‘I am at the bottom of the pack when it comes to surviving it. I am very much the underdog’

Caroline Heffernan’s 50th birthday celebrations are being unravelled by the coronavirus.
‘I am at the bottom of the pack when it comes to surviving it. I am very much the underdog’

Caroline Heffernan’s 50th birthday celebrations are being unravelled by the coronavirus.

Heffernan hits the landmark date on August 31. But rather than just mark the day itself, the plan was to do something special each month of 2020 to celebrate her 50th year.

A New Year’s Eve fundraising ball meant January began in fine style.

February’s treat was a Valentine’s getaway with husband Franny.

Cheltenham was on the cards for March, but the arrival of Covid-19 saw the prioritising of a pandemic over a pint and a punt at the Cotswolds. The virus has also torpedoed next month’s Malin to Mizen Head cycle.

This year of celebration was to conclude with Caroline and a group of friends, two weeks after her birthday, walking 50km along the River Thames as part of the Thames Path Challenge. That too is likely to fall by the wayside.

Caroline Heffernan, as you’ve already surmised, is making a fuss about her 50th year. And well she might.

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 13, doctors said she would not live past 20. Yet here she still is, thriving rather than simply surviving.

In 2018, she became the first Irish person with cystic fibrosis to complete an Ironman. Last year, the Tuam mother-of-two cycled the 635 kilometres from Malin to Mizen Head. Also on her list of accomplishments is the New York marathon.

Chairperson of Galway’s Tri Lakes triathlon club, Caroline is very much the outdoors type. Be it spinning around North Galway on her bike, power-walking with friends, or heading off to a triathlon event on local or foreign shores, she is not one to be found lounging around the house.

The coronavirus, of course, has changed all that. Living with cystic fibrosis puts her firmly in the at-risk category.

If contracting the flu on a normal year means either a period of hospitalisation or a two-week course of intravenous antibiotics administered at home, one can imagine the significant threat posed to her health by Covid-19.

“My lungs are more fragile and more scarred than the average person so I have to work hard to keep myself well,” she says.

With the coronavirus, it is the fear of the unknown, the fear that there is no vaccine, no treatment, and that so many people are dying because of it.

“I am at the bottom of the pack, I suppose, when it comes to surviving it. I am very much the underdog. Basically, keep it away. Avoidance is best.” And so avoided it she has.

Caroline hasn’t strayed beyond her front garden in six and a half weeks. The confinement that goes hand-in-hand with cocooning hasn’t been a challenge. What gets her down is not being able to visit her mother in hospital or give her grandson a cuddle.

Even within the Heffernan household, precautions are being taken. Her husband works with vulnerable people and so they’ve had to be extra vigilant. The couple use separate bedrooms and bathrooms. Even their meal times are staggered.

“Once we knew the coronavirus was in the country, I was on high alert.

“I work for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. We are regularly ringing our members to see how everyone is doing. The majority of adults with CF, we were all on tenterhooks from the moment the first case of Covid-19 here in Ireland was confirmed.

“I haven’t been shopping since the news broke of that first case (February 29). In the two weeks from the beginning of March to St Patrick’s Day, I would have gone for two walks with a friend. It would have been down a country road where she walked one side of the road and I walked the other. That’s been the level of interaction I have had outside of the home these past two months.

Unfortunately, my mum is in hospital at the moment. Not being able to physically see her or my grandson, they are the big hardships.

A glass half-full lady, Caroline is quick to point out the upsides to cocooning.

Having not painted for 30 years, she and daughter Anna regularly decamp to the kitchen table to sketch sunsets, caricatures, and cartoon characters.

“It has been wonderful sitting down together and attempting various drawings.”

Her training has become more focused.

The weekend before last, she and five others - connected via Zoom - did a lockdown duathlon. With a treadmill and turbo bike set up in the back room, the 49-year old ran 1.5km, cycled 20km, and finished off with a further 5km on the treadmill.

She also logs on three times a week for group spins with other members of the Tri Lakes club.

Incorporating a running or cycling session into her daily routine has led the mind to wander. She finds herself contemplating a second Ironman when we get out the far side of this pandemic.

“I would love to do another one, but I would dare not say that out loud because my sister keeps saying, ‘you can’t, you can’t, it takes too much out of you’, as does my mum.

They would all worry too much if I did say I was doing another one. It did take a lot out of me, but it was amazing.

“Because I am doing more running the last few weeks, I think it is leaking back into my mind. The fact I have even mentioned it to you means, yes, it is leaking back.” Just for those not familiar; an Ironman consists of a 3.8km swim, 180km on the saddle, and, to finish, a full 42km marathon.

Now, factor in that Caroline’s lung function would be considerably less than your average amateur athlete. How much less? Well, let’s put it this way: prior to being put on the ground-breaking drug Kalydeco at the end of 2016, walking up a flight of stairs would leave her breathless.

In actual fact, two years before she successfully attempted the Barcelona Ironman, she was in the Catalonian capital supporting her sister Celia and had to stop four times when walking up a set of steps from where the swimming leg of the race was taking place.

“When I hit 44, I went back down around 40% in terms of lung function. Some people might say, ‘but sure look at the age you are, aren’t you doing well’. I would never take that as an answer. There is always improvement to be made. I would do whatever it took.

“Within an hour and a half of taking Kalydeco, I was able to walk up my stairs without effort. I am not exaggerating.

“I was lying in bed and I knew there was something a little off. I thought I’d forgotten to lock the car or turn off the oven before bed. Franny just said, ‘you walked up the stairs without coughing for the first time’. I was blown away.

“The noticeable difference is that I don’t cough during the night anymore. He didn’t get a full night’s sleep for the first week because he kept checking to see if I was alive. He was conscious he wasn’t being woken up by me coughing.”

Her lethargy shaken, she set herself the goal of becoming an Ironman, or Ironwoman, if you like.

Having picked Barcelona because of its favourable weather conditions, she pulled the curtains on the morning of October 7, 2018 to find a typically wet Irish day staring back at her. It made for a difficult swim leg. One particular wave proved so strong that it lifted Caroline out of the water and landed her on top of another competitor.

She soldiered on, crossing the finish line in 15 hours, 15 minutes, and 31 seconds.

“Sometimes I think back and say to myself, ‘did I actually do it’? It is a bit of a haze and a bit of a dream. When I got onto the red carpet approaching the finish, the organisers made such a fuss. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

“Was it foolish? Not in hindsight. Probably beforehand it looked real foolish. I am definitely the only Irish person with CF who has been silly enough to attempt one, but thrilled with herself for doing so.”

Such pushing of her limits has been put on hold for the time being.

“I had plans for the year to do something every month. At the Thames Path Challenge, we were going to do 50km for 50 years. I actually think my 40th birthday mark was the big one because that was double the 20. We went on a big family holiday. It was like saying, huh, to the doctors that said I wouldn’t live past 20. I had doubled my life expectancy. I was quite determined to make a statement about it.

A lot of the plans we have made for 50 are not going to happen because of the current circumstances. I have my health, that’s the most important thing.

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