Saturday 16 December 2017

‘Leukaemia won’t stop me finishing my exams,’ says brave Alicia

Grateful: Alicia Tobin
Grateful: Alicia Tobin
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

On Friday, May 1, Alicia Tobin sat down in front of a doctor and got the devastating news that she had leukaemia.

Although she didn't know what it meant to have cancer in her blood cells, she felt scared and vulnerable.

But those feelings didn't last. She hit the books and continued to study for her Leaving Cert. It was an escape - a respite. Despite undergoing difficult treatment, the 18-year-old kept studying.

Nothing was going to quell her ambitions of becoming a an aircraft engineer and pilot.

Then, five days before the Leaving Cert began, Alicia was told she was in remission.

Over the past two weeks she has been sitting her Leaving Cert between a desk at St James's Hospital in Dublin and her school in Co Carlow.

Though she still has a long road ahead, Alicia wants to speak out about her experience to help others struggling with the illness. Taking a break from her study at her home in Fenagh, Co Carlow, Alicia said she first thought her symptoms were simply exam-related anxiety.

"I just felt very tired, I was learning how to drive and studying a lot so I put it down to stress," she said. "When they told me it was leukaemia, I didn't know how to react. I was a bit scared because I didn't really know what it was," she said.

During the last week of April, Alicia had unusual pains in her shoulders and chest. Her parents, Kathleen and Michael Tobin, knew something was wrong. "She woke at half five and said she didn't sleep well. At breakfast I saw her tipping her bowl of cereal into the bin and she was a bit hunched over - we knew she wasn't OK," said Kathleen.

The local GP sent Alicia to St Luke's in Kilkenny for a chest X-ray.

"We were practically there all day. They took blood tests and said the results were a bit odd but that it could be anything," said Kathleen.

"You don't realise until you are actually in the mix, how brutal it is, we had no idea what was wrong," said her dad, Michael.

Despite feeling tired and weak, the main thing on Alicia's mind was study.

Two long, stressful days passed before Alicia's leukaemia was finally diagnosed by Dr Larry Bacon at St James's Hospital. Her parents said their "world collapsed" but Alicia's courageous attitude and the kindness of St James's medical staff has been a "marvellous support".

"She made it easier on us. She'd say 'stop talking about it' and 'act normal'. She is just amazing," said Michael.

Alicia stayed in St James's for five weeks. "I didn't really get any side-effects from chemo. The lumbar punctures and bone marrow biopsy were sore but I was OK," said Alicia. Her school, St Leo's College, and St James's arranged for her to sit her exams in hospital.

Shortly after hearing of her remission, the determined teenager sat her maths, Irish and LCVP exams in hospital.

Alicia had an independent supervisor and quiet signs outside her door."I was a little nervous but once I got into my paper I zoned out," she said. Now Alicia is an out-patient and is sitting the rest of her exams at school.

"I just want any kid going through this to take every day as it comes," said Alicia who is "eternally grateful" to her year head Vivienne Kelly, school principal Clare Ryan and doctors Larry Bacon and Prof Elisabeth Vanderberghe for their "constant support".

Sunday Independent

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