Wearing a super hero’s cape fashioned by her proud children, Derry woman Fidelma Hodkinson recently walked away from the Transplant Sport games in Belfast with a collection of medals.
It had been almost ten years since the former primary school teacher was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and Fidelma has decided to bravely speak about her experience to raise awareness of the Transplant Sports charity, and also of the Anthony Nolan Trust which keeps a register of bone marrow donors in the UK.
For Fidelma knows first hand how important the donation of bone marrow can be - it was a donation from her younger sister, Fiona which helped save her life when she underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2002.
“I just knew something was wrong,” Fidelma said. “I was so very tired. Before that I could have run up Shipquay Street without any trouble but then I was just weighed down with tiredness. I also started to get very confused - my head just wasn’t right.”
Fidelma went to see her GP who dismissed her symptoms as “just middle age” but she said she was so sure that something was wrong she decided to ask for a second opinion. It was that second opinion, with haematologist Dr. Morris at Belfast City Hospital which delivered the hammer blow that she had leukaemia.
Even with that diagnosis under her belt, Fidelma however remained positive and determined to get through her illness with the support of her devoted husband, Oliver and two children Clare and Johnny.
“It was hard for me, but I think it was harder for them,” she recalls, saying she just had to concentrate on battling her illness while her family had to watch her.
And the battle was tough. Two rounds of intensive chemotherapy left Fidelma without her hair. A short stay in hospital left her with a serious infection. To continue with her treatment, the best way forward was to essentially kill off her immune system leaving her exceptionally vulnerable to even the slightest cold.
When she was ready for her transplant she had to spend six weeks in isolation in the City Hospital, Belfast to allow her battered immune system the chance to regenerate. Such a prolonged period of illness left her physically and emotionally bruised.
“It was a difficult time,” she says simply, recalling that once she was well enough she would go up and down to Fahan and spend some time on the beach. “I’d walk or do Tai Chi, or Yoga. It was important - for my sanity. It’s important to let yourself know you are still alive.”
Fidelma is now fully recovered - and leads and active life enjoying her retirement and spending time in the garden with Oliver. She is also enjoying her new role as a grandmother to three year old Rebecca and two year old Christopher.
Although she said her illness is something she wanted to put behind her, she felt she wanted to do something to raise awareness of the importance of donation. When she had the opportunity to take part in the Transplant Sports Games, which were held this year in Belfast, she seized it.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. I signed up for the Javelin and Discus - having never even held either before!”
Fidelma also competed in cycling and the 100 metre sprint.
“The atmosphere was wonderful. It was exceptionally humbling - all these people who have come through transplants showing such amazing determination and strength of spirit.”
With her supportive family - who donned pink wings and declared themselves members of ‘Team Fidelma’ - behind her, she said the experience was one she won’t forget. “If I’m fit enough, I hope to compete again next year,” Fidelma said.
To find out more about Transplant Sport visit www.transplantsport.org.uk or to find out more about the Anthony Nolan Trust visit www.anthonynolan.org