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Meet the mum who is going on the run so that her little boy and other children have the chance to walk

Charlene Dickey, from Coleraine, tells Stephanie Bell how watching son Oliver, who has cerebral palsy, fight for every step has inspired her to take part in next month's Runher.

Published 18/09/2015

Family album: Oliver Dickey with his mum Charlene, dad Neil and brother Max
Family album: Oliver Dickey with his mum Charlene, dad Neil and brother Max
Out and about: Oliver in wheelchair with his family

Charlene Dickey took up running in June 2014, in the hope it would give her some insight into the challenges that her seven-year-old son Oliver faces.

Oliver has to undergo intensive exercises every day of his life just to learn to walk - and despite a full day at school and homework, he never complains about the hour he must spend each evening in the gym.

For Charlene, who has fought hard to ensure that her son will not spend his life in a wheelchair, the idea of putting herself to the test physically was just one more thing she felt she could do for her son.

Now she is planning to take on her first official race when she competes in the 10km section of the Belfast Telegraph Titanic Runher next month.

She says: "I just thought if I am going to make Oliver do all this physical work, then I can't expect him to push himself and I don't.

"I've also found it a great way to get out and clear my head. There is so much going on at home, that just getting out of the house for a run really does give me relief and I always come back feeling ready to face anything."

Oliver, from Coleraine, was born with spastic diplegia - a form of cerebral palsy - and his parents Charlene (29) and Neil (32) were told he would never be able to walk. He also has a younger brother Max (5).

But Charlene and Neil refused to accept the prognosis and launched an appeal last year to raise funds for cutting edge surgery in America which would give Oliver the chance to walk.

Since then, the little boy's life has been transformed as he has been able to leave his wheelchair for the first time to walk with the aid of sticks, playing outside and joining his friends in the playground at school.

It does, however, mean continuing every day with a programme of intensive physio, which he will have to do for many years to come.

Now that her dream for Oliver has come true and she marvels every day at his new-found independence, Charlene is devoting what time she can to supporting parents of other children who are also hoping to go through the pioneering surgery.

Charlene says: "Throughout Ireland, there are more than 30 children who have either had the surgery or need it.

"The NHS has funded the setting up of a pathway to Liverpool where you can have the operation and we have our first child due to go there for surgery soon.

"The criteria, though, for the NHS is so strict and Oliver didn't meet it, which is why we had to go to America and there are many other children being told they are not eligible either.

"We were told Oliver was too weak for surgery and it would make him worse. We were being told by doctors here he would spend his life in a wheelchair and yet, we had one of the top consultants in the world in America telling us he would walk.

"Our view was that we'd give him the surgery and hope that he would walk and that if it didn't work, he would still be in a wheelchair and be no worse off.

"We had the support of other families going through it and that really made a big difference to us. Now I am trying to do what I can to help others going through it.

"We have a support group on Facebook and when I get the kids to school each day, I go on and send messages and information to other parents and do whatever I can to help.

"Parents are supporting each other, even with things like the application process and sharing how their kids are coping from day-to-day and fundraising.

"The information isn't being offered openly, so the parents are doing what they can, and because we have been through it, we are able to assist those who are hoping to do it."

One in 400 children are born every day with cerebral palsy, and currently 10 families in Ireland are in the process of applying for the surgery in America with three of them being accepted.

Charlene explains: "The online support really helped us get through, especially the YouTube videos of children taking their first steps after surgery. One wee girl who couldn't crawl by her fifth birthday was walking, which was amazing.

"We had been told all these horror stories about what could happen and yet we could find no proof and, in fact, it was the opposite."

Oliver, who is a pupil of Millburn Primary, was the first child from Northern Ireland to undergo the surgery in America, known as selective dorsal rhizotomy. He defied all the odds by taking his first steps unaided just a few weeks later.

His life now is now very different to what it was before the surgery, when he spent all of his time in a wheelchair. Not only is he enjoying playing outdoors with friends at school, but he is also relishing going outside into his own garden to play - a novel experience in itself.

Charlene says: "Oliver is just going from strength to strength and he has so much more confidence and independence now.

"When he was in school in his wheelchair, he really couldn't join in the games with the other children and now he comes home saying he was playing ninja turtles or zombies which is just great. His whole attitude has changed and he is much more confident in school.

"He is doing things he was never able to do when he was in his wheelchair and it is just amazing, even little things like going to the toilet on his own. He is not just waiting for us to do things for him now, he can do them for himself. It has been life-changing."

Still, Oliver has hard work ahead to maintain his strength to stay on his feet and will have to keep up physio and exercise every day for the rest of his life.

Yet having waited until he was six to know the freedom of taking his first steps, he accepts the hard work as a natural part of his life now and never complains.

His mum says: "He needs constant aftercare right into his teens and beyond and it is our aim now to keep that strength up, so that when he is in his mid-teens he will be able to go to the gym himself.

"We have a gym at home with a treadmill for him and he has to walk every night on it.

"In February, he couldn't take a single step and we went to Scotland to a specialist - he walked across the room taking about 40 steps in one go for the first time and he was able to see the benefits himself.

"He knows if there is something he can't do one day, that the next day he can do it. He knows the exercises help him to progress so he just gets on with it."

To pay for his continued aftercare the family is still fundraising through their Just Giving page and when Charlene does Runher all donations will be very welcome.

She adds: "I'm really looking forward to Runher as I haven't done anything like it before. It does seem to be a happy sort of event where everyone encourages everyone else and I will probably need that to finish the 10km."

  • You can donate to Oliver's campaign and follow his progress at

Week seven: nutritionist Majella Farrell on making sure you get your minerals

Minerals are needed in small amounts, but we cannot survive without them. The minerals that are needed in small amounts are called micronutrients and those needed in tiny amounts are called trace elements. The bottom line is you cannot be healthy without any one of them. Minerals play a variety of roles from keeping the bones and teeth healthy, to being an important ingredient of the blood and cells, and crucial for vital reactions in the body.

A varied diet will ensure that there is little risk of deficiencies, which can be devastating. It is more likely in our culture that we perhaps overindulge in some minerals, which again can cause problems - for example, too much salt.

  • Calcium: milk, cheese, bread, green vegetables
  • Phosphorous: meat, fish and eggs
  • Magnesium: green vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds
  • Sodium: mainly in processed foods, so no need to add salt
  • Potassium: vegetables, milk, meat
  • Iron: red meat, bread, potatoes, nuts, seeds, dark green vegetables
  • Zinc: meat, dairy produce, whole grain, pulses
  • Copper: meat, bread, cereals, vegetables
  • Selenium: cereals, meat, fish, brazil nuts, seeds

Vary your fruit, vegetables and protein sources every day for optimum mineral intake. A diet composed of fresh, unprocessed foods helps to keep the body at peak condition and energetically capable of vibrancy.

Trainer Melissa Eccles explains how to do split squats with resistance band

Why single leg exercises? No one is perfectly symmetrical; we may have a more dominant leg, or a slight lean to one side, or a foot that strikes the ground harder. This creates an imbalance in the body, and while normal, it can put a halt to your training when not treated properly.

Single leg exercises are important when it comes to preventing injuries as they improve strength, balance and co-ordination. The split squat is one of many single leg exercises you can add to your injury prevention routine.

Muscles targeted: Glutes, quads and hamstrings.

Sets and reps: Start with two sets of 10 reps on each side.

Resistance band: This exercise can be performed with or without the band. Use the band as a progression to improve stability and adductor (inner thigh) strength.

Stand with your hands on hips. Take a big step forward, positioning your front foot flat on the floor and other foot behind with only your toes on the floor and rear knee slightly bent.

Keeping your posture tall, drop your buttocks straight down towards the ground by bending at the knee. Keep going until your front leg reaches a 90-degree angle from ankle-knee-hip. Stay tall and feel a stretch down the front of the leg that’s bent behind you.

Extend the knee and hip of your front leg to push yourself back up to the start position.

In the starting position, think about keeping your hip, knee and ankle aligned correctly — one directly above the other. When lowering yourself to the ground, keep your knee directly in line  with your ankle and avoid any wobbling to either side.

Physiotherapist Rebecca Nelson's team will be on hand with post-race massage

Rebecca Nelson is founder and director of physiotherapy at the Apex Clinic, Belfast.

Rebecca, who is originally from Dundonald, has brought pioneering techniques for the prevention and treatment of runners' injuries to her native Northern Ireland having lived in New Zealand for a number of years.

She gained her undergraduate qualification in physiotherapy in the UK in 1991, before departing to Christchurch, New Zealand, to work in a large sports medicine clinic. The specialist clinic has physios, sports therapists, massage therapists, podiatrists, chiropodists and dieticians all working under one roof. Rebecca was impressed by the extremely effective manual physiotherapy techniques used here, and honed her abilities using the disciplines to treat runners.

Since then, she has completed a post-graduate diploma in manipulative physiotherapy from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a masters in manipulative physiotherapy from the same university. She returned home to Belfast in 1998 and started a private physiotherapy clinic, Apex Clinic.

The clinic now includes a team of six full-time physiotherapists, one sports therapist, a massage therapist, a chiropodist/podiatrist and a dietician.

Rebecca has more than 20 years' experience of treating running injuries both in New Zealand and the UK.

Through Rebecca's love of treating running injuries, Apex Clinic are also the physiotherapy partners of NI Running - a large web-based site for local runners who she advises with regard to injury prevention and treatment of injuries.

The team of physiotherapists at Apex Clinic have provided post-race massage at the Runher events over the years and have really enjoyed being involved in the buzz of these ladies' running events.

Belfast Telegraph

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