Anita McDowell admits that when her son Mark died, aged just 17 months old, she could have laid down under her grief and raged at the unfairness of the world.
But instead the Waterside mother drew on the strength her precious second born son gave her and has dedicated her life to caring for other children with life limiting illnesses through her work with the Children’s Hospice.
Mark was just seven months old when his mother realised something was not right with her son. “He couldn’t hear very well and only just started to roll over. I remember looking at him and thinking something was wrong - and I had a horrible feeling he was going to die.”
Anita was devastated to subsequently learn her bubbly little boy had Tay-Sachs disease - a condition which is caused by a missing enzyme and which leads the central nervous to attack itself resulting in premature death.
“At first we were told we would have him until he was between three and five years old but we realised quickly that we wouldn’t have that long.”
In fact Mark died just seven and half months after his diagnosis - aged just 17 months old. He was buried in a white babygro bought by his aunt and taken to his final resting place in a white Mercedes. “I didn’t want any black,” Anita said. “He was a dote. I believe that he came into my life to teach me a lesson and to guide me where to go with my life.”
While Mark was sick, Anita had been put in touch with the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice - who had recently appointed a nurse in Derry.
“The Hospice gave me a lifeline. I had another son, Aaron, who was only 17 months older than Mark, and having a nurse at home meant that I could spend time with him. Obviously when there is a sick sibling, they need more care and attention and it can be hard on the other children.
“Aaron was still only a baby himself, and it meant that I could go out with him and know that Mark was fine at home.”
Having seen first hand the great work done by Hospice nurses, Anita decided to offer her services to the Hospice shortly after Mark’s death.
She first of all became a care assistant before decided to take on her nurses training, with the express ambition of working with children.“My mother found a book shortly before she died in which I wrote I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up. Well I didn’t get there til I was forty, and my path there was very different but I did make it. I believe Mark was sent to put me on that path.
“I can empthasize with parents with sick children. I know exactly what it is like. It is heartbreaking but it also so rewarding. When you get that smile, that connection, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Lisnagelvin Primary School will be holding a fundraiser tonight in aid of the Children’s Hospice which mostly relies on donations from the public to fund their work. The event will get underway at 6.30pm. Alternatively if you want to support the Children’s Hospice you can donate to their charity shops at Shipquay Street or Rathmor.