Sunday 21 October 2018

Beyond the brink and into the future

Meningitis struck Daraine Mulvihill some of the cruellest blows imaginable but out of those dark days has grown a modest young woman of inspiring stature, writes ...

Meningitis struck Daraine Mulvihill some of the cruellest blows imaginable but out of those dark days has grown a modest young woman of inspiring stature, writes Declan McCormack

SHE waves her hands a lot. As the most articulate of people tend to do. She's most articulate and very manual. Hands are the actor's nightmare, the teenager's embarrassment. But also the athlete's tool, the lover's instrument. You wouldn't notice but Daraine's hands are slightly different. "They're mainly mine. I have all my wrist and palm and some of my fingers they left as much as they could. I'm luckier than many other people." They have prosthetic ends.

But she can do everything with them. Things like scoring an incredible seven As in this year's Leaving. One of the best results in the country. Things like texting her many friends. Things like using the TV controller to surf the channels. She's a TV swot. How she ever studied for the Leaving I just can't figure. "It's nothing to do with intelligence. I just have a photographic memory," she says with her trademark modesty.

This very photogenic teenager also has one of the most striking photograph albums any 19-year-old possesses. Among the photos is one of herself in a hospital bed. Her hands are in her own words "coal black". When the photo was taken, in 1999, Daraine's hands were afflicted by gangrene arising from the septicaemia (blood poisoning) she contracted on February 15/16, 1999. She had contracted a particularly virulent strain of meningitis (meningococcus C) which came on her with terrible swiftness. As she lay in the Mater Hospital, her parents were told she had a 2-10 per cent chance of surviving; she received the Last Rites; and her two younger brothers were rushed from their Co Meath home to say a final goodbye to their sister.

Against all the odds, Daraine pulled through but not before spending eight weeks in intensive care, during which time her liver and kidneys failed, her lungs collapsed, she got pneumonia on top of the blood poisoning that was damaging her limbs and endangering her life to such an extent that on a black St Patrick's Day her parents had to give permission for part of her hands and feet to be amputated ("A psychologist visited me but I was so heavily sedated I didn't remember being asked").

She became a regular visitor to surgery and received 49 anaesthetics not nice for someone who had always hated needles. She also contracted the hospital disease, MRSA. She had to endure many other setbacks, including a bout of acute gastroenteritis which exacerbated her weight lose to an alarming degree. By December 1999, the 16-year-old (formerly a 7.5 stone athlete) was down to an emaciated 4.5 stones. Nonetheless, on a very emotional winter's night on December 23, 1999, a wheelchair-bound Daraine was welcomed home to her Ashbourne house.

Home proved to be the making of her and she's been home ever since, apart from a lengthy spell in Cappagh Hospital. There was then the little matter of going back to Colaiste Iosagan in Stillorgan, in September 2000, to prepare for the Leaving Cert, a task which she executed with such manifest success. Characteristically, she attributes her awesome assemblage of As to a "supportive school" blessed with "great teachers and pupils".

But that photo album is no catalogue of misery. There are photos of the beautiful Corrs meeting an equally beautiful bed-bound Daraine. Of the jubilant 1999 Meath All-Ireland winning team sharing Sam Maguire with a patently chuffed wheelchair-bound Daraine in Croke Park. A photo of President MacAleese and her hubbie Martin visiting Daraine in hospital. It reads more like a who's who of Ireland's greatest than a compendium of illness bravely borne. And so it should be, because the story of her battle with meningitis is an uplifting if also extremely cautionary tale.

Last November Daraine was voted Person of the Year at the People of the Year awards ceremony, because her story and demeanour moved a nation. It is a nation which she has often seen at first hand. In the national arena that is Croker;for Daraine is the only daughter of Liam Mulvihill, the Ard Stiurthoir of the GAA. Daraine is also the daughter of an energetic Kerry woman who comes from teaching stock in the Breac-Ghaeltacht near Dingle. Last Monday night Maire, now back in her old scoil in Ashbourne after a well-timed if harrowing five year break, looked remarkably well for a woman who had just suffered the double trauma of reaching the age of 43 and being told the soul-destroying fact that her Meath-mad children were indifferent to the outcome of today's senior final and only anxious about Meath's fate in the Minor.

Liam and Maire have two other children, 16-year-old Aonghus and 13-year-old Fionan."Recently, Aonghus asked me if I could do what he could do with his big toe and then he realised what he had said. I really liked that. It meant that he had forgotten. That he was treating me like normal." And it is very easy to forget. Daraine is back to her correct weight, she is totally mobile apart from a slight limp due to the fact that the knee muscles aren't fully back to correct size yet and she has difficulty keeping one leg straight. But you'd hardly notice it. Like any teenager on the verge of going to third level college she wants to feel and be treated as normal. Which she is and isn't. Like any teenager she enjoys the media hype surrounding her inspiring recovery, but the interviews are done not to gratify ego but to warn people of the lethal nature of meningitis and how essential it is that it be spotted in time. At the same time Daraine is anxious not to over-alarm parents. Nine out of 10 victims recover, though the chances are not as good in the case of septicaemia. She is also anxious to pay homage to all the wonderful staff of the hospitals she attended. Daraine also can't speak highly enough of her best friend Ciara and all her other "brilliant" friends. Above all, she is most eloquently grateful to her wonderful parents and brothers and to the "tremendous neighbours" who looked after the boys when mum and dad had to sleep in the Mater. But in telling her tale she doesn't forget to mention those victims who didn't survive and the pain of their families and friends. And to point out how "lucky" she was, as others have suffered "more severe amputations" and many suffer from brain damage.

For Daraine it's another week of TV watching, building up her muscles by exercise and waiting for October when she will begin studying Communications in DCU. She did toy with the idea of doing medicine but her fingers would probably not be up to "the more delicate work". Today, as 80,000 people swell into Croker they'll be yelling on their heroes on the field. But perhaps the greatest hero of them all will be a certain 19-year-old who'll be cheering for Meath minors and not really minding who wins the Senior Final between Kerry and Armagh. Sometimes the real heroes are on the ditch.

The Meningitis Research Foundation (01) 4969664; MRF Helpline (O1) 4969665; meningitis@iol.ie.

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