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Saturday 22 September 2018

Limerick woman overcame a chronic health condition - and a lack of farming experience - to make a go of running a 160-head beef enterprise

Laura Madigan comes from a non-farming background but she now helps her husband Pat run the family farm near Askeaton in Co Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney / Press 22
Laura Madigan comes from a non-farming background but she now helps her husband Pat run the family farm near Askeaton in Co Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney / Press 22
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

The physicality of farming is a phrase that's regularly voiced in agriculture circles these days. Lifting, pulling and dragging, knocks and kicks are just some of the ordeals that farmers endure on a daily basis, but what if you're a farmer with a chronic disease? How do you cope?

For Limerick beef farmer Laura Madigan, managing her 160-strong mixed cattle farm as well as the chronic Crohn's Disease is an every day reality.

Crohn's Disease is an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that causes inflammation of the digestive tract and can lead to stomach pain, severe diarrhoea, fatigue and weight loss.

"You just have to be careful and not be silly about things," says Laura who was diagnosed with the disease in 2007 and farms with her husband Pat in Newbridge on the banks of the River Lee near Askeaton.

"We have a bucket feeder with 10 teats so you just have to spread that out and be careful and have common sense."

Laura and Pat married in Rome in 2001; although they attended the same national school, she insists that they weren't childhood sweethearts.

It was another few years until Laura was diagnosed with Crohn's, but she had health issues from the start of their marriage.

"Before I was ever diagnosed with Crohn's I had two ectopic pregancies but thankfully in 2002 my son Dylan was born and I had my daughter Leah in 2006," she says.

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Nausea

"After that, though, feelings of nausea and urgency became more frequent and I would need to plan ahead all the time."

After numerous tests, Laura was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which is less well-known but often just as harsh as Crohn's, and she was put on a high dose of steroids and various treatments.

While some of these treatments worked for a time, none of them were enough to prevent the debilitating symptoms from returning again and again.

"Nothing was working. I developed joint pain too -I describe it as when you go to pick up the kettle it just felt like every bone in my hand was shattering," she recalls.

"I then got drug-induced lupus and was going to the toilet up to 20 times a day after that. I missed out on so much during that period - weddings, birthdays, and had to give up my job in the crèche."

In 2010, Laura took the brave decision to undergo surgery and have her bowel removed in the Bons Secours Hospital in Cork.

"All of the colon was removed. The nurses told me that when they took it out it just all fell apart, which shows how damaged it was," she says.

Now Laura has a ileostomy bag which she nicknames 'Gucci'.

While Laura isn't from a farming background, in an unexpected twist of fate in the years since surgery she has become fully involved on the farm and considers herself a farmer now.

"It's only in the last seven or eight years that I've been able to get properly involved on the farm.

"My dad is an electrician and my mother worked from home so initially it was a culture shock," she says.

"It was hard to get used to the fact that it's a 365-day-a -year job."

While Laura's quality of life has improved since surgery, she still has flare-ups; the fact that farming means she can work from home makes it easier to deal with.

"It's good in a way I don't have to ring in to work sick but it can be hard on the family when I'm not able, but on good days I can do more," she explains.

"It was harder when the lads were small because my mother and father stepped in a lot because Pat works off-farm as well.

"It can put a strain on relationships but has made the whole family stronger."

Having worked in a crèche and a factory, Laura adds that even if she felt she was up to it she would never leave farming.

"It's a great life. Yes, it's not all new cars. It is hard going. I never would've pictured myself as a farmer but would never see myself going back to work somewhere else," she says.

"You're your own boss, you spend lots of time outside and you aren't tied down to a desk. I'm there for the kids too and they can be apart of it. It's great for the family."

While Laura explains that now deceased father-in-law was "thrilled" that she and her daughter were active on the farm, she says that some people in the industry still struggle with the very notion of female farmers. " Sometimes when I go to the creamery you get the impression from some farmers that they think you're just there to buy washing-up liquid," Laura says.

Knowledge

"Another time a sales rep came in to the yard while I was feeding cattle and asked if there was a man around. I said no and asked could I help him and he then asked when would the man be home!

"Women do as much as men if not more than men on farms.

"Yes I don't have the same knowledge as Pat because he's been on the farm all of his life and born in to it but I'm learning every day and I love it".

Laura hopes that by telling her story of living with Crohn's Disease that it will help other people to talk about it and feel less embarrassed about the condition.

"I had no quality of life before surgery. I was just existing. I would have to bring a change of clothes with me everywhere and toilet rolls," she explains.

"I still have flare-ups and bad days but now I can do anything or go anywhere.

"There's great support out there now for people and different groups on Facebook people can join to talk about their own experience with people in the same position. It shouldn't be a taboo.

"There are days where I'd like to be curled up on the couch but then the silage has to be done.

"Attitude is everything and you have to focus on the positives."

Indo Farming

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