Meet Theo Tasker the tiny Emmerdale actor who suffered a stroke and heart attack at 10 months
Theo Tasker (5) from Coleraine played the part of one of the Dingle clan in the ITV soap before his devastating illness. Now his mum, Ballymoney musician Deirdre Halvin, tells Una Brankin about the joy her Down's Syndrome son brings to all their family.
When Theo Tasker appeared on Emmerdale at only two months old, his mother, renowned Ballymoney flautist and whistle player Deirdre (Dee) Halvin, was delighted to help the UTV soap depict the happiness a special needs baby can bring.
Alternating with another Down's Syndrome baby, tiny Theo played the part of Leo, the love-child of central characters Marlon Dingle and Rhona Goskirk, for eight months on the show, which is regularly watched by an average of eight million people.
He landed the role when former Irish traditional singing star Dee, then based near Leeds where she taught IT, was approached at her local hospital's Child Development Unit by an Emmerdale representative seeking a Down's baby to play the part.
Married to Yorkshireman Gary Tasker, Dee was initially reluctant but eventually agreed when the producers explained how they were going to handle the issue so positively and sensitively. The cast, in particular Zoe Henry who played Theo's screen mum, quickly bonded with the baby, and Dee was thrilled to meet the stars of the show in the famous Woolpack pub.
But before the Taskers could decide if Theo would grow up as a character on the series, the child suffered a heart attack and stroke, at 10 months old.
"He'd had a stent put in and the wound became infected," Dee (46) explains. "He was left with no movement on his left side; it's a form of cerebral palsy weakness. He couldn't speak or communicate or do anything. He lost his swallow and became epileptic, but it's only a mild form.
"It was a horrific time but when it's your child going through something like this, you have to be strong and stay focused. All we wanted to know from the doctors was, 'will he be happy; can he be happy in his own wee world?'" Theo had surgery and remained in hospital for three months. He was left with a congenital heart condition, epilepsy and left-sided hemiplegia, a condition that affects his movement and posture.
Since then, Dee has moved back to Ballymoney with Gary and Theo, now five, whose condition has improved remarkably with the help of intensive physiotherapy.
Given his early brush with death, the bubbly little boy's progress is nothing short of a miracle.
His parents met at a concert 17 years ago in Yorkshire, where Dee was teaching IT after studying for a diploma in education in Liverpool. Gary has two grown-up daughters from his first marriage. He and Dee underwent IVF to have Theo and when the 20-week scan showed up a high risk heart condition, along with Down's Syndrome, it was the former that caused the Taskers the gravest concern.
"We went through so much to have Theo, the extreme heart condition put the Down's in the shade," Dee recalls. "He had scan after scan and we had to be very strong. But we don't want pity -Theo has an amazing quality of life.
"He's so joyful and fun-loving and affectionate - and very mischievous. We have great fun with him and we work really hard to give him stimulation and to get him walking.
"He can communicate by sign language - please and thank-you and so on, and he has a wicked sense of humour. He loves the sign language programme Mr Tumble and laughs and squeals at it."
Gary gave up his job in rugby league management to become Theo's full-time carer, while Dee works as a part-time teacher in Coleraine. They initially moved from Yorkshire to a house they own in Portrush, but have settled in a larger property in Ballymoney for the extra space needed for Theo's equipment, and to be near family.
"My family and friends have been brilliant minding Theo and taking him for walks and so on," says Dee. "My sisters Donna and Louise have been so supportive - Donna is a second mammy to him, and Gary's two daughters, Annis (34) and Lucy (29), adore their little brother.
"Theo is full of life - he has a fantastic sense of humour and he's on the go all the time. He's just so resilient, despite the fact he had a cardiac arrest and stroke when he was just 10 months old.
"Looking after Theo is a two-person job, especially at bathing and feeding times. But we don't want to complain - bringing up any child can be challenging. It's just the way it is; it's a way of life for us. We can't leave him for a minute because he doesn't understand danger - but we are very positive people and we're a good team.
"We have such fun with Theo, we think 'what did we do before he came along?' A special needs child makes you selfless - they are the only thing that matters."
Theo's condition requires intensive physiotherapy. Unable to walk until recently, Theo now has the use of his legs when assisted, thanks to fundraising support from Caudwell Children, the national charity that provides practical and emotional support to disabled children and their families.
The Taskers are so indebted to the organisation that Dee has launched an annual event, 'Theo's Charity Fundraiser' concert, presented by her musical group, the Causeway Traditional Players.
The charity has provided funding support for Theo to attend regular physiotherapy sessions with Professor Goshi, a specialist senior neurological physiotherapist based in Newry.
"We travel weekly to Newry for a physio session with Dr Goshi at his centre and he had an intense week of therapy during the summer and can see good improvement in Theo's mobility. He can walk hand-in-hand with him for short periods of time - our aim is to get him walking unaided," says Dee.
"We bring him to Barry's Amusements, which he loves, to give him the motivation to walk from ride to ride. We also take him swimming twice a week and to horse-riding lessons. The volunteers there are great with him. It important to keep him busy and active, and it keeps us fit, too."
Now in primary two at Sandleford Special Educational School in Coleraine, Theo has recently learned to ride a special tricycle provided by the Caldwell Children charity.
"They provided the dedicated fundraising support that allowed us to buy a specialist tricycle, costing £600, for him," Dee explains. "It's engineered to make pedalling that much easier. It not only provides vital physical therapy, but also develops and increased sense of independence and social inclusion, which is so important for children of Theo's age."
Theo's father Gary adds that the sessions have had a profound effect on his son.
"From only being able to shuffle around on his bottom Theo can now walk with assistance, which is a remarkable transformation," he says.
"The cost of his specialist equipment and the physio treatment came to nearly £3,000, which is obviously way beyond the reach of many families. Unfortunately, this cannot be funded through the health service so Caudwell Children's support has been vital in Theo's progress."
Now, with the rest of the popular Causeway Traditional Players, Deirdre is set to pay back her debt of gratitude to the charity.
"The fundraiser was the obvious way for me to thank the charity. I'm a musician who loves to play and so what better way to say thank you," she says.
"I'm sure the gig will become a highlight in the annual musical calendar in Ballymoney and with the help of the outstanding London Lassies, who I used to play with, we are going to have a fabulous time."
- The inaugural 'Theo's Charity Fundraiser' concert, presented by the Causeway Traditional Players, will take place on Saturday, October 8 at Ballymoney Town Hall. Auction prizes include tickets to a number of amazing pop concerts together and some coveted Wimbledon tickets. Visit caudwellchildren.com for more details