"I want to blend in, but I don't want to hide my disability"
'Inspirational' is a word that gets bandied about too much, but Daraine Mulvihill, the face of Channel 4's Paralympics coverage, is the real deal. Just 16 when she contracted meningitis that nearly killed her and forced doctors to amputate her feet and fingers, she is cheerful and determined, says Emily Hourican.
Daraine Mulvihill is pragmatic about the hand that life has dealt her: "The one thing I always say is I definitely don't think life would be any better had this not happened. It would just have been a lot, lot easier," she says. "There wouldn't have been pain, there wouldn't have been any struggle, there wouldn't be all this worrying about going to a wedding and thinking 'what'll I wear?' because I can't wear heels, but at the same time there's nothing that could have been better in terms of how life is. I definitely wouldn't be happier. You kind of have to remind yourself of that at times."
Daraine, presenter of Channel4's Paralympics coverage and far too smart and honest to say anything deliberately Pollyanna-ish, has just revealed another aspect of her remarkable strength of character. As a statement - of belief, of intent - that is among the most interesting I've heard. Because it seems to be true. For all that she doesn't hide the many challenges and difficulties of her situation, of simply navigating a world that is mostly set-up for people with a fuller range of mobility than her, Daraine is so full of humour, grace and enthusiasm that her many achievements are simply her own, regardless of circumstance. They are because of who she is, not what happened to her.
The only daughter of Liam Mulvihill, a former Director General of the GAA, and Maire, Daraine, now 30, was 16 when she contracted a virulent strain of meningitis, and nearly died. So nearly that her parents were told that her chances of surviving were less than 10%. Her liver and kidneys failed, septicaemia led to gangrene in her fingers and toes, which were then amputated in order to stop the spread, her lungs collapsed and she got pneumonia. She received the Last Rites and her two younger brothers were brought in to say goodbye. "I was in intensive care for eight or nine weeks," she says now, "and in a medically induced coma for the first of those. I went down to 5.5 stone, I picked up every bug and disease that there was going. It was intense," she says with devastating understatement.
Not that you would ever guess any of it from looking at her. Fresh-faced, beautiful, she looks younger than her 30 years, something to do with the serenity of her expression, and walks with grace and poise. Only when I shake her hand do I realise that the fingers are prosthetic. And she talks about those days less for what they were, than for what they brought about and inspired. Like the ferocious determination of her mother, that may have something to do with her own ferocious determination.
"When I was moved out of intensive care and into a high dependency unit, I had literally lost my legs about a month beforehand and I was coming to terms with all of that. They hadn't done the operation on my hands yet, the septicaemia had gone down to the extremities of my fingers, so they were all black, but to look at them, they still looked like they always looked. I had a bit of chipped nail polish on one of my fingernails that I'd had on before going into hospital. I was on massive amounts of drugs because I was in huge pain, I had bandages on all over. And my mother would say 'come on, get out of bed, we're going for a walk...'" It was, Daraine acknowledges, "a lot of strength on her part to make that happen. This was when all I wanted was to be in bed, because I was in pain. But that was her mentality, and it actually worked."
This is the kind of attitude that she credits with inspiring her own determination, her inability to let herself off the hook, even when it would be so easy, so understandable. "Sometimes I question it," she laughs. "Sometimes it would be so much easier to say 'there's a set of hard circumstances here, and I don't want to have to deal with this ...' It would be easier not to be meeting people and putting yourself out there. Going on telly is a hard thing to do anyhow, with people judging you, so why am I putting myself in this place? But at the same time, I just do. It's who I am. It started at the beginning of this whole thing and it came from maybe my mum."
And so Daraine, from the time she came out of hospital, insisted on doing things her way. The way that made sense to her. "I'm very determined when I make a plan," she says. "Which is probably why I did things that seemed to push myself. One big thing that was massively important for me every step of the way was being normal, blending in. I didn't want to be in a wheelchair. I was told 'you'll have that for life. You'll be able to walk, but you'll need this.' But I haven't used a wheelchair in 12 or 13 years. I just put it away and never used it again. Sometimes I might be tired and my mom will say 'would you never think about getting into the wheelchair?' No, never. I just don't want to."
What is it, does she think, that makes her so positive? "Mostly it's who I am. You just get up every day and do your thing. People say to me sometimes, 'I don't think I could have done it ...' Then I think, 'Gosh, does my life really seem so horrible to some people that they'd say they don't think they could have done it?' They say, 'I would rather not have survived,' people have said that, I think they are meaning it in a positive way, but at the same time, that's mad. I think most people would do what I did." Maybe, but I suspect not with as much grace and charm.
The hardest part, she says, wasn't hospital itself, it was the aftermath. "I was in a bubble in the hospital. It was when I came home and was back in normal life and getting used to being different, to doing things differently. Going back to school in a wheelchair, not being able to go out and play basketball. Being myself in my normal world, but having to be totally different too. You have this identity - who you are, what you do. My whole thing was around sport. I used to run three nights a week. I played basketball and Gaelic football for the school. Suddenly I wasn't going to be able to do that. I was very aware of being in a wheelchair, and that people might look at me differently."
She was lucky in that she had wonderful family, and also wonderful friends. "When it did come to be time to go back to school, there was a discussion about that. Was I still going to be able to come the whole way across the city from Ashbourne? And I decided that I would. My mum took a career break and she used to drive me and both my brothers across every day. That was so important, because my friends that were my friends before the illness, needed to be still part of my life. They used to come in every day to the hospital, they'd take it in turns, and they would just talk and gossip, they were great. I felt I was still part of the gang, and I was wanting to hurry up and get back to being part of that."
It was these friends, and teachers, who entered her for the People of the Year awards in 2001, an annual event held in Dublin and honouring people who have made a real difference in the the Republic. "I was totally unaware that they had, so it was a real surprise."
Winning, she says, "was massively uplifting. To have gone through such a low time, when everything was bad, bad, this was a real boost." It also led to her career choice. "There were interviews afterwards, and I really enjoyed it. It was from that that I went into the career I went into." After school - and a whopping seven As in the Leaving Cert - Daraine studied Communications in Dublin City University, and began working in RTE. And when the Channel 4 opportunity came about, she moved to London, first for a few months, in 2011, then for a full year in 2012.
"I went over as a short-term thing. I love London, it's a great city, but I didn't love living over there. It's just too big. I lived in a studio flat, and it was an actual studio - one room. It was never going to be long term."
Moving back to Dublin would, she knew, affect her career. "I worked on the Paralympics for Channel 4. Before the games, there were a load of build-up programmes. It was very busy, but once the games ended, it was one thing every month, or every two months, and it just didn't seem enough to justify staying."
She returned to RTE, where she is working as a researcher/reporter. And since leaving London, she has covered the winter Paralympics in Russia, two years ago, and Swansea last year, so the work is clearly still finding her. In January, she got married to Keith Lowther, whom she met at university.
She is hugely positive about the increase in visibility of role-models with disabilities - "when I first got sick, I didn't know of anybody else role-model wise to look up to. The only person we knew of was Heather Mills, and my mum bought me her book, but she's not exactly top role model material. Now, the Paralympics is so widespread that every one can say look at these athletes; it's great" - but doesn't naturally gravitate towards a campaigning role. "I want to blend in," she says with irresistible honesty. "It's not that I want to hide it, I just don't want it to be the first thing people notice. I'm happy to campaign on behalf of meningitis, and to do anything on behalf of the People of the Year awards. The disability thing I'm not so comfortable with, because sometimes it can be more political."
There are other operations that Daraine could have. Hand transplants are of particular interest, but here, the answer isn't at all clear-cut. "In order to do it, as well as being a massive operation, you have to take drugs for the rest of your life, or the body will reject it. Also, I would have to lose some more of my arm, because they take the hand from half-way up the forearm, and what I have allows me to do a lot. It seems too big a sacrifice to make, if my body rejects it. And you have to deal with the mental thing - you have a donor's hands. That's weird." That said, she is still watching and thinking. "It's really interesting. I'd love to be involved - it's never been done in Ireland. I'm still fairly young, I should be able to take to it. And if it succeeded, it would make life a lot easier. Imagine if I had hands again? All the things I could do?"
Imagine. And then consider all the things she has already done, without hands, without feet, with guts and grace and a determination to see the best in every situation.
- The closing date for nominations for the Republic's People of the Year awards is on Monday. The awards will be broadcast live on RTE One on Saturday December 5. See peopleoftheyear.com and meningitis.org