A former occupational therapist who lost her legs as a child in a tragic farming accident has revealed her lingering hopes of tracing the family of an American GI whose blood saved her life more than 70 years ago.
Mary O’Brien was just two years old when she was mangled by a horse-drawn harvester after falling asleep in a corn field on her father’s farm in the North.
She was rushed to hospital in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and it was a soldier serving with Second World War US troops based nearby who answered the emergency call to donate a rare blood type after she lost both legs below the knee.
Ms O’Brien and her parents Bernard and Ann McMahon, who had the farm outside Fivemiletown, Co Tyrone, never discovered his identity.
“I still live in hope that maybe one day I’ll get to meet him,” she said.
“If not him, then some of his family. I’ve searched high and low; I’ve been everywhere including the hospital where I was treated, but I’ve never managed to locate him or any of his relatives.”
Aged four, she was the first double amputee in Northern Ireland to be fitted with artificial limbs.
“Unlike nowadays, that was the culture back then. Nobody talked about those sort of things. Even my mum and dad never really sat me down and explained what really happened all those years ago (1944). And I suppose in the years immediately following the accident I had no reason to ask them about it either.
“That was the way life was then. He might be dead – I don’t know – but I’ve always had this hope, this yearning, that he, or his relatives, might turn up and we could talk about it. What a happy ending that would be, and wouldn’t it make for a lovely film?”
She worked as an occupational therapist for the NHS for 30 years; won three gold medals for swimming at the Stoke Mandeville games in 1990; became an accomplished painter and for three decades was part of a musical duo with husband John who entertained, sometimes six nights a week, in clubs and pubs.
She once dined with the Queen of England, was awarded the MBE in 1990 and met the Prince of Wales when he visited her home town of Omagh, Co Tyrone, in August 1998 in the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bomb. She has also been a life-long campaigner for disability rights.
Her remarkable life, which also included using her prosthetic limbs to smuggle groceries across the border during the rationing years, has been documented in a book, Not A Leg To Stand On, which has become a Christmas best-seller.
Ms O’Brien, 73, and now a grandmother, said: “It took me six years to write it, all in long hand by pencil and rubber. Some of my grandchildren were especially inquisitive. They all wanted to know what happened to my legs, and sometimes they’d ask: ’Why could they not be sewed back on?’
“There were days when I worked all hours. It was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face. But I knew I had a good story to tell. The reaction has been amazing. Many found it inspirational and I’m told the book is selling as far away as Australia, Canada and the United States. Maybe that GI soldier, or his people, will come across a copy. That would make for some ending.”