Second chances - Four people who overcame serious illness
Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30
Surviving a serious illness can open your eyes to the gift of life. We meet four people whose own close calls made them reassess what's truly important.
Meath native Alison Kelly (40) has just returned to work as Strategy Director for a digital marketing company based in Dublin after battling cancer since April 2014. She lives in Dún Laoghaire with her husband Colm and two sons Lughan (7) and Fionn (3).
'Being told you have a 30pc chance of survival makes you reassess all that you hold dear in life," says Alison, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer, that metastasised to her womb, uterus, ovaries and appendix, in April 2014. What followed was aggressive chemotherapy and surgery that removed all the tumours, her womb, ovaries, part of her bowel and propelled her into early menopause at the age of just 39. But it was the thought of leaving her husband Colm and children that upset her most.
"One of my biggest fears was that my son Fionn, who was only 18 months when I was diagnosed, wouldn't remember me." Alison recalls writing a 'goodbye' letter to her boys the night before the surgery, a letter she hasn't been able to read since and probably never will. She puts her survival down to the amazing care she received from doctors, family and friends. "One positive to come from all of this is knowing how much I'm loved."
Her sister Siobhan, an oncology nurse in the Mater Hospital where Alison was treated, was a pillar of support offering medical, practical and emotional support throughout her treatment. But it's evident that Alison's resourceful attitude was seminal in her recovery. "I treated it as a project," she says, "I just had to work through it."
Alison admits some of the more challenging days have been recently; trying to get back to the routine of work and life. Her no-nonsense approach to recovery has formed the foundation of a book, which started as a diary. "Getting chemotherapy is a bit like 'how do planes fly?' - many people don't understand how it works or what's involved. The book is really a personal guide to dealing with cancer for patients, family and friends."
Her advice for anyone suffering a serious illness is to surround themselves with supportive people. "Love the life you have, tell people you love them and never miss an opportunity to have a good laugh."
Jillian Ennis O'Boyle
Six years ago Jillian Ennis O'Boyle (38) from Meath developed vasculitis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation to the blood vessels, which led to Jillian experiencing five strokes and subsequent loss of movement and speech.
"I'm training for my second mini-marathon," laughs Jillian Ennis O'Boyle who completed her first marathon in 2012, just two years after suffering a massive stroke that left her paralysed and speechless.
"I was like a baby - I had to learn to speak and move again." Two years later and a few months after completing her first mini marathon, Jillian suffered four additional strokes over the course of a few days until surgeons performed a cranial vascular bypass fusing blood vessels in her brain. This, she was told, would not necessarily improve her condition but would help maintain it, giving her some quality of life. But it hasn't stopped Jillian trying to improve; she walks every day with the help of a walking aid and continues to keep her mind active by writing a book about her journey.
"Before all of this happened five years ago, I was working in the off-licence I owned with my husband Fergus and was pursuing an acting career. I've had to accept my condition and bury the acting dream but that doesn't mean I can't pursue other new and interesting things. I won't let my experience stop me."
Jillian's courage, capability and determination are obvious. Her husband Fergus describes her as "the most independent and brave women he's had the pleasure of knowing". Jillian admits her recovery would not have been possible without her husband who "keeps her fighting" but that her destiny is in her own hands. "Having a stroke slows everything down; I've learnt to be more patient and to do things myself. It takes me two hours to dress myself in the morning but it's important that I dress myself." She admits to having her 'bad' days but they rarely linger. "The first time it really hit me was when I was moved from Beaumont Hospital to the NRH (National Rehabilitation Hospital) in Dún Laoghaire. I was feeling very sorry for myself until I realised I was the only one who could improve or change my situation. I eventually walked out the doors unaided, it was like winning the Lotto."
Cork-born Diarmuid O'Connell suffered a cardiac arrest at 23 while playing a football match. He has since swapped his football boots for a teaching career in Limerick. He spends his spare time coaching football and works closely with the Irish Heart Foundation to ensure CPR training and defibrillators are available in rural areas.
One per cent of people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside of hospital survive, a statistic that 29-year-old Diarmuid O'Connell is all too familiar with. "I owe my three friends my life," says Diarmuid who suffered a cardiac arrest two days after his 23rd birthday while playing a football match in Mallow, Co Cork.
The fact that two of his teammates had recently completed a CPR training course and that the club where they were playing was one of the few to possess a defibrillator were two very large strokes of luck. Since Diarmuid was nowhere near the ball or the opposing team when he collapsed, his friends deduced it was something serious and started CPR straight away, resuscitating him after three minutes.
"Knowing the boys only had a small window to do what they did still haunts me. I came very close to being a sudden adult death syndrome statistic," says Diarmuid, who admits to being very emotional when meeting his friends for the first time in the aftermath and recalling the entire event. "I often think about my how my family must have felt walking into Cork University Hospital not knowing if I was alive."
One of the biggest challenges he's faced since his cardiac arrest has been surrendering his football boots. "I went back to playing football after the initial event but collapsed again. Thankfully I had a defibrillator fitted which saved my life and I was able to walk off the field." Nowadays he prefers a gentler exercise routine, having just completed the Ring of Kerry by bike.
"I've learnt that there's more to life than football," laughs Diarmuid. "Closing that door has opened lots more; I've travelled the world and I'm discovering new hobbies that I love. I came close to dying but I consider myself very lucky to be able to walk around and travel the world. There's people worse off than me." Diarmuid is looking forward to his marriage to fiancé Niamh Cronin in 2016. They're planning a far-flung honeymoon without too much high-octane adventure. There definitely won't be any sky diving, maybe just some cycling.
32-year-old accountant Anne Hernon from Kilcullen, Co Kildare, was just 26 when she contracted bacterial meningitis.
When Anne Hernon woke up with a bad headache one morning six years ago, she convinced herself it was another migraine. When the pain got worse, she went to hospital only to be sent home with a suspected sinus infection. The next day, when she couldn't blink or lift her head off the pillow, her partner Alan took her to a nearby VHI clinic. Within 45 minutes she was in isolation for suspected meningitis.
"I was very naïve," admits Anne, who insisted she stay at home and finish the antibiotics. "If it hadn't been for Alan, I think there would have been a different outcome, possible brain damage or death." Even after being diagnosed and treated for bacterial meningitis Anne's determined nature had her back to work within two weeks, but the headaches persisted. The meningitis had left a chemical imbalance causing a build-up of fluid on her brain, in turn causing the headaches. Despite regular lumbar punctures the headaches continued.
"I didn't have much quality of life, I was on 15 tablets a day for the pain and was trying to function normally. I did a lot of research and found a fantastic neurologist and we decided brain surgery, while not without its risks, was my best chance for a better quality of life."
Although the surgery has been a success, Anne suffered a stroke in January 2015, which resulted in her losing her sight temporarily. "Thankfully I'm fine and have no long-term damage. I think having to cope with meningitis and everything that came with that helped prepare me for the stroke." But she does admit to suffering some depression while recovering from brain surgery.
She has learnt that it's important to stay busy, ask for help when you need it and appreciate what you have in life.
"I used to think meningitis was a 'children's disease' and that strokes only happened to older people but it's important for people to know these illnesses don't discriminate. Being ill has made me slow down and appreciate the little things - a goodbye kiss in the morning or phone calls with my mom and dad. I've learned not to take anything for granted and live the best life I can every day."