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Running for Ryan: How The Dungiven Bravehearts are getting ready to take part in next month's Runher and raise money for the Children's Heartbeat Trust

Co Londonderry's Tricia Harkin says running her first 5k is nothing compared to the challenge her nephew faced after losing his legs following an emergency heart op. Stephanie Bell reports

Published 04/09/2015

So inspiring: Ryan O’Connor
So inspiring: Ryan O’Connor
Ryan's aunt Trisha
Getting fit: Denise Friel, Mary Cooke, Helen O’Connor, Michelle O’Connor and Tricia Harkin from Dungiven, who are running in aid of the Children’s Heartbeat Trust

A gutsy group of women - most of whom have never run before - are aiming to take part in the Belfast Telegraph Titanic Runher in October to support a group of children in their community who are living with congenital heart defects.

Calling themselves The Dungiven Bravehearts the girls will be pounding the pavements around their local town in the coming weeks as they prepare to complete the 5km section of the race.

Nine have so far signed up for the team, and they will be running to raise funds for the Children's Heartbeat Trust.

And they are hoping their home town will rally round and support their fundraising efforts.

Team member Tricia Harkin has been inspired to take part as a thank you to her local community for their support when her 21-year-old nephew Ryan O'Connor suffered complications after a heart transplant in 2012.

Ryan, who was born with a congenital heart defect, tragically had his legs amputated following complications after the surgery.

Tricia will be joined by her sisters, mum and friends as well as relatives of two little girls in the town who also have a congenital heart condition - four year old's Hope Donaghy and Bronagh Lavery.

The 40-year-old, who is a childminder and mum to Robyn (15), Shea (12) and Mikey (7), is all too aware just how devastating these heart conditions can be for families.

She says: "Taking part in Runher is for all the children in the community and not just Ryan.

"Not many of us are runners so it will definitely be a challenge.

"The children are back to school this week and we have only four weeks until the race so we will be getting out and training, probably walking to start with and then running.

"I used to do all sorts of sports years ago before I had my children and haven't exercised in years, but it is very little to give up when you think of what Ryan and the other children are going through."

Despite what he has been through, Tricia's nephew Ryan has overcome tremendous obstacles to enjoy a full life.

His local community rallied round the family when Ryan, who is one of seven children, faced horrendous complications following his heart transplant three years ago, and for this, Tricia says her and her family remain eternally grateful.

She says: "We have a great wee community and everybody was there for Ryan.

"Ryan was ill most of his childhood and in June 2012 he carried the Olympic torch.

"I remember seeing him do it and being struck by how ill he looked. He deteriorated and shortly after that he became a priority for a transplant. He spent 10 weeks in hospital in Newcastle and went through his transplant surgery on November 23, 2012.

"It all seemed to go well, but two days later he suffered a heart arrest and there were lots of complications.

"The main thing was to keep him alive and they worked with him. It wasn't until a couple of days later when the vascular team came in to see if there had been any damage done by the arrest that they discovered a lot of tissue damage to his legs.

"At first we thought he was going to lose a few toes and that was horrifying for us - we were devastated at that. It was horrible, completely heartbreaking."

Ryan has inspired everyone who knows him with his courage at coping with losing his legs in his teens.

He is currently building up his strength in the hope of getting new prosthetic legs, and is also learning to drive so that he can enjoy even more independence.

Tricia says his strength in coping has helped the whole family get through: "He has been absolutely amazing. I have only seen him cry twice, once in the hospital and once when he came home. He is stronger than the rest of us and a complete inspiration.

"He is very determined and all he wants to do is walk again. He has to do a lot of work on his core muscles to strengthen them, but he is working with a personal trainer to do that.

"Ryan has a wonderful sense of humour and he makes everyone around him feel good."

Sport-loving Ryan is thrilled that his family and community are challenging themselves by taking part in their first 5km for Children's Heartbeat.

He says: "I think it is great what they are doing. It is a super charity and any money raised will help other children and their families.

"I am really proud of them and if I had my own legs I would have probably joined them, but I will be there to see them coming over the finishing line."

Ryan enjoyed football before he lost his legs and, since his surgery, has developed a passion for wheelchair basketball and hurling, winning with the Ulster team in a tournament in Carlow last weekend.

He had been walking with prosthetic legs, but surgery in March has meant he had to go back to relying on his wheelchair.

Since then he has been undergoing a rigorous exercise regime with personal trainer Brian Keeley from Dungiven to develop his core muscles, so that he can get a new set of prosthetic legs which he is hoping he will be deemed fit for next week.

He says: "I'm just pushing myself through the pain barrier at the minute trying to get my core built up so that I will get new prosthetic legs.

"It is a bit crazy because I couldn't exercise my core muscles before because of my heart and now they have to be strong to get my legs. I have an appointment next Tuesday to see about getting new legs and I feel that I am strong enough now, so hopefully I will be back walking again next week."

In fact next week is shaping up to be pretty momentous for this very driven Dungiven man as he also hopes to start a new course studying film and TV.

As well as his love of sport, Ryan writes movie scripts and it is his dream to one day make his own film.

"I've always enjoyed writing my own scripts and I'm into a bit of filming, so I'm hoping to get a place on the course and hopefully one day sees my own films made," he says.

His positive attitude is indeed inspiring and, although he has been through a tough time, Ryan is optimistic about life and his future.

He says: "When I had my surgery and lost my legs I just had to deal with it and come through it and enjoy my life as much as I can. I don't think there is any point in sitting back and feeling sorry for yourself.

"I think that in the end you get what you want if you work for it. I've had fantastic support from my local community; they have really helped me through it all and helped me to enjoy my life as much as possible."

Week Five: Trainer Melissa Eccles on the Dead Bug

The Dead Bug is designed to strengthen your core. It looks like an easy exercise but it can be pretty taxing when done right. The key to getting the most from this exercise is to be slow and controlled, engaging your core throughout to ensure your back is flat against the floor.

Muscles targeted: Abdominals

Sets: Aim for two to three sets of six repetitions. Once you’ve alternated each leg you have completed one rep.

Starting Position

Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet touching the floor.

Ensure your back is flat against the floor. To do this, exhale to bring your ribcage down, tilt your pelvis up towards the ceiling, squeeze your glutes and tighten your abdominals.

Raise your legs (still bent at 90 degrees) so that your knees are directly above your hips.

Bring your arms straight up with your palms facing the wall.


Initiate the exercise by straightening and lowering your left leg and right arm at the same time just above the ground. Hold for a few seconds. Keep your core engaged as you bring it back to the starting position then alternate to the right leg and left arm. Exhale every time you switch sides.

Nutritionist Majella Farrell on protein

  • Protein is essential in the growth and repair of all body tissues and should make up 20-25% of the diet
  • Good sources of protein include fish, lean meat, skinless chicken, eggs, dairy products, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, tofu and other soya products
  • You need protein to: grow, develop strong muscles and tissues, carry oxygen around the body, help to prevent illness and trigger reactions in your body (enzymes and hormones)
  • The recommended amount of protein post training is 10-20g
  • When protein is used for energy it cannot be used for the important roles of muscle growth, repair and recovery

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