Dillon – a former Bendigo Pioneer, Digger and 2001 Golden Square premiership player – last month made an emotional return to the Wycheproof-Narraport senior team in the North Central Football League, nearly a year after being struck down with a bout of pancreatitis that almost claimed his life.
But after spending much of the second half of last year in and out of hospital in Bendigo and Melbourne, which included two weeks in an induced coma, Dillon’s fighting spirit and resilience has shone through.
His life has now regained the sense of normality that was taken from him in mid-July last year when, what had initially started as simply “feeling crook” one day at work at the Castlemaine Commonwealth Bank branch, quickly became something much more serious.
“It’s hard for me to fathom what happened because I was out of it for a lot of the time. But from what I’ve been told there were a couple of times where the outlook wasn’t too promising,” Dillon said this week.”
“It started when I felt really crook at work on July 20 last year... it was just an intense pain.
“I spent a night in the Bendigo Hospital and was then referred to the St John of God Hospital, and spent a week there before it turned real nasty.
“I remember a little bit of it at the St John of God Hospital, but the next thing I knew I woke up in the Austin Hospital in intensive care. All up I spent three months in and out of hospital.”
Dillon, who lost 25kgs during his illness, underwent a successful operation in September and after three months of rest and recuperation returned to work just before Christmas.
But to get some understanding of just how close the pancreatitis – an inflamation of the pancreas – came to claiming Dillon’s life, there was a time when the outlook was so grim that a priest was called into the hospital to, as Dillon puts it, “send me on my way”.
“Apparently he got called in to send me on my way, I suppose you could say,” Dillon said.
“I had a bit of a joke with him when he came to see me after I had recovered and said that he had jumped the gun a bit. He was amazed that I was upright again and still going.”
While Dillon, 31, was well enough to resume work part-time at the Commonwealth Bank in December, returning to the footy field with his mates at Wycheproof-Narraport – the club with whom he was best on ground for in the 2010 grand final win over Boort – was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I wasn’t interested in doing much as far as footy was concerned, but Wyche is just a sensational club with the way they were able to help me get back,” Dillon said.
“They allowed me to stay involved without putting too much pressure on me with a role on the bench and things like that.
“At the start of the year I certainly wasn’t planning on playing, but I’m not the best watcher of footy.”
Once he got the hunger back to compete, Dillon slowly worked on rebuilding his lost fitness base and strength, before he felt ready to resume in the Demons’ reserves against Donald on June 16.
After four games in the reserves, during which he was named the Demons’ best in their July 7 win over Boort, he earned a call-up to the senior side for the round 13 game against St Arnaud – almost a year to the day that he had played his last senior match.
And he has picked up from where he left off mid-season last year, kicking seven goals in his first three games back in the senior team.
“My first game back in the reserves took a fair bit out of me, and it’s still taking a while to recover after games, but it’s getting better every week,” Dillon said.
“It’s just great to be back out there playing… the Wyche footy club is just like a big family and their support has been awesome. You couldn’t ask for anything more from the guys up there.”
And nor could Dillon ask any more from his family – mum Maureen, dad Brendan and sisters Marcella and Anne-Louise – who were forced to watch on helplessly last year as their son and brother fought for his life.
“Words can’t describe what mum and dad have done for me,” Dillon said.
“Dad was crook himself and going through chemo at the time I went down. You could tell how much he was hurting, and that was probably the hardest thing… me laying in bed and not being able to do anything for him.
“Mum worked full-time in Melbourne and she stayed down there with me every night and probably got me through when I was ready to pull the pin.
“And my sisters and their families were basically the contact back here for all my mates and took all the messages and so forth
“No doubt, with what they’ve done for me you’d take them all to war. I wouldn’t have got through it without them, simple as that.
“It has been a bit of a battle and taken its toll both physically and mentally.
“But the support I’ve had through all this from the staff at the St John of God, Austin and Waringal Private hospitals, my GP Rohan Molenaar, the North Central Football League and Wycheproof-Narraport footy club, all my close friends who supported my family, and my work colleagues at the Commonwealth Bank has been overwhelming.”
Wycheproof-Narraport team manager Bill Keane described the return of Dillon to the field for the Demons as inspiring for all those involved with the club.
“When you consider they had the priest into him down in Melbourne, things were looking pretty bleak,” Keane said.
“I remember he spoke to our group on the morning of last year’s grand final... he did a good job, but looking at him you would have thought then that he would never play footy again.
“But to have pulled through a life-and-death situation and now been back and played seven games in the reserves and seniors is just inspirational.
“Not only is it fantastic that he is back playing footy, but it’s great to have him back involved with the club.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids in that 17 to 19 age group who all look up to him. There’s no fuss about him... he doesn’t beat his chest or anything like that, he just keeps getting the pill and never wastes it. He’s getting better each game.”
Dillon has spent his three games in the senior team playing in a forward pocket, where he has been picked for tomorrow against Boort.
“He had a run around in the twos for a month to get a bit of touch and fitness back, and he’s been back up in the seniors for the past three games and going well in the forward pocket,” Demons coach James Coatsworth said.
“It has been a big boost for us getting him back. He obviously went through a fair bit last year and wasn’t sure if he was going to play footy at all.