'Two weeks after we found out I was pregnant, my husband died in my arms': Cork mother’s hard road to festive cheer

Cork mother Susan O’Sullivan tells Martha Brennan that for her family, Christmas is a time to give thanks, and why she wants to raise awareness of the support needed for families with a child in hospital.
'Two weeks after we found out I was pregnant, my husband died in my arms': Cork mother’s hard road to festive cheer

Aoife and Ciara Jane O’Sullivan, Blarney. ‘The minute Aoife leaves my side she has her mask on, and her hands are wrecked from the sanitising, but at least we know what we’re dealing with versus this time last year when there was so much uncertainty,’ says mum Susan. ‘There is light at the end of the tunnel now.’

HOLIDAYS are big in the O’Sullivan household. Whether it’s Halloween, Easter, or Christmas, any passer-by in the Blarney area is sure to spot an array of decorations outside Susan O’Sullivan’s front door.

The holidays are also a time when the mother-of-two reflects back on all of the help she has received from her family, local community, and especially the staff at Crumlin and Temple Street children’s hospitals.

“Myself and my husband Gerard met in secondary school and married years later,” says Susan.

“We always wanted kids, but we had two miscarriages before we got pregnant with my daughter Aoife in 2013.

“However, we found out before she was born that she had a heart condition and I wouldn’t be able to have her in Cork. We travelled to Dublin, and she was taken from me straight away for open-heart surgery in Crumlin.

“My husband stopped them before they left and told them not to go anywhere until I held her.

“We got a photo, and I just started crying. I was so upset thinking it might be the only time I held her.”

Thankfully, Aoife’s surgery was a success, but she had to stay in Crumlin for six weeks before her parents could bring her home to Cork for Christmas.

Susan and Gerard spent the next nine months travelling up and down to Dublin for check-ups, before discovering some good news the following September — they were going to have a second child.

“About two weeks after we found out I was pregnant, my husband died in my arms,” says Susan.

“Gerard started having his episodes around the time we had Aoife. He would wake up in the middle of the night and just pass out. He was in and out of CUH, but they couldn’t find anything wrong.

“I told him I was pregnant with Ciara Jane while we were on holidays that September, and he was just over the moon.

“She was due on what would have been his 40th birthday.

“But then he came home from a night shift on a Friday morning, we were up chatting, and I heard a bang. He was bent over the sink with what he thought was indigestion.

“All of a sudden, he said, ‘Susan, I’m so sorry’, and that was it. I caught him and rang the ambulance, but the fog was so thick that morning they couldn’t find us.

“I started flashing the lights at the front door, and they eventually spotted us. I called my mum, and she came straight away.

“Aoife was just two weeks shy of her first birthday and was trying to wake up her dad.

“She was in my arms, and they told me he was gone, and I just started screaming.”

In 2015, Susan had Ciara Jane in CUMH, where she found out after the birth that her newborn had Down Syndrome. Ciara Jane was soon transferred to Temple Street Hospital for an emergency bowel surgery.

“I had one little girl in Cork being looked after by her grandparents, and I had another little girl waiting on life-saving surgery in Dublin,” says Susan.

“They seriously looked after me — the staff in CUMH, and the staff in Temple Street.

“My mum and my siblings all threw their hats in the ring and helped so much.

“I’m also part of a group that we call the November Mammies — there are 30 of us who all had babies when Aoife was born. I rang two of them in Dublin and asked if they would go to Ciara Jane if anything happened before my mum could get there. So they were brilliant as well.

“I discharged myself and got the first train I could to Dublin. For the next few weeks, I would get the train down to Cork Friday evening to be with Aoife, and my mum would get the train up to Dublin to be with Ciara Jane. The nurses were just unbelievable up there, and the other new mums. They really became a second family, and still are.”

Six years on, Susan has just tucked the girls into bed when she answers the phone to speak with The Echo. She’s currently getting ready to send them back to school after a bout of sinus and eye infections.

“I think Ciara Jane is topping the record of Covid tests for the house,” she says. “She’s had eight, Aoife has had three. The girls are both high-risk, Aoife because of heart and Ciara Jane because if a chest infection hits her, she’s down in minutes.

“But thankfully we’ve managed to avoid it so far. The minute Aoife leaves my side she has her mask on, and her hands are wrecked from the sanitising, but at least we know what we’re dealing with versus this time last year when there was so much uncertainty. There is light at the end of the tunnel now.”

The family lay low in the run-up to Christmas, but that didn’t stop them going all out with their celebrations at home.

“You should see the house. It looks amazing, and we’re adding to it constantly. I bought another pack of lights yesterday and have nowhere to put them,” Susan says with a laugh.

“I have garlands all around the door, the wreath, the flashing lights, reindeers, an outdoor tree, ‘Santa Stop Here’ signs. I try to go all out for the girls. Especially after last year when it was just so horrible not seeing anyone.”

While the girls were carefully ticking away the days until Santa comes, Susan reflected on the phenomenal support she has received from her community and others.

“Our community is brilliant,” she says. “One day my gym instructor Eoin Murphy picked up the girls’ prescriptions and dropped them dressed as a superhero, and the girls were delighted.

“Everyone within 5km did a drive-by birthday parade for Ciara Jane’s birthday last year as well.

“I often think about all the people who have helped us, especially around this time. The paramedics that drove myself and Ciara Jane back to Cork from Temple Street who called in with gifts the following Christmas, the dispatcher who answered my 999 call, I’d love to thank them all.

“We also try to help raise awareness for the hospitals in any way, because the funds they raise really are vital.”

  • Children’s Health Ireland is holding a Christmas Jumper Day appeal to raise funds for its hospitals. To donate or find out more, see https://www.childrenshealth.ie/

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