Miss Cork City on her juvenile arthritis battle: "These symptoms especially affected my confidence and even my mental health began to suffer."

The Miss Ireland final takes place on Saturday. EMMA CONNOLLY catches up with two young Cork women who are using the platform to raise awareness of juvenile arthritis and also mental health among young people
Miss Cork City on her juvenile arthritis battle: "These symptoms especially affected my confidence and even my mental health began to suffer."
Niamh Coughlan, who is representing Cork city in the Miss Ireland final on September 14.

TWO young Cork women are vying to be this year’s Miss Ireland and they’re both equally committed to using the platform for the greater good.

Niamh Coughlan, a 20-year-old from Carraig na BhFear, is representing Cork city. Having been diagnosed with arthritis when she was just 13, she said she’d use the platform to not only highlight arthritis among young people, but other ‘unseen’ medical conditions which affect people’s daily lives.

Then there is Sorcha McKeown, 21, from Cobh, who is our Miss Cork. She raised over €8,000 for Pieta House last year with a ‘12 Peaks for Pieta’ campaign, which saw her climb a different mountain every month. And if she wins the national title she said she’d bring awareness to mental health and keeping active.

Miss Ireland Niamh Coughlan.   Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO
Miss Ireland Niamh Coughlan.   Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO

She doesn’t have a particular reason for supporting this charity but feels that it’s an important one: “I recognised that it was a huge problem facing a lot of people my age. I had heard from people I knew had used the service that it saved their lives and I wanted to help make sure Pieta House can continue to help others.”

Both girls are studying at third level — Niamh is in second year studying French and History of Art in UCC while Sorcha is studying Law at Maynooth University.

They also both work part-time: Niamh works in Ryan’s SuperValu, Glanmire, while Sorcha works in a traditional Irish craft centre.

And both girls are also very much into sport. Niamh played camogie and Gaelic football up until the 16 when she was advised by doctors to give them both up due to her arthritis.

“I have been doing a lot better in recent months and I have gradually introduced physical activity back into my daily life,” she said.

Miss Ireland finalist Niamh Coughlan with her grandad Denis Coughlan, the five time all Ireland winner and dual player.
Miss Ireland finalist Niamh Coughlan with her grandad Denis Coughlan, the five time all Ireland winner and dual player.

Her grandad is none other than Denis Coughlan, the five time All- Ireland winner and dual player. He played hurling and football for Cork at senior level and, also for Glen Rovers and St Nicholas.

His proud grand-daughter said: “He has three All-Ireland hurling titles and one football title, as well as 10 Munster titles and three All Stars. His sporting genes have definitely been passed on, as our family is still very much involved today.

“My dad played for the Glen and St Nicks, as did I for a few years. Now my brother Donagh (16) plays under age for the club as does my younger sister Beth (12), who is very much involved with the camogie side of things.

“Growing up, I can remember my grandad teaching us the very minor details of both sports, from the positioning of the hurley in the hand, to what angle to kick the ball off the foot. He is still very much involved in the club today, supporting a club in the heart of Blackpool where he was born and raised. Going forward to the final of Miss Ireland as Miss Cork City, I almost see it as my own All-Ireland final.”

Another passion of hers is cooking: “I have spent many summers working in the gardens in Ballymaloe and even inside the dessert kitchen. My aunt is head gardener there, so I have been lucky to have gotten that opportunity.”

Sorcha plays camogie and is very interested in mountain climbing.

Miss Ireland is in its 72nd year and neither girl thinks the competition is past its sell-by date.

Sorcha McKeown, from Cobh, is Miss Cork and will take part in the final of Miss Ireland on September 14.
Sorcha McKeown, from Cobh, is Miss Cork and will take part in the final of Miss Ireland on September 14.

Sorcha said: “Some people often question events such as Miss Ireland, and suggest they may be demeaning to women. I feel that this just comes from a place of misunderstanding, that people don’t have an accurate picture of what women can gain from these events.

“Being part of Miss Ireland has improved my self-esteem and confidence greatly. It puts me in a position to be able to give back to my community through attending and helping to promote charity events and local celebrations. I have no regrets about taking part and so far have had an overall positive experience.”

Niamh agrees: “Since being involved with Miss Cork, to now being in Miss Ireland, I can see what goes on and how it all works. It is not just what is seen on stage on the night, there is so much more to it.

“As someone who has always been very conscious of my height (I’m just over 6ft), I can honestly say since starting this journey I have learned to embrace it and I no longer try to hide it. My Miss Ireland experience so far has boosted my confidence a lot.”

For now, both girls are focused on the September 14 final in Dublin and after that, they’re open to all possibilities.

Sorcha said: “One thing I have learned since finishing school is that you don’t know where you’ll be in a year’s time, never mind 10! I will continue to enjoy where life takes me.”

Niamh added: “I don’t know what the future holds, but for now, I hope to finish my degree and perhaps go on to do a post-graduate degree after. In what, I still don’t know.

“This experience has introduced me to the world of fashion and modelling, which I am thoroughly enjoying, so I would love to keep my options open to more opportunities. I aim to have a positive outlook on life and what lies ahead.”

A total of 33 finalists will take to The Helix, Dublin, for the 72nd Miss Ireland pageant on September 14, with the prize a place at the Miss World 2019 event in London this December. The event will see the current Miss Ireland, 24-year-old teacher Aoife O’Sullivan, from Ballinadee, near Kinsale, hand over the title. She represented Ireland at the Miss World in China last December.

Niamh Coughlan, from Carraig na BhFear is representing Cork City in the Miss Ireland final.
Niamh Coughlan, from Carraig na BhFear is representing Cork City in the Miss Ireland final.

SHARING HER STORY


Niamh Coughlan Has Contributed To A Book Due To Be Published This Autumn Called ‘My Ra Story’ Which Tells Stories Of People Who Are Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis. Here’S An Extract From Her Chapter...

“MY story began in May, 2013, when I was aged 13. I had just come to the end of my first year in secondary school. In the months prior to this I had been experiencing slight pains in my hands and feet. I loved sport and played a lot of camogie and Gaelic football with both school and club teams, and so I thought the pain was a sports-related injury.

I had completed my first set of summer exams in secondary school when the pains in my hands began to get worse. My mum made an appointment to see the GP and I had my diagnosis by the end of that week. I was told that I had juvenile arthritis…I could not comprehend how a person my age could have arthritis.

At the time I was about 5’11 (I’ve always been tall) and so I thought I had just been going through a phase of growing pains. I was prescribed short-term steroids to calm the inflammation and I was referred onto a children’s consultant in the CUH. They had an overview of my entire body and confirmed that this was in fact a form of arthritis.

In the months following on from this, the pains only got worse and I was experiencing stiffness in the mornings. There were even tears before school sometimes, as even simple tasks like doing the buttons on my shirt became a challenge.

I began to do my own research on what causes the disease and how to get rid of it, but I was told prevention from further damage was the main thing to be concerned about. I went from playing on the pitch to watching from the sideline, which really affected my overall mood, as sport was a great outlet for me to have fun and keep fit. School life got harder too as I soon noticed my hand would get sore after a short time from writing as well as knee pain from carrying the weight of heavy books around all day. I had tried hand supports and occupational therapy but nothing really relieved the burning sensation and swollen joints. It also began to impact my social life with friends as I was lethargic and conscious of my condition.

A few months later I was transferred to the children’s rheumatology department in Our Lady’s Children’s hospital in Crumlin. The doctors there were specifically focused on arthritis in children so I had hope that they would be able to solve it. They went through possible solutions and explained to me that the main aim was to prevent the arthritis from getting any worse, and that long-term medication was the best solution. They introduced me to a commonly used drug known as Methotrexate which I would self- inject once a week.

The next nine months were horrible. I didn’t think there was a huge improvement. In the meantime, the pain had moved to both joints in my jaw. My entire face would swell and I had trouble sleeping at night due to the constant clicking of joints in and out of place. I was diagnosed with TMD (Temporomandibular disorder) which affects the jaw joint and facial muscles. I got steroid injections into both sides of my jaw and also in my fingers with the hope that these would ease things.

Niamh Coughlan, is representing Miss Cork in Miss Ireland on September 14. She has spoken out about her juvenile arthritis.
Niamh Coughlan, is representing Miss Cork in Miss Ireland on September 14. She has spoken out about her juvenile arthritis.

The following April I met with the doctors again…I was changed to another medication which I continued to take for a while. The side effects were not as bad but I was experiencing weight loss and hair loss, while searching for alternative methods to try to cure myself. These symptoms especially affected my confidence and even my mental health began to suffer.

I excluded myself from friends and I didn’t like being in school. I stopped eating properly which only made problems worse. I ended up in hospital for a week the summer before my leaving cert as I had lost nearly three stone in weight over a very short period of time.

I felt helpless and that my life would continue the way it was going. Although it has taken quite some time, I am almost back to the person I was before any of this had happened.

In 2017, I turned 18 and I was transferred back to Cork to the adult clinic in the CUH. I discussed with my doctors about coming off medication but I was strongly advised to keep taking it, at least until the exams were over. I went against my consultant’s advice and stopped taking the medications four months before the Leaving Cert. I knew I was taking a big risk as I had no idea how my body would react, but I was confident in my decision.

Thankfully everything seemed to be ok and I sat my exams with the help of a scribe which was a huge benefit to me.

As for today, I am now in a place where I can manage my symptoms. I don’t like the cold as it still causes flare ups in my hands and in my feet but I’ve learned how to deal with difficult situations.

“I am currently medication-free and my symptoms have thankfully eased I understand both the personal and social struggles with coping with the disease but there are ways for everyone to become comfortable and confident in how they deal with their conditions. It just takes time!”

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