A year on from Barretstown – The Shortall family tell their story

The Shortall Family
The Shortall Family at Barretstown

You’ll probably think this sounds like a real cliché… but right up until the 26th of April last year, us Shortalls were just a typical family. No major illnesses. No disasters. Three kids, a mortgage, school runs, bills, family holidays, days out… just your average Irish family.

There were five of us. Myself, my husband Kevin, and the kids… Sam, who was nine back then… Louise who was six… and Jane who was just a little baby. Then in the space of about three weeks, our lives were turned upside down. It was shortly before the Easter holidays that we noticed Louise was a little bit ‘off-form’. She seemed in a bad humour all the time, which was very unusual, because Louise is one of the most bubbly, easy-going, smiley children you’ll ever meet in your life. I brought her over to the GP, but he felt it was probably just a virus.

Louise just wasn’t right. Kevin knew it. I knew it. She was complaining of a headache, she just wasn’t her usual self, and her stomach seemed kind of hard and bloated. I don’t know whether he knew straight away, but you could tell he thought there was something up. He sent us straight to the hospital. They ran some tests on Louise and after a bit of a wait a nurse came in and brought us to an isolation room. At that point I thought to myself, “Oh my God, she must have meningitis or something”. Then a consultant came in. It was just me and Louise.  Then he said the word ‘leukaemia’ and I just burst into tears.

I don’t remember much of what he said after that because I was just so completely shocked. Within about an hour and a half we were transferred to Crumlin. And within 24 hours, Louise had a central line in her chest and had received her first dose of chemotherapy. Her hair went in the first three or four weeks . She was devastated, because she’s a real girly girl. She loved her hair, her bracelets, her earrings and little pink dresses. People describe her as “pink and sparkly.” So her hair was such a big thing to her, it was well past her elbows, it was a huge part of her identity.

She was terribly sick. At first, from the leukaemia, and then from the treatment. Up until last Christmas it was very intense. And then there was the threat of infection, which is really hard to fight off, because her immune system had been destroyed by all the chemo. So if she ever picks up an infection or gets a temperature, then it’s straight into the car and down to Crumlin. As you can probably imagine, there’s an awful lot of stuff she’s missed out on. She didn’t go to school for months. She lost touch with her friends. And because of the threat of infection we’ve had to say no to birthday parties, going to the cinema, going to the zoo, even just coming grocery shopping with me.

Then along came Barretstown. And everything changed I’d heard about Barretstown before, but I didn’t know a huge amount until our doctor brought it up last August. We put our names down, but I was really nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking, “What if she starts to feel sick while she’s down there, what are we going to do?”.

Of course, the biggest thing for Louise, was that she got to forget she was sick. For five months, all she’d had was medicine and hospital and drips and cancer talk… but at Barretstown nobody asked about that. She was 6 years old, and she was able to go and be a normal 6 year old, doing things 6 year-olds like to do. Like messing around, blowing bubbles, riding horses, doing arts and crafts and baking and getting her face painted. The confidence that gave Louise was a huge thing for her. And for me it was magical watching her achieve so much, and feel so proud of herself.

Louise enjoying Barretstown

Click here to view Louise, and other campers, enjoying the activities here at Barretstown.

Family Camp has been such a huge part of our journey over the last year and a half. It’s made us a family again. However, with Christmas just around the corner, I can’t help thinking of all the other families who are going though what we’ve been through. Christmas is supposed to be a family time, a time of celebration and fun. But when your child is sick, and going through intense treatment for cancer, those things get put on hold. Even at Christmas.

And that’s why I want to ask you please to make a donation to Barretstown this Christmas.

Because as a mother who has lived through this ordeal, and is still living through it with my little treasure Louise, I know how important Barretstown is. It’s like a light in the darkness leading you through. So please will you help another family like ours to come to Barretstown and experience the light that’s still guiding us forward?

With all my gratitude, and a big Christmas kiss from Louise.