Dancing has always been in Courtney Doogan’s blood, but little did she know it would help boost her daughter’s lung function in her battle with cystic fibrosis.
Mum-of-three Courtney (32) from Antrim, was “born in ballet shoes” as her mum Gillian (53), is also a dancer.
Mum and daughter run Doogan Dance Academy in Antrim together, and have taught ballet, tap, jazz, modern and hip hop, to thousands of eager children over the years.
So when Courtney’s daughter Priya came along in 2016, it seemed only natural she would follow in her mum and nanny’s dance steps.
“I was teaching dance classes until the day before I gave birth to Priya, so she was dancing in my womb,” laughs Courtney.
“I only found out I was expecting when I was 29-weeks gone — there’s just 11 months between Priya (6) and her big brother Logan (7).
“Mum told me I was starting to look a bit chunky and suggested I take a pregnancy test, so it was a complete surprise. Then I was induced seven weeks later because they were worried that Priya had stopped growing.
“I remember going for a scan and being told I’d be induced the following day, at 36-weeks. I had to text all the parents saying I wouldn’t be able to teach their kids that evening because I was giving birth the next day so I needed to go shopping for baby stuff.”
Priya was 6lbs when she was born, but soon began dropping weight. Three weeks after her birth, in March 2016, the results of the routine heel-prick test on newborns brought the family’s world crashing down.
“My health visitor phoned and said she was coming round to see us,” remembers Courtney.
“I was really busy so I was trying to put her off, but she begged me not to leave the house until she arrived and mentioned the heel prick test.
“That’s when I had a gut feeling it was something serious. I rang a nurse friend and asked her about the heel prick test, then I started Googling.
“By the time the health visitor arrived I had a suspicion of what was coming.”
Courtney was devastated when the health visitor confirmed Priya had cystic fibrosis (CF), a life-limiting genetic condition that causes a build-up of mucus in the lungs and digestive system.
“I cried my eyes out,” admits Courtney, who has a BA Hons degree in Dance from the University of Ulster.
“I didn’t know much about cystic fibrosis but I’d known one other girl who had it and she’d passed away at 18.
“They arranged an appointment at The Royal in Belfast’s Cystic Fibrosis clinic and more tests to confirm it the following day, and I was just hoping against hope there had been a mistake.
“But right from day one I 100% knew I wanted Priya to live a normal childhood.
“I didn’t want her to miss out on anything. I’m a big believer in positivity and not dwelling on what you can’t change.”
One of the biggest questions hanging over the family was whether it would be safe for the little girl to dance.
But as Priya grew she soon answered the question herself by tottering around the studio after her mum and nanny.
“I teach six days a week, so Priya was in the studio from being a baby,” says Courtney.
“When she started showing an interest her doctors told us to go ahead because physical activity can be good for CF patients.
“We’ve been really lucky because right from the beginning we’ve had a brilliant medical team looking after her.
“Priya has grown up seeing the same doctors and specialists, so it doesn’t bother her going to hospital for her regular check-ups. She doesn’t know any different.
“Obviously being in the dance academy so much means there’s a risk of cross-infection from the other kids — Priya is more vulnerable to viruses — but we want her to live as normal a life as possible. The other kids and parents know she has CF but they try not to treat her any differently.”
Priya, now six, dances five days a week and often comes home with medals and trophies from competitions.
“She’s a really good ballerina but she believes she’s a hip hopper,” laughs Courtney.
“She loves to do all the wiggling and shaking.”
And incredibly Courtney says Priya’s doctors believe all the dancing is having a positive impact on her lung function, which is measured every few months.
“During the first few months of Covid, Priya had to shield, and her lung function dropped because she could only dance in our living room,” says Courtney.
“We did as much as we could — she even taught her own dance class via Zoom to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
“But as soon as she got back to dancing in the studio her lung function started to go up again. It helps to shift the mucus which makes her less vulnerable to a build-up of bacteria too.
“Her doctors have told us to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s obviously helping. They will openly say that the more active she is, the stronger her lungs will be, so she’s recently started doing gymnastics too.”
Priya, who also has a baby brother, Conan (1), calls her illness her “sixty fibrosis” and takes a number of different medications, including a recently-approved drug called Orkambi which is significantly improving the health outcomes for cystic fibrosis patients.
She also has physiotherapy and uses a nebulizer for oxygen therapy at home.
“We never say anything negative about cystic fibrosis — we don’t want her to be frightened of it,” explains Courtney, who is due to marry her partner, plumber Patrick Quinn — Priya’s stepdad — in August with Priya as a flower girl.
“I tell her that her medications are to make her big and strong for dancing. She takes enzymes after her meals, and when her schoolfriends ask why she has tablets at lunchtime she tells them that she doesn’t have scissors in her belly to cut up her food like they do.
“Even in the six years since Priya was first diagnosed, treatments for cystic fibrosis have continued to improve. No matter what, this won’t beat Priya — I’ve said it from day one. As they say on Strictly, we’ll just KEEP DANCING.”
Doogan’s Dance Academy supports the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Helping Hand — the charity that supports the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children