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The last thing Jenny could remember was a lunch - then a brain haemorrhage wiped out five months of her life

Published 15/03/2016

Born survivor: Jenny O’Neill has fought back from the brink of death
Born survivor: Jenny O’Neill has fought back from the brink of death
Jenny O’Neill and her husband Professor Ken in 2009

When an aneurysm struck former teacher Jenny O'Neill, from Belfast, medics said there was little hope she would be left with any quality of life. Now, she tells Ivan Little how her husband's determination to save her has resulted in a miraculous recovery.

Jenny O'Neill doesn't remember anything about those lost 20 weeks. Her family have helped her piece together what happened to her in hospital as she teetered on the cusp between life and death after a brain haemorrhage that doctors thought was going to kill her.

But as for her own recollections, there's nothing. Nothing but a void. The last thing the former teacher recalls with any certainty is having a pleasant Sunday lunch with friends and relatives in Holywood at the start of January 2014, when she complained of having a severe headache before becoming violently ill.

The next day she underwent emergency surgery in the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast, and she was later moved to the geriatric wards of the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald where the prognosis was not good. "I was doolally. I was out of it," she says.

It wasn't until the end of May that Jenny came out of the mist after months in hospital where she somehow managed to confound the medics with her fight for life, even though she had no idea that she was doing it.

Jenny's now confined to a wheelchair and, as she talked to me about her remarkable recovery at her home in the Belmont area of east Belfast, the mid-morning light started to flood into her front room providing a perfect fit for the sunny disposition of this redoubtable battler who is planning a concert to thank the people who supported her through the missing months.

Yet the relentless positivity of the 69-year-old mother-of-four with the unbridled passion for English literature, which was encouraged by her Queen's University tutor Seamus Heaney, could hardly have been in more stark contrast to the dark days of her illness.

She says: "I can't remember a single thing of those five months. I didn't know who I was or what I was. I wasn't in a coma as such, but in many ways I was nothing more than a vegetable. And I was very lucky to come around again. Not everybody does. My recovery was not common by any means."

Jenny's family have no such difficulties recalling the dreadful time in hospitals which amounted to the most harrowing period of their lives as hope for their wife and mother almost evaporated with doctors preparing for the worst.

A number of the medics wrote in their notes that Jenny had no quality of life and no expectation of any quality of life.

But Jenny's husband Professor Kenneth O'Neill wasn't ready to let his beloved wife of over 40 years slip away.

"He was like a wee terrier," says Jenny. "He wouldn't let go."

Eventually a shunt was inserted to alleviate the problems in Jenny's brain and, though it had to be re-positioned, the procedure was viewed with cautious optimism.

As well as her family, Jenny's friends rallied round and at times they read poetry at her bedside in the hope it would help bolster her recovery.

Wordsworth was recited regularly and her best friend from schooldays kept insisting that Jenny was "in there somewhere" - a belief buoyed up by the fact that she thought she heard her pal chipping in with a few words from the poems.

Holiday photographs were also used by her family in a bid to trigger something that Jenny might recognise, but there was little or no communication from her.

In the event, Jenny's "re-awakening" in Musgrave Park Hospital wasn't exactly dramatic. But she's not sure what was and what wasn't part of a dream.

Bizarrely, the first word Jenny knows for sure that she heard in Musgrave Park was "gaiters".

"I think it was a nurse who talked about the splints and how they would be put on my legs and buckled like gaiters that people used to wear in the 19th century.

"I was coming back from fairyland and the word 'gaiters' just struck me as interesting."

The first thing Jenny's family can remember about her re-entry into the world of reality was a joke she made after hearing her daughter Louise asking her father to babysit for her.

Jenny says: "My friend who had made the comment about me being in there somewhere happened to be in the hospital at the time and she said, 'She's coming out'."

Seeing herself was a shock for Jenny who had lost so much weight during her time in hospital that she barely recognised herself when she looked in the mirror.

But it wasn't long before Jenny resolved to help the people who had helped her, with the aim of raising awareness of acquired brain injuries and raising money for charities involved in rehabilitation work.

She adds: "I was totally overwhelmed by the great care, kindness and friendship which I received from so many people and I wanted to show them my gratitude.

"Someone recently asked me how I was getting on. And I said I'd had the best year of my life and I really, really meant it.

"I realised I was in debt to the world and to charities like Brain Injury Matters and Reconnect.

"So, with the help of friends I'm holding a musical evening at Campbell College this Saturday, with Donaghadee Male Voice choir and leading musicians like the Patience Family and one of The Priests, Father Martin O'Hagan."

For Jenny, the aneurysm wasn't her first major health crisis. She had to give up her teaching career at the age of 52, in 2000, after the onset of Multiple Sclerosis.

"I knew I had to call a halt because of the exhaustion but I was still able to get on with my life and travel a lot with my husband to places like Syria and Lebanon in the days when you could go there before the Arab Spring."

Jenny has started travelling again and she had a strong vision of what she wants to do with her life.

"I've got a moral imperative now. If I can't do something useful with what has been given back to me, then I am not worth anything," adds Jenny, who insisted that she "doesn't give a hoot" about what the future holds for her now.

"Death doesn't worry me in the slightest, but pain? Who wants that? I don't have any of it at the minute and I have no reason whatsoever to feel sorry for myself.

"I have reached a total comfort zone and I am really quite independent. I can get myself in and out of the shower and I have a lift to take me up and down the stairs."

Jenny, who has an impish sense of humour, says: "At airports when everyone else is standing in line to board the plane, I sail past and a door will open before I am pushed through in my wheelchair ahead of the queues."

On a more serious note, she points out: "I also appreciate that, while I am not rich, I am not poor either.

"I am very aware that I am the lucky one and that is why I want to do something for somebody somehow."

Jenny says she has other plans up her sleeve for her charities as well as the Campbell College concert.

"I'm on a mission" she adds.

Aneurysm: what you need to know

An aneurysm is a localised blood filled balloon-like bulge in the wall of a blood vessel which can occur anywhere including the brain, heart vessels or the heart itself.

The risk of the blockage rupturing increases as its size increases, potentially leading to bleeding and hypovolemic shock, and then death.

The condition is caused by a weakened blood vessel wall which can be a result of a hereditary condition or an acquired disease.

On song to help

Spring Concert in support of individuals with an ABI (Acquired Brain Injury), Campbell College this Saturday, (March 19). Wine and canapes, 6.45pm, prior to the concert at 7.30pm. Tickets are £15 (admission by ticket only) available from: Brain Injury Matters, tel: 028 9070 5125 or Reconnect, tel: 028 9079 0551 or visit https://getinvited.to/braininjurymatters/spring-concert-campbell-college-saturday-19th-march/

Belfast Telegraph

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