'Telling my 15-year-old she had weeks to live was the hardest thing I'll ever have to do'
Though she fought bravely, Hannah Bryan lost her battle with cancer at age 15. Her mother tells Joy Orpen that she and Hannah's family and friends will always strive to improve conditions for children in hospital
It is universally accepted that there is no greater loss than that of a child. So how is a parent supposed to cope after such a tragedy? Each family finds their own unique way of dealing with calamity. And Hannah Bryan's parents and sister are no exception.
In 2009, when Hannah was 13 years old, she was happy at school, she played basketball well, and had lots of friends. Following a summer camp, she complained of pain in her back and shoulders. So when she also began vomiting, Sandra, her mother, took her daughter to A&E, where it was suspected she was suffering from a sports injury. She was given painkillers and sent home. But when, a few weeks later, she was still no better, her mother took her back to the hospital, where again muscle strain was diagnosed.
Hannah had no option but to soldier on. However, when October dawned, she was still in pain, she was hardly eating, and on a particular Friday, she fell while showering. So she was taken to Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. Following tests, doctors told Sandra there was a malignancy in Hannah's body. "I asked them if that meant cancer, and one of the doctors nodded 'yes'. I went numb. I turned to jelly. That was the worst day ever," says Sandra.
Hannah was under the care of Dr Michael Capra, who requested a bone marrow aspiration, an MRI scan, and a Hickman line (intravenous line) to be inserted, to facilitate drawing blood and administering medications. Dr Capra then broke the news to Sandra, her husband Fergus, and their other daughter, Stephanie, that they suspected Hannah was suffering from an alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma in her spine, that had spread to her bone marrow. "They told us it was a very rare, aggressive cancer and that the chances of Hannah being cured were low. We just couldn't comprehend this," says Sandra. "It was an absolute nightmare."
Hannah was taken to Beaumont Hospital for surgery. She was so weak, Sandra was terrified that her child would "die there, that night". A biopsy was done, but sadly they couldn't remove the tumour, as it was deeply embedded in Hannah's spine. Two days later, Hannah was taken back to Crumlin and admitted to a small room next to St John's ward, the haematology and oncology ward. Sandra says while the staff were just fantastic, the ward itself was outdated. "Hannah vomited a lot because of the chemo, so that depressing environment only made it worse. One day she said to me, 'Please mum, do something about this place, because it's so awful'."
Stephanie did whatever she could to make life more bearable for her much loved, wheelchair-bound sister. As did her immediate and extended family, and host of loyal friends.
That December, Hannah was told she could spend Christmas at home. "Hannah's hair was gone and she'd lost so much weight, she was like a child again," says Sandra. "That Christmas was very precious to us all." However, a few days later, the punishing course of treatment resumed. But in May 2010, Hannah got the all-clear. "We cried with happiness when Michael gave us the news," says Sandra. "Given the severity of her illness, it was unbelievable."
Hannah still needed maintenance chemotherapy and a course of radiotherapy at St Luke's Hospital. The physiotherapists at Crumlin had got her back on her feet, and she was beginning to lead a more normal life at home, although she had to return to Crumlin on occasion, when she got infections. "It seemed like it was all behind us," says Sandra.
To mark her 14th birthday, the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave Hannah every teenager's dream party. Some 300 young people joined her at Wesley College in Donnybrook. "A silver Hummer picked her up. She looked like a princess," says Sandra. "She was done up to the nines; she loved her make-up and her false eyelashes, which were like sweeping brushes. It was so good to see her enjoying herself." The following Christmas was the Bryan family's "best ever", as Hannah was doing so well.
But tragically, their sense of euphoria was short-lived. In March 2011, Hannah got a pain in her leg, and Sandra knew instinctively the cancer was back. Following tests, Dr Capra confirmed Sandra's suspicions. "He brought Hannah, Fergus and me into his office. He said the cancer was now in her liver and would spread quickly. Throughout those two years of treatment, Hannah had never cried, but now I saw a tear roll down her face. My heart was broken."
The Bryans managed one last treat for their darling girl when they took her to Alton Towers theme park in England. "She went on every scary ride," Sandra recalls. "But we had to go straight to Crumlin when we got home, as she needed blood transfusions."
At this time, Hannah was filmed for the TV3 show The Apprentice, along with two other teenagers, about conditions in St John's ward. Hannah said there was absolutely nothing to do there, and that Stephanie even had to bring in DVDs so that they had something to watch.
In August 2011, Hannah deteriorated rapidly, and asked to go home to Killiney. A nurse from Blackrock Hospice came daily to give her morphine and anti-nausea injections. Then one day Hannah asked if she was going to die - and Sandra replied honestly, "Yes, Hannah, you are." She says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Hannah then asked how long she had left, and when her mother told her just a couple of weeks, this gutsy, sweet girl wanted to know how they would manage without her.
"She wasn't thinking of herself, only of us," says Sandra, with tears streaming down her face. As time went on, Hannah's breathing got worse and worse. And then came the end.
"At 11.10, on September 26, our beautiful angel Hannah gave three last breaths and passed up to heaven," Sandra wrote online for Crumlin's Big Book of Memories. "She had the biggest funeral ever in Dalkey, and afterwards we released pink balloons."
Sandra and her family and friends have done much to raise funds for St John's ward - in memory of their beloved Hannah. Thanks to them, and the many other generous people who support the children's hospital, St John's is now a bright, cheerful and comfortable environment for all its most deserving residents.
Hannah's story appears in greater detail in 'Crumlin's Big Book of Memories'. To celebrate 60 years of service, members of the public are invited to share their stories about Our Lady Children's Hospital, Crumlin, see crumlinmemories.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine