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'A catastrophic cliff fall left our son Tony with a life-changing brain injury... we felt numb and isolated but it inspired us to set up a centre for survivors'

Newry couple Frank and Aileen Dolaghan relive the days after an horrific accident changed their lives for ever and tell Stephanie Bell how it led to them founding the Brain Injury Foundation

Life changed forever for Frank and Aileen Dolaghan 25 years ago when their youngest son Tony plunged 40 feet off a cliff top and sustained severe brain injuries. Tony, who was 22 at the time, had been enjoying a weekend away with his friends in Donegal when the horrific accident happened.

The news was broken to his distraught parents in a phone call from police, and they made the journey from their Newry home to Bundoran Hospital not knowing what lay ahead.

Relieved that their son was still alive they were, however, told that the best they could expect when he eventually regained consciousness was that he would be in a severe vegetative state.

Tony was in a coma for two weeks and spent three months in hospital. When he finally returned home, he had to learn to walk, talk and eat again.

As his life changed forever, so too did that of his parents. As they worked to try and create a new way of being for their son they worried that his friends no longer called and while still a young man he was isolated and lonely.

As a result, the couple got together with others in their local area and set up the Brain Injury Foundation (BIF) which has transformed the quality of life for dozens of survivors and their carers.

The charity runs the busy 'Our House' hub in Newry, offering a range of services and social activities.

From very small beginnings the foundation has grown to become a highly regarded group with fixed assets of over £400,000, a growing membership base, strong community connections and a reputation for innovation. Members have also recently opened a 'pub with no beer' for brain injury survivors.

Today, aged 47, Tony still needs care from his parents but enjoys some independence living in a flat they built for him beside their Newry home.

He was able to sit his driving test again and drives himself to the gym three times a week.

Frank (75) runs the Brain Injury Foundation full-time and his wife Aileen (73) is their son's full-time carer. They also have an older son, Kevin, who is 50.

Frank recalls the early morning call from the police 25 years ago which changed their lives forever: "Tony worked as an apprentice alarm engineer and he and a group of mates went off to Donegal for the weekend.

"He was driving and I made sure he got new tyres on the car before they went.

"It was 7.10am on the Sunday when the Gardai rang and told us that Tony was in hospital in Bundoran after falling 40ft off a cliff.

"That's all we knew and we set off immediately not knowing what we were going to face. That journey was a nightmare.

"Apparently the boys had been out drinking and decided they wanted to get burgers.

"They went up to the cliff top to eat them and Tony must have fallen asleep. When he woke up he walked in the wrong direction over the edge of the cliff.

"When we walked into A&E we walked past Tony as we didn't recognise our son. His eyes were swollen up like two snooker balls and very dark blue.

"They were trying to get a helicopter to take him to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. Apparently it was between him and a man in Co Clare, but they chose Tony, thanks be to God.

"He was in a coma for a fortnight and we were told that if he was very lucky he would survive but would be in a vegetative state."

Recalling how they got through that dreadful time, Frank continues: "You just go numb. You don't know how you are going to cope; you don't know what it means. You see your child lying in intensive care lifeless, wired up to all these machines. We had our faith, thank God, and you just have to pray, that's all you can do."

Aileen drove direct to Dublin while Frank had to drive Tony's friends home before he could join her.

When he eventually did get home from hospital, it was a very different Tony to the happy-go-lucky young man who set off for a fun weekend with his friends.

Life changed dramatically for the whole family as they supported Tony who had to learn to walk, talk, write and even use cutlery again.

Frank says: "The man that we got back was not the same one that went off on a weekend with his mates.

"We had never heard of brain injury before and had no idea what to expect.

"He could barely walk - he had to learn to walk again.

"He kept repeating 'I fell off a cliff' over and over again. He couldn't have a conversation for a long time.

"He had to learn to eat again and he couldn't write, all his basic skills had gone. Thankfully they did come back and I put that down to the great care he got in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry."

As Tony improved, the impact on his life was still dramatic. His friends stopped calling and one of the biggest issue s he faced was loneliness.

His parents, too, felt the isolation as they became carers. Frank says: "We had 12 to 15 years without any kind of external support really; you were very much left on your own.

"That is why centres like Our House are necessary as the biggest single issue facing survivors and their carers is loneliness. Often friends disappear, survivors and carers sit at home, they no longer have a social life, there are no discos, football games or restaurants for them."

Eventually, Frank, Aileen and Tony met other carers and brain injury survivors who were in a similar situation and together they set up the Brain Injury Foundation (BIF).

Frank says: "We had no premises, no money. It was about a year after we set the group up that we heard about the Space and Place funding and it took just under two years to get where we are now with Our House."

Launched in August 2012, BIF now has more than 100 members from across Newry and Mourne, Armagh, Banbridge and Dungannon.

BIF initially rented a room in Newry but two years ago, with funding support from the Community Foundation through the Big Lottery Funded Space & Place programme, it was able to buy its own premises and opened Northern Ireland's first community-owned centre of excellence for brain injury support.

Located just outside Newry, Our House has become a lifeline for many families. Open five days a week, it gives brain injury survivors and carers a chance to socialise, acquire new skills and new hobbies, and enjoy nights out and holidays away together.

Frank and Aileen also sold their home a few years ago and bought a new house so that they could divide it and create an apartment to give Tony some independence.

Today, he enjoys a good quality of life, keeping himself fit and socialising with his new friends at BIF.

Frank says: "He does have some memory and cognitive issues. He is a perfectionist and does everything by the book.

"If he is driving he would never go over the speed limit and if he is getting ready for something he will plan what he is wearing for hours.

"He has no idea of time, it means nothing to him. The biggest challenge is loneliness, you can't buy friends.

"At the centre we do a wide range of courses from cookery to computer skills, we have a pool team who are top of the local league, and we do art therapy and table tennis and archery and lots of other things.

"We support the carers every bit as much as the survivors. The carers are the most important resource a brain injury survivor has.

"We organise nights out and we have parties at Halloween, Valentine's Day, Easter and Christmas.

"It is as much about providing a social outlet as well as giving people the chance to learn new skills or discover a new hobby.

"Some of the carers have told us that it has saved their lives because they were feeling suicidal before coming to the foundation.

"It is also a chance to make friends, and relationships have developed. We've had our first wedding and the young couple have just had a baby girl."

Tony will be sharing his story on April 11 at a special conference called Adapt to Survive being held by the Community Foundation in the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena. The conference aims to give voluntary and community sector groups the chance to discuss their long-term survival in what is an uncertain era for the sector due to the collapse of Stormont and the associated impact on funding. Frank is a keynote speaker as someone whose life was transformed overnight, but who has thrived and helped hundreds of others along the way.

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