Perspective, jolts and a dying little girl

I debated on ways to start this column - desperately wanting not to sound sickeningly parentish or condescending. Those, even as a parent myself, are characteristics both in writing and in life that tend to make me switch off. We’re all human and none of us are any more or less human because we do or don’t have children.

The only thing that probably differs between the many of us who have graced the labour ward and those who haven’t had the privilege yet, is the measure of empathy we have when we hear about other children being sick.

We can all empathise, but if you look at your own child and imagine being given bad news about them, it stops you right in your tracks.

That’s what hit me when I came across the story of Olivia Downie in the news this week. The seven year old, from Fraserburgh in Scotland, is dying, Olivia was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma three years ago. That timeline means that this pretty little girl has been sick for almost half of what will be a tragically short life.

Seven-year-old Olivia was diagnosed with her condition in January 2009 after suffering from severe backaches and tiredness. Following visits to local GPs she was taken to Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital and diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma. Olivia had a tumour the size of a grapefruit in her stomach.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of specialised nerve cells and can occur anywhere in the body. Fewer than 100 children are diagnosed with it each year in the UK, and most who suffer from it are younger than five years old.

As I write this, on Wednesday, Olivia is in Mexico, waiting for a flight back to Scotland.

Her parents had taken her there desperate to try a treatment not available here that might potentially save their daughter’s life. Sadly, the treatment failed, and doctors had feared Olivia would be too unwell to travel home to Scotland for her final days. Then, on Wednesday, her parents Lauren and Steve were told she could be given clearance to fly home.

Her mum Lauren is also seven months pregnant. What she’s going through is probably as close to hell on earth as its likely to get.

As a mother, imagining the kind of pain that must come with being told your child will die makes me shudder. I’ve only had my son for the past year but I’d be absolutely lost without him. I’m in awe of the people who find the strength inside themselves to cope with saying goodbye to their child for the very last time.

Olivia’s father Steven slept on the floor outside Olivia’s room in the Angeles Hospital in Tijuana in Mexico where his daughter was on life support. A family member said both Lauren and Stephen wanted to spend as much time as possible with their little girl before she dies.

Stories like Olivia’s are rarely the lead item on the six o clock news. They won’t be as big a headline grabber as, say, the Ulster Bank crisis or Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen. But taking the time to read her story in the midst of the bigger news items this week, it occurred to me, that Olivia’s story is really a bit of a jolt. It’s a bit like having to brake suddenly on the road. It’s a wake-up call.

There are jolts - masquerading as news stories - everywhere. And in times like these, they are exactly what we all need.

I’ll take having to physically go into the bank to get money out, I’ll take not having any cash for a week or so, I’ll take a bit of worry about job security, I’ll take the fact that the computer in my office has had more crashes than a crash test dummy. Because, let’s face it. Any day you’re not told your child is dying, is a pretty good day.