Emma’s true colours

Before she died, 22 year old Emma Dowling set up a cancer charity. Her parents are keeping her dream alive, writes Claire Droney

SHE loved dressing up, socialising, fast cars and loud music and had her motto ‘one life, one chance’ tattooed in Hebrew on her shoulder.

Emma Dowling was full of life and full of plans for the future.

Then, in 2008, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.

She began a course of chemotherapy immediately.

“When Emma received treatment, she could be there from anything from two to five hours. You just sit in a recliner chair, and there is a row of them, and you are looking at the people opposite you.

“Emma thought because people were in getting chemotherapy every day, it’d be great if they could pass the time watching television or looking up Facebook,” recalls her mother Noirin.

So this time last year, Emma, then 22, established a cancer charity, the Purple Butterfly Foundation (PBF).

“Emma’s favourite colour was purple and, together with her cousin, Laura, they decided to set up a charity and call it the Purple Butterfly Foundation,” says Noirin.

Initially the family planned to raise funds for a wheelchair for Emma, but she passed away just weeks later.

Her parents, Noirin and Peter, continued the charity. They raised €14,000 on the day of the fundraiser, with events including leg-waxing, head-shaving, children’s entertainment, cake sales and an auction.

“It was really difficult to do because, obviously, we were grieving. But we had no option and we had to go with it. It kept us going. All our neighbours and family were fantastic. We thought if we raised €5,000, we’d be doing really well, but in the end we raised €14,500, which was way above our expectations,” says Noirin.

They have since raised over €26,000 for St James’ hospital, Dublin.

The Dowlings are planning to purchase 10 iPads for the chemotherapy ward in St James’s hospital, as well as refurbishing the relatives’ room, and buying electric beds for the new extension in the hospital.

“Emma was never the victim in all of this, she never said ‘poor me’ or ‘why me?’ She was a girly girl. She was full of life and really bubbly. She had a great strength of character.

“I think it’s because she was an only child and we knew she was going to be the only child. I didn’t want her to be spoiled.

“We always told her that she was very special, and not to ever let anybody treat her badly or walk all over her,” says Noirin.

“Emma was a very popular girl and she had great craic with her friends.

“Before nights out, one of the girls would do the spray tan, another would do the nails, Emma would do the hair and her other friend would do the make-up. They used to get the party-taxi into town and it’d be like Beirut in the house after them and we’d have to clean up afterwards,” she says.

Despite her illness, Emma retained her sense of fun and kept her friends around her.

“When Emma was well, she made the most of it. She’d go out with the girls for as long as she was able. She didn’t want anyone to know she was sick, and she’d go into the bedroom and put on her make-up. You wouldn’t think there was a thing wrong with her,” Noirin says.

“The staff at Peter Marks were great. They gave her a real wig, with real human hair, that you could wash and blow-dry. Emma used to go down to the shopping centre and give them her wig and say ‘wash and blow-dry that and I’ll be back in an hour’,” she says.

On a night out, a girl admired Emma’s hair by touching it. Her wig fell off and the girl was mortified, but Emma’s only concern was putting the girl at her ease.

During Emma’s hospital stays, Noirin established a Purple Butterfly clothing label, selling knitted scarves and handbags in local shop, Serendipity, in Dunboyne.

“I don’t knit, but my sister brought me in needles and wool to the hospital, because she thought it’d be a good way to occupy me while I was sitting at the hospital bed morning, noon and night.

“I had a scarf finished by the end of the week and was so pleased with myself. I went out and bought more wool and got a few more scarves knitted. I had all my neighbours knitting, I had my family knitting, even fellas were knitting. I got the idea that if we had enough scarves knitted, we could sell them,” Noirin says.

Noirin set up a stand in Blanchardstown shopping centre in Nov 2011, selling her scarves and handbags, and showing people how to knit, raising €5000.

At Emma’s funeral, nobody was allowed to wear black; everyone wore purple. Even Emma’s dog, Millie, wore a purple ribbon at the funeral.

“She had wanted a dog for ages but I didn’t want her to get one, because of infections,” says Noirin.

“She went down to Arklow and came back with a tiny little boxer that fitted into the palm of her hand.

“She did it for a reason. That dog gets us out of the house now, even if we don’t want to,” she says. “Emma still has ways of making things happen, and the Purple Butterfly Foundation just keeps going from strength to strength. Our house is full of butterflies and everybody who comes brings some sort of butterfly.”

“It’s giving me a positive focus to do it. It’s keeping us upbeat,” says Noirin, who plans to complete the Dublin mini marathon in June in aid of the PBF.

“Young people get bad press a lot of the time, but there’s so much good in them that’s sometimes not highlighted at all. All Emma’s friends and family were brilliant,” she says.

* For more information, see the Purple Butterfly Foundation in aid of Hodgkins lymphoma Facebook page


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