The O’Callaghan family from Shannon in Clare feels blessed. When Gary O'Callaghan was diagnosed with lymphoma on New Year’s Eve, 2014, he was given weeks to live.
“Every cancer patient has their own story,” says Gary’s sister Niamh. “But Gary and his wife Cathy had been together for so long, they have two adopted children from Vietnam, Thanhtra and Elliot, who are so so loved.
“And then this news… it was devastating. What Gary had to go through was just horrendous”
The O’Callaghans got their miracle. Gary’s older brother Mike was a match for a life-saving stem cell transplant.
“It saved my brother’s life and it was miraculous. That doesn’t happen, the odds are very low. Gary is only one of five people in the country with a certain blood type. So it’s even more miraculous. If Mike hadn’t been a match there probably wasn’t a hope.”
Following months of intense treatment on the Birkitt Ward of St James’s Hospital in Dublin, Gary has recovered.
But Niamh knows of a man in Cork right now suffering with K Cell Lymphoma who desperately needs a donor. And there are many living the same purgatory.
So the O’Callaghans, whose late father Mick played rugby for Ireland and featured on the Munster team that beat Australia in 1967, want to raise awareness for the Bone Marrow for Leukaemia Trust.
“Getting people onto the donor list is so important,” says Niamh. “Bone marrow and stem cells are not easy things to match up. But transplants are a treatment option for up to 80 blood cancers including lymphoma/myeloma and leukaemia.
"You can go onto giveblood.ie to become a donor. They’ll get in contact, take a few blood samples and you’re into a global network. You could get a call from Australia and you could save a life.”
Mike describes it as a ‘privilege’, what he could do for his brother. And stresses he’d do it again for anybody else in a heartbeat.
“I would say to anyone faced with a decision about becoming a donor to not worry about it and to go for it. If I was contacted again to say that I was a match for someone going through the same thing as Gary, I would not hesitate to donate.”
On Saturday, Gary’s brother-in-law Hendrik Ketelaar — Dutch but well settled in Clare life in Crusheen — set off on an epic 2,220km cycle along the Wild Atlantic Way from Kinsale to the Peace Bridge in Derry. It’ll take him 10 days, camping en route in a tent.
By Monday afternoon, he was already in Tralee, heading next towards Ballybunion. By midday Tuesday, he should be passing through Lahinch. You can track his progress on Follow My Challenge or on Twitter under ‘Hendrik’s Wild Cycle for Leukaemia’.
Niamh adds: “The family would love local support from families and survivors of lymphoma, hodgkins/non-hodgkins and leukaemia to come out and support Hendrik in honour of their journey, which as Hendrik says, is so much more grueling than the journey he is on.”
The main aim is to raise awareness of the need for people to register as donors, but also raise funds for the Bone Marrow for Leukaemia Trust (BMLT).
We really have a beautiful country! Amazing views, Kerry on a beautiful day. pic.twitter.com/r1Zfyi8CmV— Hendriks Wild Atlantic Cycle (@BMLThendrik) July 19, 2020
After Gary’s life-saving treatment, he needed months of specialised care at St James’s. And that's where the Trust came in, supporting Gary and the family to live in dedicated apartments beside the hospital.
“Hundreds of families from outside Dublin have stayed there,” Niamh says. “It’s a harrowing journey. After you're in hospital for three or four months you’re almost institutionalised. So there is a great freedom in getting out to your own space. The family was so grateful for that.
“Our hope is to raise awareness about BMLT, who provide incredible support to people with diagnoses like Gary had, which are devastating in so many ways, not just to the individual fighting for their lives but to their family — physically, emotionally, financially. We are so grateful for all they did for us.”