clear McNamara had a long history of Covid and was developing pneumonia, pneumonia, on both sides of his body.
“Because I had that, I couldn’t irradiate the tumor. Radiation can cause pneumonia, so that wasn’t an option.”
Instead, he was given “a very aggressive form of chemotherapy” for eight weeks, followed by another operation, during which his esophagus and parts of his stomach were examined under a special microscope to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread.
Chemotherapy caused his hair to fall out and he says his wife ordered him to have his hair cut before he went “from Beethoven to Ghandi”.
“Hair loss is a big deal because it’s like telling the world you’re sick,” he says.
McNamara and Lowe met when he auditioned her for a show called The music show in 1983. “We weren’t very imaginative with the name,” he laughs. He asked her out.
“I was almost afraid to ask her if she could say no. It was almost to the point where it was almost too late to ask her out, but eventually I had the courage and I did it, and we’ve never looked back.”
They have long been one of the Irish media power couples, he is the musical director of The Late Late Show – he has very fond memories of working with Gay Byrne, “a great man to work with and a good listener and a fantastic intellect” – and she is the presenter of various programs including the long-running quiz series where in the world. The couple now runs their own media coaching company and have four children together.
The various health problems also came at the end of some difficult years for her. In 2020, the High Court authorized a debt write-off of almost €3 million. These debts had been secured against the couple’s family home in Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath. McNamara says the stress of the whole situation compounded the health issues he was going through.
“You worry, you get a hole in your stomach, you get nervous, you get butterflies in your stomach, all the emotions attack the stomach system. And obviously [my money troubles] was a serious underlying concern for 12 years that was taking a toll on my physical being.”
He had heard Nietzsche’s famous phrase: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. “And I said to Jesus, ‘I’m strong enough now, leave me alone’. Because there are so many things over the years, one and the other. When the doctor left the room after breaking the bad news about the cancer, I yelled at him. I said, ‘Jesus, what are you doing to me?’.”
For a moment, he says, he was angry, but his sister, who had been going through her own health struggles, shared something a nurse had told her that spoke to him.
“The nurse at the time said to her that the people who lie down and die, die and the people who get up and live, live, and she said you have to go through it. And it’s something that’s put in front of you and you can’t avoid it or you can’t walk away from it – you have to go through it. You have no choice.”
If there was one bright spot in the whole thing, it was that the theaters were closed and the live music had been halted.
“It was a good time to get sick,” says McNamara. “There was no work. There was no live music anywhere apart from the odd funeral or something.”
He was put on two-week cycles of chemotherapy, but the treatment plan at least gave him something to hold on to. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve been through bad things in my life,’ which at times I didn’t know if they were going to end or when they were going to end, let alone when they were going to end. But I already knew by the end of March 2022 that it would all be over.
“So I said, ‘The light is already at the end of the tunnel, so no matter how bad it gets, I know it won’t last — we’re going to make it’.”
Still, there were down moments. “I felt sorry for myself while lying on the couch watching Netflix. I think I’ve seen everything on Netflix by now. And I thought, ‘I can’t do this, so this isn’t me’. My kids got a little freaked out because it wasn’t me. They said, “God, papa is really sick, he never just lies down”.
It was his passion for music that got him through this period. “Although I played all the time, I didn’t really go down and practice classical music properly. But while all of this was happening, I was practicing for the first time in 40 years. I would say I’m the only person who ever studies during chemo The Mephisto Waltz by Liszt, the piece that is technically and conditionally the most difficult to play. I learned that through chemo.”
The Mephisto Waltz will be part of a new show, The apple and the treein which he takes the stage with his son JJ, who is also an accomplished pianist, currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has performed as a soloist with international orchestras, winning several major national competitions, most notably the 2019 coveted Mabel Swainson Pianoforte Award at the Feis Ceoil.
“Classical concerts can be a bit stuffy,” says McNamara. “We want to change that a bit. I’ll share a few stories between pieces and a little bit about my health journey. Hopefully the music will be serious and played well, but that doesn’t have to be all. There is a balance I think. We end up doing some encores of both of us playing the piano together and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
While recovering from stomach cancer, he has arthritis “literally all over” his body. He has been on steroids for long Covid and these seemed to be helping with the pain in his fingers.
“Steroids are great for targeting inflammation of all kinds, so my arthritis started to go away. It was still there but the pain was gone. It would also help me play the piano so that was another positive result of Covid. It’s been a really tough couple of years but things are looking a lot better now.”
Tickets for The apple and the tree are on offer the apple and the tree.ie.
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/frank-mcnamara-my-money-troubles-were-a-serious-underlying-worry-for-12-years-which-took-its-toll-on-my-physical-well-being-41488514.html Frank McNamara: “For 12 years, my money worries were a serious underlying concern that took a toll on my physical wellbeing”