Sunday 18 November 2018

One year ago today, two Irish siblings escaped death when they were knocked down by a car after stepping off a bus

Amelia O’Neill with children Katie, Mary and Fintan
Amelia O’Neill with children Katie, Mary and Fintan

Declan Bogue

One year ago today, schoolchildren Fintan and Mary O’Neill were close to death having been knocked down by a car after stepping off a bus. Their mother Amelia recalls the many challenges her family has faced since that fateful afternoon.

It's a year to the day that the world changed for the O'Neill family. Mother Amelia was in her car, parked at a crossroads, reading a book, while her youngest daughter Katie was in the back playing with a phone.

They were waiting for a school bus leaving son Fintan and daughter Mary home when the children were hit by a car crossing the road.

"I did not, for the life of me that night, see that bus coming and I usually never miss the bus coming," recalls Amelia.

It wasn't good. Cars began backing up and people got out to lend a hand. The children, from Creggan, Co Antrim, were badly hurt. Amelia's parents arrived at the scene. Her husband Kevin was soon there too. As a cabin crew member for easyJet, Amelia has some first-aid experience.

When she looked into Fintan's eyes, she knew he was okay, though he had broken 11 bones in his body including bones in his neck and his leg.

Mary was different.

The pair were rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and the immediate attention was on Mary, who went straight into splenectomy surgery.

When they went to check on Fintan, he had taken a turn for the worse.

"We got the priest up and he gave Mary the last rites," says Amelia. "Then we got to the Royal and they were fantastic, because they put Fintan and Mary together in the same room. And they were there for two nights."

She adds: "On the Thursday night I got home and had only been there two hours when I got the call to go back up and the priest got called again for Mary and, when he was giving her the last rites, Fintan woke up out of his coma.

"And we just abandoned Mary, because Fintan was awake and she wasn't.

"They put him straight back under again because they were operating on him the next day. We asked after his operation that he wouldn't be brought in with Mary again, because we didn't want her dying and him beside her."

Mary remained in intensive care. Fintan recovered and told his parents to stay with his sister, as he was all right.

The doctors warned the O'Neill parents that Mary could be brain dead. When they told her she wasn't, they had a brief high for an hour before they spelled out the prognosis.

"In all likelihood she wasn't ever likely to get out of the bed, she was never going to talk, walk, do anything," Amelia recalls.

"The machine was breathing for her. She wasn't starting or finishing a breath, so we took the decision about four or five weeks in that we would remove that and we would just let her go.

"We removed it and they said it might be 24 hours."

Seven months later, Mary was walking and talking again.

But Amelia says: "She looks like Mary, talks like Mary, but it's not Mary."

Her personality has altered.

"She would talk to anybody. She speaks before she thinks and says things she shouldn't say now. She would have no common sense now, you couldn't leave her on her own, she would not know to not walk across the road and things like that," says her mum.

Before the accident she was a bright first year in St Pat's. She played guitar.

"She doesn't remember the last two years of her life, although when she was brought back to St Pat's to meet her old friends, she remembered them all," says Amelia.

Mary has to use a wheelchair occasionally and there is a lift installed in the home. She now attends Fleming Fulton special needs school in Belfast.

It's taken an incredible toll, but Amelia and Kevin have risen to the challenges every time.

"I have thought about this a whole pile of times," says Amelia. "People have said to me 'You are so strong' and 'We could never have done that'.

"We weren't strong. But we didn't have a choice. We just had to get on with it, nobody else was going to do it for us and nobody asked us would we take it.

"So we had no choice. There was many a time where we did fall apart and there were many times the nurses fell apart with us. There were nights one nurse was supposed to finish at eight, she was still there at 11 at night just talking to us, helping us through it."

Progress continues to be made. At one time, Fintan's neck wouldn't sit straight in his collar and there were fears it would heal with a turn in his neck. But he is back playing football and hurling against with his local club Kickhams Creggan.

The first night he went back he broke his wrist messing about with his mates, but on Monday, January 8 he went back to St Pat's with his PE kit.

The siblings now share a special bond, says Amelia.

"Fintan has been really good to her and I would say it has brought them closer together," she adds. "He goes in and he will fire a pillow at her and she will fire it back. They will carry on and play, whereas maybe beforehand they were just fighting and arguing all the time, whose turn it was for the X-Box and that."

In October, Fintan went on a 10-day holiday to Orlando with the children's charity Dreamflight. On Valentine's Day after the accident, he had 98 Valentine's cards, which his mother advised he could put away, opening a few for the next several years.

"He thinks he's a celebrity now," she laughs.

Kevin has gone back to work as a bricklayer. Amelia is still off work, easyJet coming in for warm praise for how they have treated her, but a return is a long way off, with hospital appointments and specialists to see all the time now.

They have been blown away by the response from the public.

"On the way up to the hospital that night, the way to the Royal, I put one post up on Facebook, just saying, 'Please Pray'," says Amelia. "That was the Tuesday night and on the Thursday night they had arranged for a rosary in the Creggan club. The place was packed out. I was actually home for it.

"And that continued for six weeks. I had a discussion with Tony (McCollum, club chairman) and said we were better off dropping it now before people start to fall away. The support we got from the Thursday nights in the club and those rosaries was fantastic.

"And then, when Mary got out of hospital, I asked if we could do one more, but it was for thanksgiving. I didn't expect that many people at it, but it was packed and we just had a cup of tea and we brought Fintan and Mary up for people to speak to."

They received letters at the house, including one picture card of a classroom of African children holding up a blackboard that said: 'Today we prayed for Fintan and Mary.'

People don't forget. Mary had two friends she has known from her first days in primary school, Caitlin and Saoirse. The two of them still come to the house. Caitlin likes to be her carer when they go up to youth club together.

"I didn't expect a lot of Mary's friends to hang around, but they all do," says Amelia.

"There's always somebody ringing to see if they can come down. I am so proud of the young people in this community."

She adds: "I was scared when Fintan had his mates around if he would be embarrassed with the things Mary had said and done. But he wasn't and neither were his mates. Even Fintan's mates will come in and sit down and talk to her and ask if she wants a game on the X-Box.

"They just seem to accept it and get on with it."

The family count their blessings and want to place on the record "just how grateful we are to our hospital staff. The staff were fantastic. And as well as that, our parishes and our schools. St Pat's Maghera bring Mary over to the school to see her class again".

"She was over before they finished school in June, she was back before Christmas to see the class. Nothing is any problem to them," says Amelia.

This Christmas was special. Before the accident, the O'Neills hosted big Christmas Days with grandparents, aunties, uncles, nieces and nephews around. They considered toning it down this year but decided to go for it anyway. Amelia hosted 12 people for Christmas dinner.

"They all came," she says. "The kids get their Santa presents in the morning and we don't open our Christmas presents until after dinner and we all sat down in the living room and handed out the presents. Everybody opened theirs.

"Mary, for her birthday, she had got coloured hair extensions, she put blue and purple in and she wanted more for Christmas and she went to the hairdresser and got them put in and she looks like a rainbow now, she has four colours in her hair.

"Fintan, he wanted a PlayStation and that's what he got. They had a great time, some might say they had too good a time."

Time heals. A year on, they still have their beautiful young children.

Amelia explains: "We never appreciated our community before this. These things happened to other people. And you hear stories and bring food and give donations, but then you forget about them.

"When it comes to your own door, that's not possible."

She adds: "The future, while it isn't the future we had planned for Mary, it is still bright and she still has her life, although she will be on medication for the rest of her life and there will still be issues, she will always need someone. But she is here and she is happy. And we are all happy.

"We just have to get on with it.

"And if we sit here and mope about it, it is just going to make things worse for everybody."

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