'I'm so lucky to be able to care for my lovely brother ... and now I can't wait to help street kids living in the slums of India'
After Yvonne McCoy's boxer brother, Stephen, suffered life-changing injuries in the Kegworth air disaster, she devoted her life to looking after him. Here she tells Stephanie Bell why it gives her so much joy and how her faith gives her strength
No one who knows Yvonne McCoy would have been the slightest bit surprised when she cut off her treasured long hair to raise money to take sick people to Lourdes this summer.
Her recent appeal for reading glasses to take with her on a charity trip to India later this month is also typical of a woman who has devoted the past 28 years of her life to looking after her brother, Stephen, who was critically injured in the Kegworth air disaster.
Yvonne's love of helping others knows no bounds, and as her departure for India on October 30 draws closer, her only concern is how she will cope with the extreme levels of poverty she knows she will witness.
"I watched the movie Slumdog Millionaire and it broke my heart," Yvonne said. "Ever since I've always wanted to go to India and help out.
"I'm getting excited now, but I suppose a little apprehensive too about how I will feel seeing the street children and the sick people we're going to help."
The 48-year-old, from Toomebridge, is travelling with the charity Arpana, whose motto is 'Giving of Oneself' - something she already does naturally.
Yvonne became involved with a local support group some years ago after striking up a friendship with her local GP, Dr Davinder Kapur, when he attended to her brother.
The charity runs the Arpana Hospital in Delhi, and was founded in 1960.
The Northern Ireland support group was set up by Dr Kapur in 2003. He has been awarded an MBE for services to healthcare at home and abroad.
It was because of Yvonne's tireless fundraising and support that, earlier this year, Dr Kapur invited her to accompany him and a team on their annual trip to India.
"When Dr Kapur came to see Stephen, he would talk to me about the charity and the work it was doing in India," Yvonne recalls. "I helped him to fundraise over the years and we have become friends.
"This year he asked me to go with them to see where the money is being spent. I jumped at it, but my only concern was who would care for Stephen.
"My sister offered to take care of Stephen for the two weeks as she knew how much I have always wanted to go to India. The Indian people are so lovely and I always felt I would love to help out if given the chance.
"We will be working with people who have leprosy and also with street children, helping to feed them, and I will be working in the hospital.
"It is only now starting to hit me that I am going, and I just hope God gives me the strength to cope when I am out there."
Yvonne, who worked as an auxiliary nurse, didn't hesitate to give up her career to care for her brother when, at just 16 years old, he was critically injured in the Kegworth air crash, which killed 47 people on January 8, 1989.
Stephen, now 45, was a promising boxer with Olympic potential.
He almost died in the crash and was left brain-damaged and paralysed down one side of his body.
Stephen, one of nine children, was on his first trip alone - to visit a cousin in England - when he boarded a flight from Heathrow to Belfast.
The plane developed engine trouble a short time into the journey. The pilots were later said to have shut down the wrong engine, sending the plane plummeting to the ground.
Stephen lay in a coma for 18 months. At one stage doctors were contemplating switching off his life support machine when a nurse, who is now also a close friend of Yvonne's, noticed his toe moving.
However, it was three years before Stephen was able to leave hospital. He was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and later to Massereene Hospital in Antrim - and Yvonne spent every day with him. Today he needs round-the-clock care and lives with his parents, Rosie and Idris, who look after him through the night in a specially adapted home built with some of the £1.4m he was awarded after he sued British Midland Airways in 1995.
Yvonne cares for her brother during the day and feels lucky to be doing it. "He is great company - he is good to be with," she explains.
"I am so lucky to have someone so lovely to look after, and I am not just saying that because he is my brother.
"He does brighten up a room with his smile and his wit and the wee antics he gets up to.
"He is not able to use a spoon because he has difficulties swallowing. When we went to Lourdes this year, he was eating soup and had to use bread to dip in it and eat, but he wanted to use a spoon like the rest of them.
"He said to the nurses, 'What's that over there?' And when they turned their heads he grabbed a spoon from the person beside him. He is full of fun and so good that looking after him is not a chore.
"Mummy and daddy look after him at night and I come in the mornings and shower him and shave him and care for him during the day.
"He is doing well and is in great spirits. He used to be prone to a lot of infections, but he is now on an antibiotic three days a week and that has made a big difference and really helped his chest."
Yvonne often thinks about the life her brother missed out on because of his injuries.
"It does break my heart, especially when I see my younger brother, Gary, and his wife and family coming into the house," she says.
"That makes me sad, as I think about what Stephen could have had."
Yvonne and Stephen have visited the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France every year for the past 28 years.
This year Yvonne decided she wanted to help other sick people who didn't have the money to make the journey, making the difficult decision to get her long hair cut off to raise funds.
"I loved my hair and I knew it would be a sacrifice," she says. "I cut it off on July 8 to raise money for people who couldn't afford to go to Lourdes.
"One local family, who want to remain anonymous, donated £500 and altogether I raised £2,835, which paid for one sick lady to go to Lourdes this year.
"It will also pay for three sick people to go next year, as well as a young volunteer.
"I nearly cried when I got my hair cut, but I am growing it again and it was for such a worthy cause.
"Stephen and I were in Lourdes in July and have gone every year for the past 28 years.
"When you are there you see humanity at its best. Here are doctors and nurses and young people who have given up their holidays and paid their own way there to help the sick.
"You see people being so kind to each other - it really is amazing.
"Every year we go people can't get over the change in Stephen and how much he has improved. He is still recovering. His speech is a lot better than it used to be."
As part of her next charitable venture, which is her trip to India, Yvonne is appealing for people to donate old reading glasses for her to take along with her.
It says so much about her that out of such tragedy Yvonne has forged so many great friendships.
One of her good friends, John Simons, the ambulance chief in charge of the service on the day of the Kegworth crash, has offered to collect glasses for her in his hometown, Nottingham.
"I made friends with John through Facebook and he and his wife came to visit us last year," Yvonne says. "I am also friends with Margaret Simms, the nurse who saw Stephen's toe move. As a result his life support was not switched off. She lives in England and also came to stay with us last year.
"When she said she saw Stephen's toe move, at first they thought she had been seeing things because she was exhausted after working a long shift. It is thanks to her that Stephen is with us today.
"John was on duty the night of the crash and was the chief ambulance man. He told me he had to try and keep the hearses back from invading the scene.
"He is collecting glasses for me for India and I only put the appeal out last week. Lots of people have responded already.
"There is an eye clinic in the hospital we are going to and apparently people there just can't afford glasses, so any donations will be gratefully received."
Appealing for support for her trip, which is in two weeks' time, she says: "We have so many nurses and doctors from India working here. It will be nice to be able to give something back."
If you would like to support Yvonne's appeal for reading glasses, you can contact her through Facebook