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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Just because I have a disability, people think I can’t do things

IN what is a surprisingly high rate of incidences, three people sustain a spinal cord injury every week in Ireland.

Spinal Injuries Ireland (SII) is a charity that provides support to more than 2,300 people in the country living with a spinal cord injury.

The organisation has a public awareness campaign, ‘A Day in My Wheels’, and is calling on businesses and public representatives to ‘buddy up’ with a service user of the charity and spend anything from an hour to a day with them to experience the challenges they face.

Cathy Dunne-Fitzpatrick, 66, knows all about the challenges of living with a spinal injury. She has been using a power wheelchair for the past 15 years, having used a manual wheelchair before then.

When the Togher-based mother-of-three grown up children was 11, she had to have a tumour on her spine removed. She spent six months at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. She learned how to walk again and returned to school. She worked as a receptionist.

However, at 20, she had to have surgery again. The scar tissue from the original injury damaged her spinal cord.

“I ended up in a wheelchair,” says Cathy, speaking to The Echo in a spacious extension to her house that has been adapted for her needs.

I presumed I would walk again but obviously that didn’t happen. I spent nine months in Dun Laoghaire learning how to live life as a full-time wheelchair user.

At the time, there was no counselling in place for people in Cathy’s situation, something that was badly needed and is now available.

 Paralympian Cathy Dunne-Fitzpatrick at home in her home in Lehnagmore, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Paralympian Cathy Dunne-Fitzpatrick at home in her home in Lehnagmore, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“The support system wasn’t in place at that time. It was difficult but I was extremely lucky in one way. I had a sister working as a nurse in Dublin. Colette really stood by me and used to cycle out every day from Ranelagh to Dun Laoghaire to visit me. I will never forget what she did for me.

“I’m one of nine from Garryvoe. Without my family background, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I had fantastic parents who supported me. For me to leave hospital, they had to convert part of the house to make it accessible for me.”

When Cathy returned home from hospital on Christmas Eve, she says she was “a bit institutionalised. On Christmas day, Colette told me to get up. I said I was having a lie-in but she said I had to go to Mass. I was saying ‘no way’ but she dragged me out. She was being cruel to be kind.

In lots of ways, Colette pushed me out of my comfort zone. The result was that I achieved more than I thought I would.

“I started working in Ballymaloe House that February as a receptionist. I’m forever grateful to Myrtle Allen for giving me the job. My mother drove me there every morning and collected me in the evening. I spent a year there. Then CUH opened and I worked there as a receptionist for 18 years.”

Also, while in the rehabilitation hospital, Cathy took up sports.

“I’ve been to four Paralympics. I was a runner when I was young and I used to swim. So I got involved in disabled sports. The result was that it made me feel equal to everyone else.”

In Cork, Cathy joined Leevale Athletic Club – “the first sports club in Ireland to take on disabled athletes. I did discus, the javelin and track events. Myself and Kay McShane would have done the mini marathon several times, pushing ourselves in wheelchairs. Kay has passed away since. She won the London and Cork marathons. She had a great mentality.”

There was a good social life connected to sports.

“I met people from all over the world. I was very lucky in CUH because I was able to get time off to go to events, travelling to Seoul, Barcelona, Arnhem, Paris, Brussels and England.”

On a wall in Cathy’s dining room is a collection of 12 sports medals that she won including two gold medals. In between all this activity, she got married and had her family.

I asked her if she’d had caesarean sections.

“I have to laugh at that question. I was swimming in a pool. The following day my first child, Cliona was born. She was three weeks early. I had been doing yoga classes and swam every second day when I was pregnant. Cliona was born in Erinville. A nurse came into me the day before I was due to go home. She looked at me, at the cot and at the wheelchair and asked ‘Caesarean?’ I sat up in bed with my hormones flying after giving birth. I said ‘Excuse me. It was a natural delivery.’ I was furious.

“There was the assumption first of all, that I couldn’t have children. People would ask my husband (who died 15 years ago) where did we adopt Cliona from. 

Just because I have a disability, people think I can’t do things.

“I went on to have Sean and Ciaran.”

Cathy gave up work after she had her third child. It was at CUH that she met her husband, John Fitzpatrick, when he was a patient. A mutual friend introduced them to each other.

Carers help Cathy to get up in the morning, shower and dress. Another carer comes in during the day to help her with her exercises.

“I have to keep my body as supple as I can. I have a special bike and a standing frame.”

It took Cathy a long time to get everything she needs in the house, including an overhead hoist, an accessible shower and a kitchen that has been adapted.

Cathy’s beautiful garden helps her mental health. She is able to work on raised beds. Last year, she studied horticulture for a year at Ardfoyle in Ballintemple and now has apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and herbs in her garden.

“When I went to that college, the place wasn’t accessible to me. They asked me what I needed. I said I needed a proper footpath and a ramp into the centre. They made it accessible.”

While Cathy presents a positive front to the world, she admits that her life “changed a lot about 15 years ago when I had to use a power chair”. Prior to that, she was quite independent in her manual wheelchair.

“Because I put so much pressure on my arms, putting the chair into the car and doing the shopping, pulling and dragging, I injured a lot of my upper body and had loads of operations on my arms and shoulders. A physiotherapist advised me to conserve what I have and use a power chair.”

Cathy says it “is a disgrace that that an awful lot of places (in Cork) are slow to be made accessible.”

She says she has to push herself a lot of the time to go out and ask for what she needs.

“I was in Bantry recently at the Masters of Tradition. The concert was in Future Forests. It was made accessible just by moving chairs out of the way.”

When Cathy was in hospital in Dun Laoghaire, a consultant told her that she wouldn’t walk again.

I was bawling crying. In the next breath, she gave me advice saying to make sure my hygiene is impeccable, to dress well and have my hair groomed. Then, when people see you, they don’t see disability.

But Cathy lives with daily challenges and she says disability is expensive.

She gets support from the HSE through grants and points to a new power wheelchair in the room which cost €20,000.

“You’d get a car for that. It hasn’t yet been adapted to my car.”

Like a lot of people with spinal injuries, Cathy has bladder and bowel issues. She uses a catheter and a leg bag into which urine is collected. She has to carry out an enema every second day.

“It’s all about managing the body. I have a lot of equipment such as a special bed and an air mattress because pressure sores can be a big problem.

“Spinal Injuries Ireland is there to guide people. They often have talks on what equipment we need and they support the mental health side of things.”

Losing her husband when her youngest child was 12 was tough going. The extension to the house was being built so Cathy and her children had to move out for 12 months.

“It was pretty horrific.”

But Cathy is generally positive.

“We have to support each other and make the world a better place for the people of the future,” she says.

SII aims to raise €100,000 through a fundraising and public awareness campaign called ‘A Day in My Wheels’. The charity is inviting businesses and up to four of their team members to join them at County Hall on October 4 for educational talks and workshops, followed by time spent with a service user.

The volunteers will use a wheelchair to gain an insight into the reality of living with a spinal cord injury.

See www.spinalinjuries.ie.

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