A vibrant young nail technician who has broken 63 bones and undergone 40 operations in her 22 years says ‘there is always light at the end of the tunnel’, writes Laura Glenn.
Vanessa Canning, from Manorcunningham, was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), sometimes known as ‘Brittle Bone Disease,’ where collagen - responsible for bone structure - is missing.
This makes the bones weak and they fracture easily.
Vanessa, who is studying for her HND at the North West Regional College in Derry and runs her own nail business ‘Polish Perfect,’ has broken bones just by walking across the floor. She has undergone many painful operations and blood transfusions.
But, she has never let any of it get her down and her parents, Paul and Stephanie have never made her feel like she ‘couldn’t do anything’.
It was only when Vanessa was born ‘bow-legged’ at Altnagelvin Hospital that doctors realised something was wrong. At the age of just three months it was confirmed she had OI and had been born with broken bones.
Vanessa explained how there are many different variations of OI, some more severe than others. To this day, doctors are still unsure which type Vanessa has.
As a child, Vanessa broke many bones, but said this did not deter her from joining in on all the fun activities and play that every child enjoys.
“When I started to walk, I’d fall and keep breaking bones. I’d get one cast off and another one would have to go on. But, although I knew I could break my bones easily, I was never scared. I used to go on trampolines and the slide with my wee cousins. I was the exact same as them. My aunties were always shouting to them: ‘Watch her!’But I was already really independent. I wouldn’t bother holding hands with anyone. I think being in and out of hospital made me resilient. And it was hard for my parents or doctors to tell me I couldn’t do something as I’d always ask why. If I got on the trampoline and nothing happened, I would be like ‘well, nothing happened’.”
None of Vanessa’s family have OI and she told how she created her ‘own’ gene.
She said that, as a child, she had a ‘ridiculous amount of breaks’ up until the age of 12. She has had around ‘eight or 10’ in the last 10 years, the most recent one in her leg a few weeks ago. She returned to work just nine days later, in a cast.
Vanessa is a great example of medical advancement, as, through treatment, her bone density in everywhere but her femurs, is considered normal.
Her medical history is a long one and from the age of three to 12 she attended Crumlin Children’s Hospital in Dublin, followed by Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Sheffield Hospital and now St Vincent’s in Dublin.
She underwent a number of surgeries and from the age of eight to 12, was on a drug called Pamidronate, which began as three, 10-hour days on a drip each month. When she was 12, her drug was changed to Fosamax tablets. She is now on injections every day and has been taking this for two years, following a bad break to her femur. All of these drugs are taken to strengthen her bones and have side effects.
When Vanessa was 12 years old, she became aware of a hospital in Sheffield and a consultant, Dr. Bell, who was doing great work with OI. Her local community held a big fundraiser and she underwent an operation, during which two titanium rods were placed ‘up through the legs to straighten them’.
She continued to go to Dr. Bell, but at 16, had to be transferred to an adult hospital. As luck would have it, one of the best consultants for adults with OI was Dr. McCormack in Dublin.
Vanessa was 17 when she broke both her legs.
She sustained massive blood loss in an operation to fix them and was placed in an intensive care unit.
She rallied, however, and recovered from what was her final operation since then. She still has two metal rods in her legs, which are working well and her bone density scans are very promising.
“It’s just my femurs now. They don’t know why, but I think it was because I was born bowed and as I’ve had so many operations on them, they’re weaker. But, I’ve as much chance of breaking my arm or something else now as anyone else.”
The OI has affected Vanessa’s height but she doesn’t mind this too much.
“When I was growing up, doctors said: ‘This is probably going to be your height.’ I remembered a football player who got a growth thing, but the doctors said I couldn’t do that, as I don’t have collagen around my bones, I just have bone. And, you cant make collagen, it’s not like calcium. The doctor told me that if we stretched the bone, it would be just like stretching glass.
“But, I don’t really care that I’m smaller. When I was 16 and 17 I did wear heels and that was not a good idea! I broke my leg and had to end up getting over the fact I won’t be wearing heels. We do not go together, but flats are all in now and you get some lovely ones!”
Vanessa said that while, like everyone, she does have some down days, her time spent in hospital makes her grateful for all that she has.
“When you spend most of your time in hospital, you see some sights and children really struggling. If I was lying there squealing, crying, what would be the point?
“Any hospital I’ve been to has been amazing and so, so good and my doctors in Newtown are brilliant. Mammy and Daddy never brought me up as if I was disabled and I never felt like I couldn’t do anything. If a doctor told me I’d be in hospital for two weeks, I’d prove them wrong and be out in a week.”
Vanessa is loving studying at NWRC and running her very successful business. She had initially applied to do Human Resource Management but, after a broken leg forced her to defer her course for a year, she decided to indulge in her love of beauty. After completing a number of courses, she knew it was the industry she wanted to be in. Vanessa was full of praise for NWRC who, she said, have been ‘so, so good’ to her as well as her teachers, who suggested she too go into teaching, as her love for what she is doing is so strong. She is hoping to do just that after she graduates next year. Her business, based in Manor and set up three years ago, is also booming and she has a full client list.
Vanessa said she feels ‘very lucky’ to be able to do what she loves.
“I’m hoping to start driving next year and feel so lucky to be doing what I love. Apart from my femurs, everything else is grand. I’ve always been so positive. No matter what in life, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. You don’t know what’s going to happen, really and you might as well make the most of it.”