Three dads discuss how almost losing a child impacted them as fathers

What if the unthinkable happened? What if you almost lost your child? As Father’s Day approaches, Helen O’Callaghan talks to three dads who experienced just this and ask how the experience impacted on them as fathers

Tom, 6, and his older brother Jack, 8, with their father, GAA legend and former Dublin goalie John O'Leary. Pic: Colm Mahady/Fennells

FORMER England rugby player Matt Dawson came close to losing younger son, Sami, 3, to meningitis in February 2016. “Sami woke feeling very feverish. He was grumpy and moody — not his usual style,” recalls the father of two.

Very soon, Sami’s hands and feet were chilled. He wasn’t eating and had nausea and diarrhoea.

“As a parent, you know you’ve taken your kids to hospital when they were tiny — there was nothing wrong and you thought ‘next time I won’t go through that rigmarole again’,” says the rugby icon, whose other son, Alex, is 5.

But Dawson and wife Carolin felt something wasn’t right with Sami. “Our instincts told us get him to hospital. Once there, it was obvious he was in a lot of bother. He was taken to the emergency ward, put in induced coma and filled with antibiotics. It was all hands to the pump.” Sami was kept in the coma for over a week. “He had a blood transfusion. There were cannulas going everywhere. He was changing size, rashes everywhere. It was fairly traumatic. I didn’t know anything about meningitis. Once I realised, I was asking: Will he survive? Will he keep all his limbs? Will he be mentally stable? What’s the worst case scenario? Will he be OK? But they couldn’t guarantee it — a lot depended on Sami battling against it. We had to take every hour at a time.

“We were incredibly lucky — we caught it early and got great support. Now Sami’s running around like any three-year-old. He’s fabulous, sharp, athletic, bright, entertaining. He’s great, apart from scars on his wrists and ankles from the lesions.”

The family’s close call made Dawson passionate about spreading meningitis-awareness. “With this disease, minutes can make a huge difference to outcome. People think of the glass test, but there are other lesser-known symptoms that it’s important to be aware of.”

Dawson feels the experience changed him as a dad.

“I’m more conscious of how important is the time I spend with my family. All the moments my two boys ask me to do stuff, I don’t hesitate to crack on — play with them in the garden, help them with whatever they’re doing. I love that anyway but this has put it all in perspective.” .

GAA legend and former Dublin goalie John O’Leary won’t forget the day his six-year-old, Tom, lost his first tooth.

GAA legend and former Dublin goalie John O’Leary with sons Jack (8, right) and Tom (6, left) and their mother Catherine. Picture: Colm Mahady / Fennells

“We knew it was loose. We were watching it, wondering would we see it, would we find it — because Tom wouldn’t be able to tell you about it. And then there it was — on his tongue! It was almost an emotional moment. That was that day’s moment — his lost tooth and us being able to find it for him.” Tom has a rare chromosomal disorder, Trisomy 7p, causing intellectual and developmental problems. He has poor muscle tone, can’t feed orally and is non-verbal. John and wife Catherine, who together have another son, Jack, 8, can’t find anyone worldwide with the exact condition Tom has.

In addition, Tom was born with a heart condition, tetralogy of fallot. “When he was born, he was floppy. We wondered about everything from Down syndrome to cystic fibrosis. We were like on an express train going from bad to worse. Tom nearly died when he was two months old. His white blood cells went through the roof. Combined with very poor muscle tone and a chest infection, it knocked him for six.”

Neither John nor Catherine realised how close their baby came to not making it. “He was very sick anyway, so it didn’t look like he was potentially at death’s door. It was in subsequent conversations with the heart consultant [that we realised]. He said ‘look, this guy came really close — he hasn’t turned the corner but he’s making progress’.” John, who also has three older children aged from 17 to 27, says Tom and “the whole experience of having Tom” makes him a better individual. “Normal milestones — talking, walking — come and go with an ordinary child, but I really appreciate the little improvements Tom makes.”

With no prognosis in terms of the chromosomal disorder, everything Tom has done has been a surprise, says John. “He’s walking for the last five months. He’s unable to get into a standing position but once you stand him up he takes off. His first unaided adventure walking around the kitchen table was another moment, like losing his first tooth. Last night, he went from chair to front room and out to the trampoline — he did it all himself!

“As a dad, I realise there’s stuff I can’t fix. I’m not expert in everything. I have to row with the punches. I try to look after Tom as best I can. There’s the juxtaposition of a healthy eight-year-old running amuck in the house — and there’s poor old Tom. I’m constantly reminded of the difference between them. So I’m correcting Jack as I go — and having to be more tolerant, patient and accepting of Tom. It’s like playing two roles but I don’t sweat it, I just get on with it.” John is a board member with the Jack and Jill Foundation and very actively involved with the charity.

Tom O’Leary, 6, and his older brother Jack, 8.Picture: Colm Mahady / Fennells

When Danny Harrold, 8, made his First Communion recently, his parents Tom and Elaine wondered would they have seen this day if it weren’t for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. “Danny was born with multiple congenital heart defects and fought hard for survival during the first weeks of his life,” says Tom.

While doctors hoped to hold off on open heart surgery until the child was several months older, they were forced to perform it when he was just nine weeks old. “They had to intervene quickly. If they hadn’t, he wouldn’t be here today.” May 18, 2009, is forever etched in Tom’s mind. “At 9am that morning, we watched Danny fall under anaesthesia in our arms. We handed our baby over to the surgical team in Crumlin, putting our full trust in them to save his life. We’d no idea what the outcome would be — walking out of that operating theatre, leaving him behind, was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

It was at this crisis point that Tom realised he had to let go of wanting to control things. “A dad is constantly thinking ‘is there anything I can do?’ But I just had to let medicine and nature take its course. It was out of our hands, beyond our control and —as parents — much bigger than us.”

Tom Harrold, with wife Elaine and sons Cian, 10 and Danny, 8. Picture Dan Linehan

It was, he says, the longest nine hours of his life “through hell and back on an emotional rollercoaster but fortunately Danny fought hard and came out the right side of things”.

Unsurprisingly, the experience has impacted. “I became a very positive person on the back of it. I gained so much appreciation — realising in an instant life can be turned upside down.” A dad of two — older son Cian is 10 — Tom says: “I appreciate my children because I know I only have a loan of them. I realise this more as they grow. Danny’s flying it now — in second class and 100% involved in sport, Irish dancing and music.

“He’s the reason I choose to fundraise so much for Crumlin. This year, I’ll run the New York City Marathon on November 5, as part of Team Crumlin. And I’ll remember: ‘every sick child deserves every chance’.”

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