By Lorraine Murphy
On Wednesday January 31, local man Gary Hill (81) ran and swam onto our screens as part of RTE1’s Operation Transformation.
Better known to many as Mr Hill, Gary moved to Mullingar in 1972 and began teaching in Wilson’s Hospital School before moving to Loreto College where he stayed until he retired in 2000. When producers of the lifestyle program got in touch with Mullingar parkrun to find someone of interest, they suggested Gary.
The producers then contacted Gary and arranged to film him in action; running along the Royal canal way and dipping in Lough Owel. “They heard that I had started to do a bit of swimming,” Gary told Topic. “Probably not a good idea to start trying to do it in the middle of the winter but that’s what I did anyway and I’ve quite enjoyed it just I mean I’m only just in and out, dipping, but it’s fairly invigorating.”
The producers of the lifestyle programme were interested in Gary’s story for a number of reasons. “They seemed interested that I’d had cancer and they asked a few questions on that. They were looking for new things people had started to do and I mentioned I’d started to swim.”
Six years ago, Gary had prostate cancer which was treated successfully but last year underwent chemotherapy after being diagnosed with a different cancer- Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a relatively aggressive cancer and can quickly spread through the body. Gary believes his recovery was helped hugely by his involvement in parkrun, which started back in May 2017, when his daughter came to stay from Bangor. “She said she was going to do the parkrun the following morning and I asked what she meant, was she going to run around the town park? She laughed and then told me all about the 5km weekly run. I didn’t know we had anything like that but she assured me we did and we found it online. I went along with her and we did it that Saturday for the first time.”
Since then, Gary is a regular attendee, having completed 193 parkruns by continuing to run throughout his treatment. “There would be more but COVID halted them for quite a while. I kept it up most of the time through the chemo, very slowly, but it kept me going and I somehow kept well through it. It was only to the very end that I was not eating too well and feeling a bit sickish and mouth ulcers and I lost most of my toenails and that was sore enough, but for the most part I wasn’t too bad really with it at all. Everyone was so encouraging and thoughtful, asking how I was every week.”
Approval for chemotherapy treatment hung on in the balance for Gary. Although Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most easily treated types of cancer, the treatments can put a tremendous strain on the body and therefore treatment plans differ depending on general health and age.
“The consultant said my type of lymphoma was very unusual in older people, that it’s nearly always younger people and the particular chemo drugs I needed were very hard on the heart. They were very successful, but usually given to people in their 20s so the consultant was very slow to give me this treatment until he was absolutely sure that my heart would be alright. I was put through a whole lot of heart tests, and eventually he agreed to let me have it. Maybe it was down to my fitness or my genes or whatever makes your heart alright, but he agreed to let me have it. I’m 81 now so they started the treatment when I was 80.”
Gary, a keen photographer, stocked his arsenal with many weapons for his battle and not just physical. “I have great trust in God and I believe that helped a lot as well, not that I feel I’m entitled to anything from God. At the same time, it was an inspiration that God knew all about us and you wonder why is it that some people find it easier going through it all than others. I have no answer to that but I would certainly say I was helped spiritually as well as physically.”
It was with family and friends that Gary found the greatest comfort. “We have five kids who were great right the way through it all. None of them live in Westmeath and they must have made a pact between themselves because at least once a week, they’d come down and make sure I had everything I needed because I felt quite weak. Carrying in buckets of coal or logs would have been quite a challenge to me but they they looked after all that and kept in touch all the time. Friends were so kind too, I am blessed with great friends.
“One of the things the nurses told me going through the treatment was that social interaction was important and to keep contact with friends. They said not to cut off company or stay home feeling sorry for yourself all the time.”
As Gary heads towards his 200th parkrun, his mind turns to recovery of a different kind. “I think my best time ever to do parkrun was just under 32 minutes and I averaged at 35 minutes consistently. I got it down before the cancer and then it went right back up, hitting the hour sometimes but I’m back down to about 40 minutes. At parkrun there’s an actual genuine measurement and record there, which is great. It’s one thing to say I feel a bit more energy this week than I did last week. But there you actually see it in black and white in terms of the record that’s been taken for you.
“Really, I’m just thankful for every day now. They say you’re as young or as old as you feel and that’s the truth.”