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Grandfather's marathon team set to run in memory of little Odhran Varney

By Cate McCurry

The family of a five-year-old boy who died on Christmas Day are taking part in the gruelling Belfast City Marathon in honour of his memory.

Odhran Varney, from Glengormley, Co Antrim, died less than two hours after his mother Nicole Gillen (30) rushed him to the Royal Victoria Hospital after becoming unwell on December 25 last year.

The sudden death of the young boy, who was diagnosed with Down's syndrome at birth, came as a shock to his devastated family.

His grandfather James Gillen and other family members are raising money for Mencap, a charity close to their hearts and one they credit for helping and supporting Odhran's crucial development.

Mr Gillen has recruited 12 runners to take part in the relay and fun run at the May 1 event in a bid to fund raise for the learning disability charity.

For the family, Monday's marathon will be tinged with sadness as they struggle to come to terms with the much-loved youngster's death.

Mr Gillen said that Odhran was progressing well during his time at Hill Croft School in Newtownabbey and loved being with his friends.

Despite his underlying health problems, Odhran showed few signs of illness in the days leading up to his death.

"It wasn't until Christmas Eve that he started to feel a bit unwell," his grandfather said.

"My daughter (Nicole) and Odhran stayed at my house that night and when he woke up on Christmas morning with all his presents laid out for him he wasn't interested in them.

"My daughter thought that if he had some sort of bug then she would take him home.

"Later on that day we brought them up food but Odhran was lying on the sofa with a blanket around him. Then Nicole rang me later on to say that he was not well and that she would bring him to the Royal."

The pair arrived at the Belfast hospital, but sadly Odhran passed away one hour and 40 minutes later.

"He just deteriorated so quickly," Mr Gillen said.

To add to their grief, the family will not know his cause of death until a coroner's report has been completed which could take up to a year.

As a toddler, Odhran attended Mencap's nursery for young children with a learning disability, autism or developmental delay.

Mr Gillen said: "When Odhran started at Mencap's nursery he wasn't walking and couldn't communicate.

"By the time he left, he was walking and had learned the Makaton system, a language programme similar to sign language.

"The Mencap team also taught us the Makaton so we could communicate with him, which was very special.

"Mencap was always there for us if we needed to talk over a problem."

Odhran, who was described by his family as a "bright and bubbly" boy will be at the forefront of their minds as they pound the streets of Belfast in his honour, including members from the Sport & Leisure Swifts Football Club in Belfast.

"It was very tough when we lost Odhran at Christmas. It was a complete shock. For Nicole it has been the worst period of her life," Mr Gillen added.

"She has good moments then something will remind her of what he has done or said and she gets upset."

  • To help raise money for Mencap or for further information please email fundraising.ni@mencap.org.uk.

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