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A rare illness left Victoria so unwell she couldn't leave the house for two years, but now she's appearing on stage

By Stephanie Bell

Published 09/12/2015

Star attraction: Victoria McClements
Star attraction: Victoria McClements
In tune: Victoria practising with mum Audrey
Victoria McClements rehearsing for The Music Box at the Waterfront Hall
Peter Corry

A talented teen from Co Antrim will take to the stage at Belfast's Waterfront Hall this Christmas, despite being diagnosed with Addison's Disease, a life-threatening condition, at 12.

Antrim schoolgirl Victoria McClements has had to learn to live with the terrifying prospect that a simple injury can cause her body to rapidly shut down completely.

Just three years ago and a day after she celebrated her 12th birthday, Victoria became the first female child in Northern Ireland to be diagnosed with the life-threatening condition Addison's disease.

Showing a courage beyond her years, the remarkable child decided that, despite the fear and restrictions the disease has placed on her life, she was not going to let it stop her achieving her dreams.

And, in what is just the latest in an impressive list of outstanding achievements since her diagnosis, the 15-year-old is this month set to wow thousands when she takes to the stage in the Waterfront Hall with Peter Corry to sing in his hit Christmas show The Music Box.

Victoria beat hundreds of hopefuls to win the annual Spar Star search which gives young people the chance to compete for the chance of their big break in a professional stage show.

Despite being so ill that she was virtually housebound for two years when the condition first struck, the Antrim Grammar pupil has more than made up for lost time.

In the past year, she has performed in Guys and Dolls at the Grand Opera House, in Belfast, sang for the Queen as part of a Jubilee choir and been named ni4kids Child of the Year 2014.

She has just finished starring in the lead role of Gabriella in her school's production of High School Musical and been named one of this year's Princess Diana Award winners which she will be presented with at a special reception in Stormont this week.

The talented singer, who is thrilled to bits to win the Spar prize, admits that life has been tough coming to terms with her condition, but adds: "I don't want it to take over my life. I want to be a normal teenage girl and I just take it one day at a time."

Addison's disease is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands which prevents the body from producing enough essential hormones including cortisol and aldosterone.

The disease is treated with medication, but people with Addison's disease live with the constant risk that cortisol levels could suddenly fall significantly causing what is known as an adrenal crisis.

This is a medical emergency which, if untreated, can be fatal and it can be brought on by illness or injury. Victoria has to carry medicine with her for the rest of her life which in the event of an adrenal crisis has to be taken within 30 minutes or she could die.

Her mum Audrey (44), a parish assistant with the Church of Ireland and who has one other daughter Carolyn (18), recalls the build up to her youngest daughter's shattering diagnosis in 2013. "Victoria had symptoms for about two years before her diagnosis, although it was very gradual," she says.

"She loved hockey and has played since she was six and won medals. However we noticed one day after a game that her knuckles were quite dark which was strange, and then she didn't seem to have as much energy as usual and was always very tired.

"She had just started Antrim Grammar and she was being sick in the mornings but would pick up again as the day went on. At first we just put it down to nerves starting a new school.

"She also craved salt and was eating maybe two or three bags of salt and vinegar crisps every day, which we later discovered was because her body was unable to maintain her sodium levels. She also had muscle and joint pains.

"I had been back and forward to the GP with her and it was thought she had a wee heart murmur or maybe asthma.

"Then the day after her 12th birthday she was at a party with friends and took ill. There was a paramedic there who told us to get her to the doctor immediately."

Victoria was very fortunate that, although Addison's is very rare and notoriously hard to diagnose, her GP recognised the symptoms and referred her for an emergency paediatric appointment.

As she waited on her appointment just five days later, Victoria's body started to shut down as she suffered an adrenalin crisis. Her mum rushed her to A&E where the consultant also recognised straight away what was happening and almost certainly saved the 12-year-old's life.

"Her body quite dramatically started shutting down over a 24-hour period and if we hadn't got her to hospital she would have died," says Audrey. "We were lucky the GP had written to the hospital suspecting Addison's and that the consultant recognised what it was - as it is apparently hard to diagnose and people have died from it."

Victoria's life was turned upside down. She missed her first year at grammar school and most of her second year as her body took time to recover. It took two years for her condition to stabilise.

It was only last month that she was well enough and confident enough to have her first sleepover with friends.

She was shattered to have to give up hockey as the risk of injury could put her life in peril.

Living with a life-threatening condition has been a struggle for her and her family to accept and, as her mum reveals, it has been a tough two years for the young teen. "It is hard to plan things and even a simple cold can hit her hard as her body can't cope with extreme stress," she says.

"I just want to wrap her up in cotton wool, but you have to let her live her life. The way I look at is, that I still have her, so it could be a lot worse. She is very positive and just likes to get on with things as best she can.

"It has been hard for her having to give up things she enjoyed and it is wonderful that she has had so many fantastic opportunities lately. She was totally over the moon to win the Spar Star competition and I'm really delighted for her.

"She has come through so much and is very determined and I am very proud of her."

Victoria says she was both shocked and "extremely excited" to be performing with Peter Corry and his cast in the Waterfront Hall. She has started rehearsals and will be taking part in four performances over three days from December 17-19 when she will have her own solo spot and take part in the finale.

"I've been told the Waterfront holds over 2,000 people which is kind of scary and at the same time amazing," she says.

"I've always loved singing and when I leave school I would like to either do musical theatre or be a veterinary nurse."

As she looks to the future having accepted the terrible hand fate has dealt her, she is honest about the toll her illness has taken on her.

"It's something you never think will happen to you and, at the start, I struggled a lot," she says.

"It was hard to give up hockey and I can't really plan weekends with my friends as I don't know how I will be. Opportunities, such as performing at the Waterfront Hall, have helped to build up my confidence and I can do most things even though I live with Addison's."

This year's Music Box is an entirely new production filled with music gems past, present, traditional and contemporary.

Presented by Peter Corry, the show will feature guest dancers from the Strictly Come Dancing tour and internationally renowned West End leading lady Joanna Ampil, star of Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and Cats.

Also back by popular demand is Game of Thrones star, Ian McElhinney who returns after his appearance in the show last year.

It will also showcase the very finest local talent, guest choirs, ballet girls and boy trebles who together will delight the audience and get everyone in festive mood.

  • The Music Box runs from December 17-19. Tickers are on sale now, and available from Belfast Waterfront and Ulster Hall, tel 028 9033 4455 and at www.waterfront.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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