BEING locked down and having to work and learn at home are challenges for everyone at the moment, but for one young East Clare native, who is battling a brain tumour, these are part of normal life. Sixteen-year-old Labhaoise Fitzgerald has had brain surgery twice, as well as gruelling rounds of follow-up treatment. As well as cocooning and keeping up with her studies, Labhaoise is undergoing chemotherapy at her home in Tulla. She is also taking time out to raise funds for the Barretstown charity, which runs medically-supported holiday camps for sick children at its base in Kildare.
Like all charities, Barretstown is facing a major shortfall in its funding and urging people to send a ‘virtual hug’ donating €2 in the process. Labhaoise was recently chosen as the Clare ambassador for the initiative and took part in a video with fellow ‘campers’ sending their virtual hugs to friends, family and frontline medical staff. “Barretstown picked a camper from every county to send a virtual hug to one of their relatives or someone they care about,” Labhaoise explained. “My hug went to my auntie Claire in Wexford. I would be very close to her and it’s hard not being able to see her with the country in lock-down.”
Labhaoise’s generosity in taking time out from her current treatment is matched with a level of bravery that is nothing short of inspirational. “In 2014, I was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma,” she outlined. “Then I had brain surgery, then I had 35 rounds of radiotherapy and four sessions of chemotherapy. In 2018, I relapsed and had to have more brain surgery, another 28 rounds of radiotherapy and more chemo.”
In the last six years, Barretstown has been one beacon of light for Labhaoise, providing a welcome opportunity to live life as a teenager and not just a cancer patient. The organisation has also given her parents Louise and Patrick the chance to see their daughter enjoy a holiday with full medical support and care.
“When Labhaoise was first diagnosed, the staff at Crumlin Children’s Hospital told us about Barretstown,” Louise explained. “Because she was so sick in 2014, we didn’t even entertain the idea, but when she started to come around and become more independent again in 2016, we applied and she first went that year. It’s just the most incredible place. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the staff. They’re unbelievable. The environment, the people who volunteer there are on a different level. They take kids from Ireland and all over the world for their camps. They all have life-limiting illnesses and they have special camps for kids receiving oncology treatment.”
The positive benefits for Labhaoise were clear the moment she returned from Barretstown.
“She came back a completely different person,” Louise said. “She got to speak to kids of her own age going through the same tings, who have had the same illness, who have had the same personal issues because of the illness. It’s just the chance to make those connections. There aren’t that many people of Labhaoise’s age, in Clare – thank God – who have cancer. From her point of view, she realised she wasn’t the only person of her age to have cancer. A lot of kids there are still on treatment. There’s medical staff there so all of the kids’ medications and treatments are sorted, so from a parent’s point of view, that’s really important.”
Labhaoise admitted: “It was a bit scary at the start, I had never stayed anywhere on my own, but you get used to it very quickly because everyone is very nice up there. There were activities every day, three in the morning and three more in the afternoon and more in the evening. You could do drama, then fishing, then canoeing in the morning, and then after lunch, horse-riding, wall-climbing or something else. I really liked the horses.”
Having the chance to live a normal life, away from hospitals and treatment regimes, is clearly something that Labhaoise and her family treasure. The Barretstown experience has helped in tough times and shaped Labhaoise’s determined and positive attitude – something that was very evident last year when she sat her Junior Cert.
“She did her Junior Cert in St Joseph’s in 2019 and home-schooled herself while she was on treatment at home and in Dublin,” Louise explained. “She didn’t need to do it, but she wanted to and she was just so determined.”
Like home-schooling, lock-down is something that Labhaoise has had to face before.
“It hasn’t really been that easy,” she acknowledged. “I’ve had to cocoon and I’m not allowed to anywhere. I keep in touch with friends, mainly on Snapchat and Instagram.”
At home, the family provide great team support, Lousise added. “Labhaoise has a wonderful little brother called Pádraig who is nine,” she said. “Then there’s me and her dad, Patrick, and a small army of friends. We’re a great little team. Whenever someone is feeling down, we pick each other up. Labhaoise started a new chemo last month and so far, so good. She’s reacting well to it. We’re kind of used to being in lock-down, because we have to self-isolate when Labhaoise is having treatment, so our life isn’t that different, it’s pretty much our normal life. It’s kind of scary going to the hospital at the moment, because of everything, but Labhaoise can take her chemo at home.”
While Barretstown’s camps are on-hold for now due to the Coronavirus restrictions, they are still very close to Labhaoise’s heart: “The camps are so important, because they help so many kids,” she said. “They help us to feel like normal children again.”
To send a virtual HUG for Barretstown, share or post the animated Barretstown HUG on Barretstown’s Facebook page to your own social page and tag as many friends and family as you like. You can also text HUG to 50300 to donate €2. Barretstown is also sharing the magic of Barretstown with children across Ireland through Facebook live broadcasts taking place every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2pm to 4pm. See www.facebook.com/Barretstown/.