18-year-old Helen Fennell was given another chance at life when she received a heart transplant and months later was hanging out with Graham Norton in London. But, it wasn’t to be and her heartbroken parents are adamant that she won’t have died in vain, says Ailín Quinlan
IN JUST over six months teenager Helen Fennell had a heart transplant, hosted a mammoth 18th birthday party, passed her driving test, ran the Cork City Marathon and had dinner with Graham Norton. It was typical of a girl who tore through life enjoying every second — a girl who, incidentally, had been given the last rites the day she was born.
An enthusiastic footballer, hockey and tennis player, Fennell was also a marvelous cook — particularly of amazingly gooey chocolate desserts. She was highly sociable, academically hardworking and ambitious, planning to study Law and German in Trinity College.
But above all else, says her mother Elaine, Helen had courage. Elaine’s mother, also called Helen, had died aged 34 of a heart condition believed to have been caused by a bout of rheumatic fever in her teens. Elaine never suspected the condition was genetic — her first child John, now aged 21, was born without any problems.
Helen was the second of four children born to Elaine and her husband Justin Fennell, both solicitors with the Cork city legal firm PJ O’Driscoll & Sons — but within hours of her birth, doctors had identified a serious heart problem.
Cardiomyopathy is a potentially fatal condition where the heart muscle is abnormal, making it difficult for the heart to pump and deliver blood to the rest of the body. Helen was rushed to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, where she spent the first month of her life.
However, doctors were optimistic — although Helen needed strong medication for what was diagnosed as a left ventricular malfunction, they felt she could live a normal life. And for many years she did, attending a once yearly check-up at the hospital.
Karen celebrated her 18th with friend, Karla Butler and 100 others
One Saturday morning in July 2012, when Helen was 16, Elaine received a phone call from Helen’s consultant. “He was concerned about the results of a recent scan which showed that her heart was pumping at less than half power.”
Helen’s medication was significantly increased and check-ups took place every two months, She had to stop playing sports and, her consultant warned, she might eventually need a heart transplant.
In August 2013, Helen began to feel ill. Tests showed her heart was weakening further but she emerged fit and well after two weeks in the coronary care unit of Cork University Hospital. However, her consultant recommended she be assessed for a transplant. In April 2014 the teenager was placed on the heart transplant list. The operation took place a few days later.
It was a great success — within three days Helen was walking around, and in just a fortnight she was back at the family home just outside Bandon.
Her 18th birthday in August — which was held at home and attended by some 100 friends was a huge success. The following month Helen took part in the Cork City Marathon in aid of the Heart and Lung appeal for the Mater Foundation, later passing her driving test.
The highlight of her year, though, was dinner with Graham Norton. Elaine had been friends with Norton since they attended Bandon Grammar School together, and the pair regularly met up when Norton visited West Cork. “I asked him if Helen could attend a recording of his show,” she recalls.
That October Helen, Elaine and Justin flew to London to attend the recording of the show, afterwards dining with Norton.
“Helen took a photograph of herself and Graham in the restaurant and uploaded it on Instagram. She was thrilled,” recalls Elaine.
Her parents Justin and Elaine
As the weeks passed, her regular checks in the Mater Hospital were reassuring, and the family looked forward to Christmas Day — also younger sister Lizzy’s birthday. Christmas Day was wonderful — Helen made a fabulous chocolate cake for Lizzy’s birthday — but around 8pm she started to feel unwell. Initially Elaine attributed it to too much chocolate cake, but Helen became increasingly ill that night and the following day was brought to hospital.
Her parents stayed by her bedside until about 10.30pm on December 26. “Just before we left the hospital, she said we were the two best parents anyone could have, says Elaine. “She said ‘I couldn’t have done it without you, I love you both.’ “We were standing on either side of her holding her hands as she said those words. I told her I’d be in the next morning.”
Within 40 minutes of their departure, Helen collapsed. Elaine and Justin were called back to the hospital. Helen’s heart stopped and she died in the early hours of December 27. “Somehow I knew it before I was told,” Elaine says. “It was so sudden. We had such hopes for the future, but she had a fabulous life. “It was a short life but one hell of a sweet one. Helen had a fantastically joyful life, and she left very quickly.”
A fashion show in memory of Helen Fennell will be hosted byThe Design House, St Ann’s Church on Dublin’s Dawson Street on May 26 in aid of The Heart & Lung Appeal at The Mater Hospital.
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