'I couldn't walk up stairs two years ago... now I'm doing Ironman challenge'

Caroline Heffernan who is set to complete the Barcelona Ironman with Cystic Fibrosis

Fiona Dillon

Just two years ago, cystic fibrosis sufferer Caroline Heffernan could not even walk up a flight of stairs without feeling breathless.

Now the 48-year-old is getting ready to complete her first Ironman challenge.

The mother-of-two was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the relatively late age of 13, when her parents were told that her life expectancy was very short.

However, advances in drug therapies mean that Caroline, from Tuam, Galway, is now gearing up for the biggest challenge of her life.

It is believed Caroline is the first amateur Irish athlete with cystic fibrosis to compete in next month's Ironman challenge in Barcelona, where she will raise much-needed funds for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. On two occasions in her life, Caroline's lung function dropped so much that she thought she would need a transplant.

The first was in 2002, the second in 2016, when she was coughing so much that she could not even climb the stairs without getting breathless and having to rest half way up.

"I was exercising. I was eating well, but I was deteriorating," Caroline told the Herald.

"My lung function was at 40 to 50pc. I was really struggling. I couldn't get up the stairs without coughing and spluttering."

However, at the end of 2016, Caroline's life changed dramatically. She was put on a clinical trial for the ground-breaking drug Kalydeco, which treats the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis.

"I was in the right place at the right time. I felt the difference within an hour-and-a-half of taking it," said Caroline, who underwent a series of tests to make sure she was a suitable candidate.

"I came home with my box of blue tablets. I took it.

"That evening, I went to bed. As I lay down, I thought I'd forgotten to do something," said Caroline, who is married to Franny and has two children Jamie (20) and Anna (16).

She knew something was different, but could not put her finger on it.

Then her husband told her that she had climbed the stairs without having to stop half way up, and got into bed without being breathless.

"It has been a game changer for me," said Caroline who works as an advocate for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. "I could feel the difference almost immediately. My lung function increased dramatically.

"I enjoyed cycling and started cycling longer distances. Last year, I cycled the length of Ireland on a tandem. I covered 630km in four days to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland."

But her biggest challenge to date will be the Ironman event in Barcelona on October 7.

Having previously watched her sister, Celia Davin, take part in the event, she has been inspired to go for it herself. It involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle and a 42.2km run.

Training has been going well, with the help of Orla Heneghan, of the Tri Lakes Triathlon Club.

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system. A defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections.

There are about 1,300 children and adults in Ireland with the disease. To donate to Caroline's fund, visit give.everydayhero.com/ie/ ironman-barcelona-1.