A ‘belly selfie’ gave Derry teen Erin O’Hara new confidence

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Teenager and budding gymnast Erin O’Hara is determined that nothing - not even a condition which threatened her life - will hold her back.

Erin O’Hara was just eleven years old when she started to experience severe abdominal pains.

Erin O'Hara pictured through her treatment and with her 'Belly Selfie' earlier this year.

Erin O'Hara pictured through her treatment and with her 'Belly Selfie' earlier this year.

She had been perfectly healthy before this brush with illness and led an active life, living for her time with Shooting Starz gymnastics in Campsie.

But quickly she went from being a very happy and healthy young girl to a child who was painfully thin and a shadow of her former self.

Her mother, Geraldine explained: “Very quickly it was suspected that Erin had a problem with her bowel or colon but because the service isn’t great in Northern Ireland, we were forced to wait 13 weeks until she could have a colonoscopy.”

By that stage Erin had dropped to just over three stone in weight. “There was no option for us but to wait,” Geraldine said. “There was no private option, no way to move up the list. Erin had already been classed as an emergency.”

Finally Erin underwent the diagnostic test and was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. “It was the kind that didn’t respond to drug therapy and we were told very early on that I would need surgery.”

With Erin becoming sicker all the time, and continuing to lose weight, there was no time to waste when booking her surgery - but the procedure itself would be radical and life changing.

“My full colon was removed, and part of my rectum. That will allow for a reversal in the future if I ever feel I need one. But that would be a big decision and comes with its own risks.”

As a result of her surgery Erin was left with a colostomy bag - a pouch which collects her body’s waste products throughout the day through an opening (stoma) in her abdomen and needs changed regularly.

And during the surgery to remove her ulcerated colon Erin and her family learned that things could have been much, much worse.

“My bowel perforated in the surgeon’s hand,” Erin said.

“If that had happened outside of those settings, we would have been looking at a very different outcome.”

While many young girls may well have struggled to cope with such a radical change to their body, Erin remained upbeat. “It didn’t bother me - to have the bag - because I had been so sick beforehandand this was making me better. I focused on the positive.”

Her mum said it was wonderful to watch her daughter start to gain weight and regain her energy.

“She was so malnourished that even though she was 11 she was as small as an eight year old. It has taken a while for her catch up.”

One of the driving factors in Erin’s recovery and ongoing positive attitude has been her love for gymnastics. “When I was really sick and when I was going for surgery I just kept asking if I would be able to do gymnastics again. That was my main concern.”

Her fellow gymnasts and teachers from Shooting Starz Gymnastics came to visit Erin in hospital and when she was able to return they devised a programme to help bring her back to fitness.

“I was worried that the stoma would affect my ability to do gymnastics, but the only thing I can’t do because of it are the high bars. I give everything else a go.”

Erin is determined that the stoma, her colostomy bag and her colitis will not hold her back in life. She is just starting fifth year at Thornhill College and while she has now decided to speak openly about her condition, she said that many of her friends would not even know she has a stoma bag.

“It makes a bit of noise sometimes,” she said, “And if I am nervous it can be worse - but no one has ever told me they could hear it and I think it sounds a lot like a tummy rumbling.”

It was earlier this summer that Erin truly embraced her new body however. When model Bethany Townsend posted a picture of her in a bikini, showing off her colostomy bag it prompted people living with colitis and Crohns to start uploading their own ‘Belly Selfies’ to Facebook.

Erin soon made the decision to share her own picture. “I didn’t know what to expect. When I decided to wear a bikini on holiday I didn’t know if people would stare, or react in a negative way.

“And when I posted the picture online I wasn’t sure how people would react but the reaction has been brilliant.

“People have been really supportive - they’ve told me I’m brave. I just want to raise awareness of Inflammatory Bowel Disease and prove that it doesn’t have to change your life for the worse.”