Actress Cliodhna McCorley couldn't stand up after brain op but went on to run half-marathon in aid of hospital that saved her life
Following her remarkable recovery, thespian Cliodhna McCorley (26) is determined to play a major role in raising funds for the medical unit in London that gave her a second chance
No stage production will ever match actress Cliodhna McCorley's real life drama. The Antrim woman has gone from being unable to walk to completing a half-marathon for charity after a devastating brain tumour diagnosis.
The 26-year-old has been through the most traumatic, terrifying experience of her life over the past three years.
She has seen a hitherto healthy and happy existence shattered by a diagnosis that plunged her into a dark, lonely and frightening place.
She has had to undergo major surgery that has left her in a state of permanent partial deafness.
Not only that, but the long weeks spent in hospital added psychological trauma to the physical scars that were already all too apparent.
At times she thought she'd never make it back to normality - but Cliodhna is a determined young woman and, on the first anniversary of that diagnosis, the patient, who at one stage was unable to put one foot in front of the other, was running in the Edinburgh Half-Marathon.
Now, to mark two years since the onset of that life-changing - and life-threatening - experience, she has organised a Night For Life gala fundraiser in one of London's top hotels.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Cliodhna told of how her world turned upside down in May 2014 when the then 24-year-old returned to London after a whistlestop trip home to see her family in Dunsilly.
"I'd flown home for my mum's birthday on May 28, which was also the day my first niece Eabha - and the first grandchild - was born," she recalled.
"It was the most amazing, joyful day. I was the first person who got to meet her after she was born (after her dad John Paul and mum Camilla).
"I flew back to London the next day, and that was when I had what I can only describe as a complete polar opposite experience. I was wearing a headset in the office and I thought I'd been electrocuted by it. My face was paralysed and I started to have a fit. I ripped off the headset and I just made light of the incident.
"Later on that night, however, I had another small fit and a sharp intense pain on my face.
"I was in absolute agony but it only lasted about five seconds. It felt like I was being electrocuted from my face. It was horrific, awful, terrifying.
"Because it was affecting my face I thought that I was getting my wisdom teeth, so I booked an emergency appointment with the dentist the next day.
"But he told me I had the symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia (a sudden, severe facial pain likened to having an electric shock in the jaw, teeth or gums)."
That was at 11am. Cliodhna, who was working for a fundraising company at the time, returned to the office where, on the dentist's recommendation, she made an appointment with the doctor for 2pm.
"I went back in and made a bit of a joke, being an actress, and said: 'It's not just my teeth, apparently I've got a neurological condition'," she said.
"But even as I was saying that sentence, I was brought down to my knees in the middle of the office by one of the most intense of these fits. At that point everyone knew that something was badly wrong."
The GP told her she was too young to have trigeminal neuralgia and set up a consultation with a neurologist.
Meanwhile, the facial fits were becoming more regular. "I was so overwhelmed. And frightened," said Cliodhna, who lives in Clapham Junction and studied drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
"I was going to these appointments by myself. At one point, when I went to collect a prescription, I fell to my knees on the floor in the pharmacy with the pain.
"I was sent for an MRI scan that evening."
The thespian, whose assignments are "mostly theatre", had a flight booked to visit friends in Glasgow that evening and was due to take off less than three hours after the scan.
"The radiographer told me I shouldn't travel, but I was so frightened I wanted to be in the company of good friends and I went to the airport," she recalled.
"The medication seemed to be kicking in at this stage. The pain had started to subside, the fits seemed to have stopped... but when I was in the boarding queue at Luton Airport the neurologist phoned and told me not to get on the plane and to come to the hospital immediately."
Cliodhna, who now works for the National Youth Theatre in London, in its development team, involved in fundraising and events, called her London-based brother Michael (34), an engineer, but kept her increasing anxiety from her parents. "Never in a million years did I think I had a brain tumour, but that illusion was shattered almost as soon as I got to hospital," she explained.
"It was 3.5cm in size and on my brainstem. Although my type of tumour is rarely malignant, they said it had grown or moved and that was what was now causing the fits, so immediate action had to be taken.
"By that stage it was 1am. Of course, I told mum and dad it was nothing to worry about. I didn't tell them the truth until they got to London."
She added: "My brother and his now wife Cailli scooped me up and took me to their flat and they cared for me for the next two weeks."
Cliodhna, who was previously involved in The Youth Lyric Belfast, had "an amazing summer" planned - involving a trip to Barcelona with friends and a Fleetwood Mac concert at the Isle of Wight Festival - but instead the next few weeks were spent at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) in London. "I had to decide which kind of brain surgery to have," she said.
"Basically, I got told I would lose my hearing and there was a very high chance that I would have permanent facial palsy.
"I made a decision to have a surgery that would mean being totally deaf in my right ear and I now have single-sided deafness. It was an eight-hour procedure on June 20 that year.
"When I woke up after a very rough night in ICU, my dad's cousin (Pat Storey) was in the room and I mistook him for a priest! I've known this man all my life... in the midst of the distress, that moment provided some light relief for my family."
There was little joy, however, in the three weeks spent in hospital after the surgery.
Her mum Anne (60) stayed with her in a camp bed in the room "because I just wasn't coping".
"I couldn't stand up, walk, eat by myself or keep my food down. I lost a stone in a week," she recalled.
"I was completely dependent on being fed and watered and taken to the bathroom. I went from being an independent young woman to someone who couldn't get out of bed, and constantly throwing up.
"I really struggled psychologically with it all - particularly the fact that I couldn't walk - and had to see a psychiatrist and psychologist.
"It was really traumatic; a dark time because I couldn't see how I could possibly recover."
As she couldn't fly home, she and her mum, who used to run a residential home for the elderly, stayed at her great-aunt Teresa and great-uncle Hughie's home in Barking for three months.
Relief finally arrived two months later when it was confirmed the tumour wasn't malignant and Cliodhna, who is single, got the green light to fly home in September 2015 for six weeks.
"It was so emotional being back home," said the past pupil of St Louis Grammar School Ballymena, who has two other brothers, mechanical engineering student Cain (29) and engineer John Paul (35), and whose dad James (61) owns an electronic engineering firm.
She described the half-marathon that she ran with best friend Andrea McGlinchey on May 29, 2016, as "the most cathartic experience". She raised £7,000 for the hospital.
"When I'm not acting, charity fundraising is my biggest passion," she explained.
"When I left the hospital, I told the doctor that I was going to run a half-marathon that year, and the following year I was going to use my events experience to raise money for the hospital because there was nothing I can do to thank them enough; I wanted to give something back."
Next up is a gala ball on June 8 this year.
ITV Sport presenter Ed Chamberlin will host the evening's entertainment which will include stars from West End productions Aladdin, Dreamgirls, The Book Of Mormon, Wicked and The Lion King, and top acts such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
One in six people in the UK suffers from a neurological disorder - which is more than the number of people living with cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes combined.
Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer, and Cliodhna knows she is one of the lucky ones.
"It was hard - but I can honestly say that since recovering I have never been happier," she said.
"I've never had stronger relationships with my friends and family.
"Sometimes you go through these really dark times and you come out the other side and you just realise how grateful you can be for simply being alive.
"I've got very small symptoms such as single-sided deafness, bad balance, bad fatigue, but they're very small prices to pay to be here. Life is good."
Hear Cliodhna's story at A Night For Life, at the Park Lane Hotel London on June 8. The event will raise money for The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery to enable it to double the size of its dedicated Brain Tumour Unit. Northern Ireland firm Randox Health will be the main sponsor for the evening