Heartbreak of losing a child overnight
Mother Siobhan Carroll tells Joy Orpen how the family has responded to the sudden death of daughter Aoibhe
IF you ask 36-year-old Siobhan Carroll how many children she has, she will tell you "three" -- and then she will add "at home". Those two tiny words may seem innocuous, but they are painfully loaded. They allude to the awful fact that her eldest child, Aoibhe, was taken from her just over three years ago.
It was a death so unexpected and so sudden that almost no one could have saved the little girl, but Siobhan is determined to do all she can to spare other families the pain the Carroll family suffered.
Galwegian Siobhan always wanted a big family. She fell in love with Noel Carroll, who also adores children, and two years after their marriage Siobhan became pregnant with twins (Ben and Daniel). But sadly she miscarried at 17 weeks.
"We thought we'd never get over it," she says. "Then I got pregnant with Aoibhe." (She pronounces it as Ava.)
Aoibhe was the second baby born in Ireland on New Year's Day 2004 so she made the newspapers and the TV news. "She came with a bang and she left with a bang," says Siobhan, who explains that their tragedy began on April 1, 2008 when, pregnant and feeling unwell, she was sent to hospital and kept in overnight.
By then she and Noel also had a son called Eimhin (pronounced Evan); so Siobhan's mother, Mary Holohan, looked after the toddler and later collected Aoibhe from Montessori school.
Aoibhe was a talented child with big blue eyes and an infectious smile. She adored clothes and shopping and she loved to sing; Over The Rainbow was her favourite song. She showed promise as an Irish dancer, had loads of friends and was always busy.
"In hindsight she seemed to be making the most of her time here," says Siobhan. "The week before she died she spent time with every one of her friends and with her grannies and granddads -- and that wasn't always the case. It's as if she knew."
On that fateful day, Mary, Aoibhe and Eimhin had a happy afternoon. When Noel returned from visiting Siobhan in the hospital, Mary went home.
That night Siobhan phoned the children from her hospital bed. "Aoibhe told me she had been learning about Africa at school. When we had finished chatting I said 'I love you Aoibhe' and she said 'I love you mum'. That was the last time I talked to my little girl."
Later that night Aoibhe woke with diarrhoea and vomiting. Initially Noel wasn't too concerned because as Siobhan puts it: "He is one of those hands-on, competent dads. You could safely leave 40 kids with him."
So Noel changed his four-year-old's soiled pyjamas, he gave her some medicine and put her back to bed.
When she awoke again a while later, Noel called the after-hours doctor who told him that there was a vomiting bug going around and that he was doing all the right things under the circumstances.
When Aoibhe awoke yet again, Noel called the after-hours doctor who continued to reassure him.
He then called Mary, and when Aoibhe heard that her granny was coming over, she brightened considerably.
The two adults checked the little girl for any clues but apart from a slight temperature they found none -- no obvious rashes or swellings. She had no problem with the light or the noise from the Tom and Jerry cartoons they were watching on television.
Finally, Aoibhe seemed to drift off to sleep while lying in her much-loved daddy's arms.
But then Noel got the shock of his life -- Aoibhe's lips were turning blue and she was limp. The Carrolls' nightmare had begun in earnest.
He handed his precious daughter to his mother-in-law and frantically called an ambulance before phoning his wife to tell her their child was really ill.
He alerted neighbours who ran out to direct the ambulance to the Carroll house. Siobhan called Noel back. He told her the paramedics were "working on her".
She was totally confused. Why were they "working on" Aoibhe, when she had only been suffering from diarrhoea? Then she heard someone say they had "found a pulse" and that her child was being taken to hospital.
Siobhan dashed down the corridors of the hospital to the front entrance. On the way she heard a siren and thought "God, someone must be really sick." When the ambulance pulled up and Noel jumped out, Siobhan realised that it was her own daughter who was in mortal danger.
"From that moment on there was pandemonium. They tried to revive her for 40 minutes but there were no obvious clues as to what was wrong. Twice I went into the emergency room, but I just couldn't watch what they were doing to my child and I had to leave.
"I was sitting with my family when the priest came in -- and so I knew. Then the consultant said: 'I don't think she's going to make it.'
"He went away then he came back and told us she was gone. When we went back into that emergency room the nurses and doctors who had worked so hard on Aoibhe parted to let us through. There was complete quiet and I remember the eerie silence as we left the hospital."
That period is a haze for Siobhan, who was then eight months pregnant. "I remember the neighbours lining the street with candles. And though the church was filled with hundreds of people, there was just complete silence. When we buried her, Aoibhe was wearing her special dress and her silver shoes. We put her dummy in with her -- she used to ask us not to tell people that she had a dummy at night for comfort."
And so the Carrolls laid their precious child to rest.
Later it was discovered that Aoibhe had been the unfortunate victim of pneumococcal meningitis.
Edina Moylette, consultant paediatrician at University College Hospital Galway, (UCHG) says: "Suspected bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency. In certain instances meningitis causes direct infection and inflammation of the brain itself, leading to swelling and a sudden increase in the size and volume of the brain, which could result in death. Symptoms are very non- specific in young children and may be as vague as vomiting, diarrhoea and fever. Unfortunately in patients with non-meningococcal infection, as in Aoibhe's case, a rash is typically absent. Additionally, in infants and young children, headache and neck stiffness -- typically associated with meningitis in older patients -- are also absent."
And so it proved to be in Aoibhe's case.
Four weeks later the Carroll's second son Noah was born (and two years ago daughter Sophie). Siobhan remembers sitting with husband Noel and the midwife shortly after Noah was born, and they all just cried and cried and cried.
"When Aoibhe died our lives changed forever," says Siobhan.
"That first year it was just basic survival. I don't remember any of the night feeds with Noah. I don't remember him learning to crawl or any of that, but you know what? He's three and there's not a bother on him."
Siobhan says the tragedy was especially hard for Eimhin who was not yet three at the time.
"One night he went to bed and his sister was there, but when he woke up she was gone. We told him she was up in the clouds with God. He was so angry. He wanted to know why God had taken her? He wanted to know if she would take off her angel clothes when she came home? And he wanted to get a ladder to go to her in the clouds. So in the end we had to explain to him what had actually happened, even though he was so small."
The danger then was that Eimhin would become very fearful any time he got sick. But over time he has come to understand the situation and now says he has two sisters, "one here and one with holy God".
Following their tragedy, Siobhan and Noel decided to set up an organisation called Act for Meningitis -- in Aoibhe's memory -- to increase awareness about this illness.
Siobhan says: "Meningitis can affect anyone -- though there are high-risk groups such as babies from nought to five, adults from 18 to 24 years (who may mistake their symptoms for a very bad hangover) and people over 65."
She says because of the inclement weather, November to February is a high-risk time for this disease.
Symptoms in babies may include: high temperature, being difficult to wake, vomiting, bulging of the soft spot on the head, fast breathing, cold hands and feet, a high-pitched cry, unusual irritability, not wanting to be handled, and a rash, which does not disappear when a glass is rolled over it.
Siobhan says that while many people are aware that meningitis can cause a rash, one may not ever appear.
"If you have any concerns or suspicions do not wait for a rash to appear," she warns.
She says while Act is an acronym for the Aoibhe Carroll Trust, it also urges you to use the ABC: (A) ask the question could it be meningitis? (C) consult your doctor; and (T) always trust your own instincts when your child is ill.
"Time is of the essence when treating meningitis. If you suspect meningitis -- get help immediately."
So while Siobhan works tirelessly running Act for Meningitis, Noel is employed by An Post delivering the mail, while supporting his wife's efforts 100 per cent.
A year ago he vowed to run the Dublin Marathon in his daughter's honour. He trained all year for the event, even giving up alcohol. But just two days before the race on October 31, he stood on something sharp and cut his foot.
He went to the doctor and had the wound bandaged but some "miles" into the race the dressing came undone. Noel wasn't giving up -- not for anything. Mile after excruciating mile he battled the course for a full, gruelling, six hours. A half-mile from the finish-line, six-year-old Eimhin started running alongside his dad to "bring him home".
This moving sight brought cheers from the crowds and copious tears to those who knew the whole sad, but heroic story.
Act for Meningitis is on Facebook and Twitter or see www.actformeningits.ie. You can call (091) 782 828
Sunday Indo Living