Barbara O'Keeffe has struggled with ill health most of her life. But now she wants to honour the cardiologist who has worked so hard to keep her alive and help her remain positive
On the contrary, she brims with good cheer, and at home in Swords, when she's feeling well enough she helps care for five miniature horses, one full-sized equine, and a gutsy little pooch from a rescue shelter. Barbara, who grew up in Santry, was just five years old when she became very ill with a mysterious virus, and she spent seven months in isolation in Temple Street Children's Hospital. This marked the beginning of a lifetime spent fighting one health problem after another.
Following the initial attack, it was discovered that her heart valves had been damaged. The original virus has returned many times, resulting in innumerable episodes of hospitalisation.
"As a child, I never went out to play and school was hit or miss," says Barbara. She remembers her father carrying her downstairs in the evenings so she could spend time with her siblings. When she was 10, she had another violent attack and ended up in a coma for a couple of months. The same thing happened two years later. On both occasions, she temporarily lost power in her legs and haemorrhaged in her stomach - a very serious situation.
"My father was told to prepare for my funeral," says Barbara. "On the second occasion, I remember coming out of the coma. I saw candles flickering and there was a crucifix - apparently I had just been anointed. I remember thinking, 'God, I'm in heaven'."
Barbara and her family soldiered on, dealing with each frightening episode as it arose. Spending so much time alone caused her to develop a vivid imagination, and horses became a feature of her daydreams. So when she was in her early 20s, she began having riding lessons.
"Even though I had long bouts of sickness, I never sold my riding hat, my boots or my crop," she says. Around this time, Barbara met Frank O'Keeffe, and that marked another turning point in her life. They began to date and, shortly after, they fell in love. But unfortunately Barbara's health continued to deteriorate, and that year she had to have her mitral valve replaced. She also had problems with her aorta, the main artery which extends from the heart to the stomach.
As time moved on, she and Frank set a date to get married - five times, in fact - but as each occasion approached, Barbara got sick and the nuptials had to be cancelled.
In 1999, she had a pacemaker inserted to deal with an irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, she then developed endocarditis - an infection of the inner lining of the heart - and that caused her mitral valve to shut down again.
It was during this particular hospital stay that a cardiologist suggested she and Frank marry in Beaumont Hospital's chapel.
The wedding was held a short while later and Barbara has fond memories of the women in the Corrigan ward (for patients with cardiac-related problems) getting ready for the celebration. "They were blow-drying each other's hair and wore PJs and nighties," she recalls. "Anyone who could move - even with a Zimmer frame - was at that wedding. I had a red carpet, music, a bridal gown and my room was covered in rose petals."
Her happiness was short-lived however, when, a few days later, she learned that she would have to have her mitral valve repaired or replaced.
"They said I only had a 33pc chance of surviving," Barbara recalls with a shudder. Following a heroic seven-hour operation, doctors resolved the problem.
Barbara continues to encounter huge medical challenges. In the past couple of years, she has experienced another bout of endocarditis and has been infected with septicaemia. In 2012, her stomach haemorrhaged yet again, causing her to spend almost two months in intensive care, where she received 40 units of blood.
Unbelievably, just three weeks after she was discharged, Frank was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was a terrible blow, but his doctors seem to have the situation under control. Which is just as well, given that he does most of the work caring for the dog and six horses.
However, it's all second nature to Frank, who has been around horses all his life. He and Barbara show the horses, and rosettes dot the living room walls. The stables have dinky little partitions separating the stalls - some even have a step so the minuscule ponies can cutely look over the top. Meanwhile, Penny, their only standard-sized horse, has her own size-appropriate accommodation.
Since November, Barbara has been an in-patient at Beaumont nine times - mostly with kidney infections. The constant internal bleeding has damaged her kidneys. Finally, two months ago, while Barbara was again an in-patient at Beaumont, she began to have another bleed. Then the doctors in intensive care realised her renal situation had now become critical. "They said they had to get me on haemodialysis within 20 minutes or I would be gone," she says.
In September, Barbara put thoughts of showing the horses aside as she prepared for yet another serious and complicated operation.
"I had to have more heart surgery," she says. "This was more or less my last chance. I don't pray to God, but I do talk to him. I don't give up," she says.
She explains that up to 12 doctors were on hand because of the risk of kidney failure, severe bleeds, heart related issues and other complications. Thankfully, she made it through the difficult procedure.
Recently she nominated Brendan McAdam, her cardiologist, for an award in the Honour Your Heroes day organised by the Beaumont Hospital Foundation.
"I've known him since about 2004," say Barbara. "He's definitely my lifeline. Time means nothing to him when he's discussing what needs to be done next. He never talks over your head - he includes you in all the important decisions. Only for him, I wouldn't be here today."
And she has high praise for her devoted husband Frank too. "He is so supportive - nothing is too much for him. He loves the horses as much as I do - he's a real softie," she says.
Behind every great woman there's a great man. And in Barbara's case, two.
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I think it's great we're focusing on men's health this week. Men's health does seem to get overlooked and despite (or could it be because of…) the facts that men don't live as long as women, and up until recently, most doctors were male - it never seems to take centre stage. Men are often apologetic about seeking help with their health.
In my old life, I would wake up in Kilmainham with my girlfriend Aoibhinn. She's a paediatrician in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. I'd cycle into work and then I'd have my breakfast there. I was an analyst in Google. I'd create presentations and insights into marketing trends for our customers. It's an interesting job and I really enjoyed it. I worked there for four years but last December, on New Year's Eve, I quit.
Every single one of us has so many bits and pieces of our bodies that we don't like. It gets harder to like your body as you get older, but for me being fit and strong and exercising and eating well is very important because now in my 40s it is more about my body's strength to continue living a healthy life.