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Deirdre Leahy and her daughter Corlaith

On the 11th of June 2021, our life as we knew it changed forever. I will never forget the phone call as much as my husband, Brian, will never forget making it. Our four-year-old little girl Corlaith was in Tallaght Hospital after the previous week of sporadic vomiting and complaining of headaches. They were going to discharge her as they felt they had dealt with the stomach issues, but we asked for a CT scan due to the headaches she had the previous week. They told me they wouldn't find anything, and I responded I didn't want them to find anything.

How wrong we both were. Brian called me. It was Friday afternoon, and I was in Dunnes with my two-and-a-half-year-old while 35 weeks pregnant with our third child. They found something.

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They told us that the scan showed a lesion on the left side of Corlaith’s brain. It wasn't until the next day, Saturday, in Temple Street when we met with the incredible neurosurgical team led by Mr Caird, we saw it for ourselves. A tumour the size of a small orange was visible. Words like “aggressive” and “substantial” are all I remember. We were left back on St Gabriel's Ward with nowhere to go, nowhere to talk and nowhere to cry. We found a stairwell, sat down, and cried. Then we stood up, wiped the tears away and went into Corlaith, all smiles, hugs and jokes. Through the three brain surgeries, Corlaith will go on to have to remove the malignant tumour and insert a permanent shunt. We held the tears back until she wasn't around, catching a minute in a lift or the car and then physically swallowing our emotions each time we walked into room 2 on St Gabriel's Ward to see her.

By the end of June, all the tumour was removed by the incredible team in Temple Street. We now needed a plan to relocate our family to Germany for two months for Corlaith to undergo proton radiotherapy treatment. Caoimhe, our third little girl was born on Friday 23rd July. I discharged myself from the hospital that Sunday so I could introduce her to her two older sisters before they left with Brian and his mum the next morning. Brian never got his paternity leave. He never got the lazy Netflix days with a new-born sleeping on your chest. We never got to go for late morning walks up to the local coffee shop showing off our newest family addition. Instead, I spent the first two weeks of Caoimhe's life trying to get her birth cert and passport; while Brian struggled to be both mum and dad in a foreign country to two little girls missing their mum. What we all went through in such a short space of time breaks my heart even now as I type this, six months on.

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I was told very early on by a child psychologist in Temple Street that what we were going through is no different than watching your child get hit by a car. It was a very traumatic event and we needed to be aware of that. As we settled into life in our two-bedroom apartment in Essen, Germany, we could see for ourselves the impact this sickness had on all of us. We were short-tempered and stressed with the girls, Corlaith was aggressive and angry towards her younger sister Saorla, and Saorla would wake every night to check I hadn't left her again.

When we arrived home two months later, I immediately got in contact with ARC. Throughout the previous four months we were on a planned medical process – diagnosis, surgery, treatment – our hands held with every step. But suddenly we were at home, everything was exactly as we left it…except us. We were lost and derailed from our own lives, and we needed help. Brian and I signed up for counselling, not really knowing what it would do for us. While chatting to the lovely Amy, she mentioned they had recently started play therapy for children. I signed Corlaith up.

It's hard to describe the impact ARC has had on us as a family, but I can say it's as important to us as the physical surgeries or the radiotherapy treatment Corlaith had to have. Going to them is hard. Before each session I convince myself that I don't need to go – “what are you going to say?”, “you've talked to friends and family, you don't need to repeat yourself”, “you're fine now, Corlaith is fine now, you don't need to go”. But when I'm there and when I come out, I know that I need it. I need to process what happened, I need to accept and find my new normal as a parent of a child with cancer.

As the dust settled and Corlaith started school, I also realised that she wasn't fine either. She was still aggressive towards her sister. The smallest mistakes would leave her frustrated and angry. She was timid and self-conscious in school. She may have been spared the gravity of her illness, but she still needed to process what happened. She needed to process the pain of her surgeries, the separation from me when she first went to Germany and the scars that this illness has left her with. She processed all of this in ARC through play and, as the weeks went on, I could see the kind, patient and confident Corlaith return.

ARC is helping us find our new normal. It's going to take time but even just over four months since we returned home, we are seeing the future and accepting the past. I have, and will continue, to tell other parents about ARC and the services they offer.

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