Vanessa Donohoe was on the second day of a family holiday in Salou last June when she began feeling dizzy and faint.
While it was initially thought she could be dehydrated, the Newtowncunningham woman continued to deteriorate and it was found she had suffered a brain haemorrhage.
Vanessa, who is married to PJ, spent nine and a half weeks in hospital in Barcelona, where she underwent a number of surgeries and setbacks as her family kept a vigil by her side.
While the 39-year-old was recovering in hospital, Vanessa and PJ’s friends and family back home got together and organised a mammoth fundraising campaign to help support them in their time of need.
It was a huge success and now back home and continuing to recover, Vanessa and PJ spoke to the ‘Journal’ to say a “massive thank you” to those who supported them during what was a frightening and stressful time.
Vanessa and PJ were enjoying their holiday at Cambrils, Salou with their children Luke (12), Emily (4) and Mark (2), as well as other family members, when Vanessa began to feel unwell.
She had just gone down the slide with her children, when she told her husband she felt dizzy.
Vanessa has no recollection of anything from just before her holiday until after she returned home, so PJ told of what followed.
“She stood up and said she felt like she was going to pass out. She handed Emily to me and said she felt as if she was ready to fall over. A couple near us gave me a hand.
“The wife took the kids and we dragged Vanessa to the sun beds. At this stage, she was semi-conscious, but her breathing was heavy.”
Lifeguards at the resort thought Vanessa could be dehydrated. Vanessa was also assisted by a nurse who was there, as well as their friend, a Paramedic, who had joined them on holiday.
The nurse, from Galway, told PJ she believed Vanessa had suffered a bleed on her brain and an ambulance was called.
“Vanessa was chatting at this point,” said PJ.
“She said she wanted to sit up and wanted to put her hair up.”
Vanessa was taken to hospital in Reus, where a scan was undertaken. She was semi-conscious on arrival and spoke to PJ, “chatting away,” and told him her head hurt.
She was then placed in an induced coma and a scan confirmed she had suffered a brain haemorrhage. PJ, who was accompanied to the hospital by Vanessa’s sister, Gillian, was told his wife needed surgery but a surgeon needed to be found.
After “around an hour,” the surgeon was confirmed and Vanessa was then transferred by helicopter to hospital in Barcelona, around one and half hours away from Reus.
PJ explained how the holiday had been booked for 12 days, but at this stage they knew they would be staying longer.
Doctors told him that Vanessa should be out of danger by day 21.
“But Vanessa decided to stay longer,” said PJ.
She regained consciousness the day after the initial haemorrhage, but then had to undergo more surgery due to concern over veins collapsing in her neck, which can lead to strokes.
Vanessa had to have this surgery five times. She then later began to have seizures.
PJ continued: “They were trying to figure out what was wrong. We really didn’t know how she was going to come out of it. One minute you’d be talking to her and the next she’d be in a coma.
“Doctors were saying: This is not good - she had a slight weakness on the left hand side and they were very concerned.”
While all this was happening in Spain, a mammoth campaign to raise funds for the family was underway back home in the communities around Newtown, Manorcunningham, St Johnston, Carrigans, Killea and Burt.
A charity concert at At Grianan Hotel, featuring some of the biggest names in Irish music was put together and sold out within days. It was organised by the couple’s friend Alastair McQuilkan and his wife Marian.
The stars - many who know the couple personally, as PJ is a musician who performs with bands - gave their time for free.
Other events that took place included a cycle organised by Luke’s football club, a fundraising day in Fusion hairdressing, events in Coyle’s Bar, Peter’s Bar and Kernan’s and a draw organised by Rosaleen and Paul Magee, who refurbished a tractor and sold it.
Other fundraisers were organised across the community, including one from young Molly Morning, who raised money by getting her hair cut. As well as fundraisers, others showed their support in many other ways and the family also expressed their gratitude to Fr Harkin for all the prayers he said for Vanessa.
And the fundraising extended far beyond Inishowen. Pj’s mother and father, who are from Longford, organised a dance down there and Vanessa’s own family were a fantastic support looking after the children.
Vanessa’s mother and father were in Spain with them the “whole time” Vanessa was sick and they want to express their thanks to all.
PJ and Vanessa said there were so many people who helped, including a fundraising committee that was set up, that they cannot even begin to name everyone individually.
But, they want everyone in the entire community, who helped and supported them or who said prayers and sent good wishes, to know that they are “so, so grateful.”
“It was just overwhelming to hear of all the things going on for Vanessa at home,” said PJ.
“And, really great to see the support the community had for her.”
The money raised was invaluable and allowed PJ, who was in Barcelona with Vanessa’s parents and their son, Luke, to focus on his wife and her recovery without having to also worry about costs such as accommodation and car hire.
It also allowed other family members, like Vanessa’s siblings, PJ’s family and friends to go out to visit Vanessa and provide invaluable support.
After nine and a half weeks in Barcelona, Vanessa was flown home to Derry by air ambulance before she was transferred to Letterkenny University Hospital, where she spent a further one month.
PJ admitted that while he was glad to get home to Donegal, he was also “reluctant” as well to leave, as the care in Barcelona, which is a major hospital, was so excellent.
“It was such a huge hospital that I knew she just wouldn’t get the same level of care here,” he said.
Vanessa, who described the nurses and doctors in Letterkenny as “excellent,” and who “couldn’t do enough,” said she has been told on more than one occasion that if the haemorrhage had occurred here in Ireland, she “wouldn’t be here.”
PJ admitted that on “three, four, five,” occasions, it had looked as if Vanessa would not be returning home, and said he never imagined he “would get her back as good as she is.”
The haemorrhage has left Vanessa with limited strength and she is “very tired,” but is delighted that she is due to receive Home Help soon.
She had been undergoing physiotherapy to build her strength back up, but had to postpone this recently due to some pain in relation to a stent.
But she is determined and positive for the future and has made great strides in a short space of time.
“My left side was completely gone, but I built it back up myself,” she explained.
PJ said they are now looking to the future and told how what happened to Vanessa is “something that has passed and it is what it is now.”
Again, they gave their heartfelt thanks to all who helped them and gave support.
“What everyone did for us was inspirational,” noted PJ.
Vanessa agreed with his sentiments.
“The help was there when we needed it. We just want to say a massive thank you to everyone.”