County Derry lad Ryan O’Connor is closer to achieving his sporting dreams after receiving an athlete’s wheelchair he says will transform his life, from a local charity.
The 20-year-old from Dungiven, who had both legs amputated after a heart transplant, was presented with the wheelchair from Northern Ireland soccer manager Michael O’Neill, who is patron of JTinspires, a charity aiming to improve the lives of young people with congenital heart problems.
Ryan was born with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) and had a heart transplant in November 2012.
Following the transplant he had a cardiac arrest and, later, tragically had to have both legs amputated from above the knee.
“I remember vaguely the surgeons telling me through the trauma that this procedure was my only hope and recall it as being a ‘bittersweet’ moment - having a chance to let my new heart work again felt like a rebirth but losing my legs was heartbreaking,” recalls Ryan.
The amputation was initially a success, but Ryan later suffered an aneurysm as his body adjusted to the new heart.
More than two years on, and Ryan continues to inpire his loved ones, friends and strangers. He says having the new lightweight chair will help him become a better and stronger player for the Ulster GAA hurlers’ wheelchair team and the North West Eagles basketball team in Derry.
“This chair is much lighter and easier to get around in and race about and, to be honest, it feels better to push myself on. It means I can build my strength by playing at the same time.
“It’ll definitely make a difference and help me with future games, including The Transplant Games, I hope to partcipate in.”
Ryan said he is overwhelmed by JTinspires and what they’ve done for him.
The charity was set up by Alan and Patricia Tate, whose son Jonathan died of CHD in 2012, aged 22. It aims to provide means by which sufferers of the disease can use exercise to improve their quality of life, as Jonathan did. The charity also facilitated the presentation of a state-of-the-art exercise bike to the Royal Victoria Hospital’s children’s unit to help young patients with heart defects in improving their health and keeping them active.
“Jonathan had a transplant around the same time as me but, unfortunately, he lost his battle with it, a year or so later, I met his parents and they asked if I would be involved and if I needed anything,” said Ryan.
“I said about a sports wheelchair and they said, ‘we’ll see what we can do’ and they got me the chair. It’s good because it’ll help with hurling and basketball, and other sports too.”
Mum, Donna said meeting Jonathan’s parents was extremely emotional, but hopes Ryan and the family can help raise awareness about the charity.
“When we first met Alan and Patricia it was very emotional. We had our son home with us, but they didn’t. Everyone talks about Ryan being an inspiration, but I look at Jonathan’s parents and what they’re doing, and I feel Jonathan is an inpsiration,” said Donna.
“We may have never met Jonathan, but what his mummy and daddy are doing in his memory is an inpiration and the people they will help in the future by doing what they are doing will be amazing.”
Ryan faces another operation on Monday - a femoral artery bypass - to enable him to use his prosthetic limbs again.
“This operation is not without its risks but, knowing I have a team of supporters, a new athlete’s chair and having Michael O’Neill in touch is going to give me the strength to pull through,” says Ryan.
Donna added: “It’s a risky enough operation, we know that, but we trust the surgeons.
“We’re just looking forward to Ryan getting back on his feet with his prosthetics, and participating with the hurlers and the North West Eagles because he is missing it, and it’s good for him and it’s good for us.”