Susan O’Sullivan is busy blowing up Halloween balloons when she picks up the phone from her home in Blarney, Co Cork. Though it’s still September, her youngest daughter Ciara Jane, aged six, insists that they make the most of their involvement with this year’s Trick or Treat for Temple Street fundraiser.
The family, which also includes Ciara Jane’s older sister Aoife, aged seven, has been involved with the Children’s Health Foundation for many years. Raising awareness for Temple Street and Crumlin children’s hospitals is a cause close to Susan’s heart.
"Before Aoife was born in 2013, a scan revealed that there was something wrong with her heart. She couldn't be delivered in Cork, so my husband and I had to travel to the Coombe Hospital in Dublin for the birth. Within a few hours of being born, she was rushed to Crumlin for open-heart surgery and later she suffered from an infection," Susan says.
Thankfully, Aoife recovered and Susan and her husband Gerard could take her home six weeks later, just before Christmas. They spent the next nine months travelling up and down to Dublin for checkups, before discovering some good news the following September - they were going to have a second child.
However, Susan soon found herself back in Dublin following the birth of Ciara Jane. But this time, she had to go through it alone.
"In September 2014 we found out we were pregnant with Ciara Jane. About two weeks later my husband dropped dead from a heart attack in my arms,” Susan says.
“It was just unbelievable. Aoife was two weeks away from turning one and he knew that we were pregnant again but we didn't know if it was going to be a boy or a girl at that stage.
"Ciara Jane was due on what would have been his 40th birthday but she was born three weeks premature. When she arrived then, I was told she had Down syndrome. She was born in Cork but had to be blue-lighted up to Dublin for emergency surgery for a bowel blockage."
Along with Susan’s siblings and parents, the staff at Temple Street Hospital became a lifeline, as the staff in the ICU at Crumlin had been when Aoife was born.
"When we had Aoife, my husband asked all the questions. Then when I had Ciara Jane and I was up there on my own, I hadn't a clue what I was doing. I just didn't want to leave the hospital. I would be the first in the queue waiting to get in and out to see her. You just want to spend as much time with your child as you can in that situation," she says.
“I had one little girl in Cork being looked after by her grandparents and I had another little girl waiting on life-saving surgery in Temple Street. I was literally stuck on a train up and down to Dublin so that I could spend time with both of them.
"My mum and my sisters all threw their hats in the ring and helped so much. They looked after Aoife during the week and I would get the train down Friday evening and my mum would get the train up and we'd swap. The staff in the hospital were just outstanding as well. They were my backbone and became my second family. They really looked after both me and Ciara Jane."
Susan became involved with the foundation, offering to share her story to raise awareness. However, she never realised how much fun Aoife and Ciara Jane would have by taking part too.
"The girls are just loving being involved with the Trick or Treat campaign. We went to get their photographs taken in Dublin this week and they were dressed up as little monsters and Ciara Jane just surpassed herself. She was just outstanding and she was so funny," Susan says.
“I'd be nervous taking them on long journeys by myself. Aoife is dying to go to Tayto Park, for example, but I can't bring them because I'd need another adult to come with me in order to go on the rides. It's simple things like that that everybody else would take for granted.
"But small things like this, being able to go up to Dublin to get a photograph taken, are fantastic. All they did was laugh and smile. Lucy Kennedy was also there and she was outstanding. For the past year, they’ve had to avoid socialising and they can't have playdates or run around the school like they used to and it was just like a breath of fresh air to see them this week.”
Holidays, such as Halloween, are a big part of the O’Sullivan household, so it’s no surprise that Ciara Jane and Aoife are starting their spooky celebrations early. Being able to go trick or treating in some capacity this year will also provide a welcome relief for the family, who had to be especially careful during last year’s lockdowns.
“Every year I go over and above for Halloween, Easter, and Christmas. I try to make a big deal out of them," Susan says. “Last year was just so tough. We had to rely on family and friends to do our shopping and my mum was outside of our 5km. The girls couldn’t see anyone or play with their friends.
"But we did get great support from the community. One day my gym instructor Eoin Murphy picked up the girls' prescriptions and dropped them dressed as a superhero and the girls were delighted. Everyone within 5km did a drive-by birthday parade for Ciara Jane’s birthday as well. It was just great.”
Now, Susan, the girls, and their neighbours are excited to get their costumes ready for next month.
"This year Ciara Jane wants to be a zombie prisoner and Aoife is keeping her costume close to her chest in case her cousins steal it. They have my costume picked out as well. It's great fun," Susan says.
"And we're delighted to help raise awareness for the hospitals in any way because the funds they raise from events like these really are vital.
- ‘Trick or Treat’ in aid of the Children’s Health Foundation is supported by MiWadi. All money raised will help fund vital, life-saving equipment for sick children across Ireland. Sign up for a party park now at www.childrenshealth.ie/trickortreat