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Monday 25 September 2017

The crunch bunch

Thank God we finally got a break," said Neasa Fahy O'Donnell when she and husband Paddy received the news that their family of four sons had been named the Walkers Family of the Year yesterday. They also won a cash prize of €20,000 for overcoming their "crunch time" in the past 12 months.

In fact, the past 12 years has been a rollercoaster of uncertainty and adversity for the family. When Ronan, now 13, was a baby, he was diagnosed with an rare arteriovenous (AV) malformation in his brain. The condition affects one in a million and the survival rate is just 5pc.

Eight years later, Tiarnan, now 11, was diagnosed with an AV malformation in his leg. Though his condition is slightly more common, there is a possibility that his leg may have to be amputated in the future.

"When Tiarnan was diagnosed, my words to the doctor were, 'Not again. Please don't do this. I can't go through all this again'," remembers Neasa. "But you do. You just get on with it.

"We've had moments when we've said, 'Why us?' But you just soldier on and you get to the next place and say, 'We got to this place so we'll get to the next one'."

The family's optimism is remarkable and their positivity palpable. Rather than dwell on their misfortune, they count their blessings. They are grateful that Ronan, who was once given six months to live, has reached the age of 13. They are grateful that they have a wonderful GP in Limerick and talented consultants who have been willing to practise pioneering surgery. They are even grateful when a trip to Great Ormond Street Hospital has to be made. "There are always worse cases," says Paddy. "There are families with no hope."

One of the biggest hurdles for the Fahy O'Donnells was getting Ronan diagnosed.

"My advice to other parents is to always follow your gut instinct," says Neasa. "If you really feel that there is something wrong and you're concerned, never let a doctor tell you everything is fine until you are 100pc sure."

It's clear that each member of the family hasn't kept just their own spirits up, but each other's.

Paddy and Neasa are quick to heap praise on Ronan and Tiarnan's brothers, Caolan (16) and Tiarnan's twin, Darragh, who have shown enormous strength and bravery.

Indeed, the rapport between the four boys when I meet them is touching. Big brother Caolan tells me that he often feels protective of his little brothers. "If someone made fun of Ronan or Tiarnan, I'd have a word with them," he says. "I'd take it very seriously. I would have no problem confronting anyone about it."

Paddy and Neasa's approach has always been not to treat their children any differently and the effect is obvious, both in the way the boys interact with each other and their peers.

Ronan suffers from mild paralysis on his left side and has several of what he calls his "turns" each day.

"When he was younger he'd fall asleep afterwards. Now he's taught himself how to work through it," explains Neasa.

Despite being in and out of hospital several times a year, his parents describe him as the most sociable member of the family. "When we go on holidays, he's the first one to make friends," says Paddy.

"Everyone tells us that his social skills are his strength," adds Neasa, "and while he may not achieve academically, his social skills will far outweigh that." In fact, Ronan is now in mainstream schooling despite advice to attend a special school.

Tiarnan has also defied the odds. Contrary to doctors' advice, he is a keen sportsman. "There's been occasions when people have said, 'Why are you playing? You can't walk, let alone run'. Tiarnan just turns around and says: 'I'm as good as you; I can do this.' He's got a fantastic attitude."

He often comes home from training in such pain that Paddy has to carry him upstairs to bed, but he won't give up. He recently won the hurling cup for a school team, scoring the winning goal. "His grandad, who was also a keen sportsman, would have been proud," says Neasa.

The children's grandfather (Neasa's father) passed away last April. Tiarnan thinks he's gone to heaven to help them get better.

"We said to the boys, 'if Grandad really wants you to win this, it will happen'. And you know, when they won, I was even thinking myself, 'Where are you, Dad?'" Neasa laughs.

"My father and Paddy's parents used to say, 'I wish it was us. We're old and we've had a great life', but the boys have borne this burden very, very well.

"They're lying in a hospital after having major surgery and within hours they're sitting up and smiling. When people moan and complain, I think to myself, 'you should go and spend a day in a children's hospital'."

It was this relentless optimism that impressed the judges and the TV3 viewers who voted.

The family say they will take a holiday with the prize money, with the boys' current picks being Disneyland or skiing. They will also present the Walkers Soap Family of the Year Award at the Walkers TVNow Awards on May 22.

"It's great that something positive has happened," says Neasa. "I thought, 'this is for ye now, boys. You've fought and you've been brave and you've been brilliant -- now you're getting a reward'."

When you meet a family like the Fahy O'Donnells, your own problems seem very, very small indeed.

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