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The secret of keeping your distance: a family, a priest and a woman struggling with illness reveal how they've coped with being isolated


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Sasha and Mark Gillespie with daughter Hannah during her treatment

Sasha and Mark Gillespie with daughter Hannah during her treatment

The sisters during Hannah’s isolation period

The sisters during Hannah’s isolation period

Hannah, Zoe and Ryan Gillespie after Hannah recovered

Hannah, Zoe and Ryan Gillespie after Hannah recovered

Gail Majella Heaney

Gail Majella Heaney

Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus

Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus

Sasha and Mark Gillespie with daughter Hannah during her treatment

Most of us are social animals and will struggle with the lockdown enforced by coronavirus. Linda Stewart talks to three people who have learned lessons on coming to terms with being unable to mix with other people.

‘It was sad watching life go by... but it was just something you had to do’

Lisburn woman Sasha Gillespie (42) and her family had to isolate themselves for around a year after her daughter Hannah (13) underwent a bone marrow transplant. Hannah's dad is Mark (47) and she also has a brother, Ryan (11), and sister, Zoe (9).

Hannah had bone marrow failure when she was a toddler and was also diagnosed with a hole in the heart and a condition called Fanconi's anaemia.

"She had been sick for a long time and we were always conscious of infection because she was ill since she was a toddler and had bone marrow failure," her mum Sasha says.

"She was blood transfusion dependent and her body was stopping making blood cells. She had life-threatening nose bleeds and her bone marrow wasn't making enough red blood cells to replace the blood that was lost. She would have had platelet transfusions to make her blood clot.

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Hannah, Zoe and Ryan Gillespie after Hannah recovered

Hannah, Zoe and Ryan Gillespie after Hannah recovered

Hannah, Zoe and Ryan Gillespie after Hannah recovered

"Then when they could no longer sustain her in blood transfusion, she went to Bristol Royal Hospital for Children for a sibling cord blood transplant. When her sister was born, they saved her cord blood and banked it and kept it as the perfect stem cell match.

"Hannah needed intensive chemotherapy which obliterated her immune system entirely. They have to get rid of all her bone marrow and her T cells as her immune system would have rejected the stem cells, so she had no immune system for a long time."

The threat of infection, even by minor childhood illnesses such as the common cold, was a real worry.

Sasha explains: "She was in hospital for three months and everything had to be sterile.

"We weren't allowed to open a window and she had to be in a positive pressure room. We had to change and scrub in to go to her bedside."

After being discharged from hospital, Hannah had to remain in Bristol for the next three months in special accommodation, where she had to have a completely clean diet with no chilled food or tap water.

"We had to keep her in, and if we went out we had to be very aware of infection and were hand washing - so did her brother and sister," Sasha says.

As Hannah's blood count began to come in, Ryan and Zoe were able to join the rest of the family in Bristol and eventually the family were allowed to go home - but they had to live under strict conditions to protect Hannah from the threat of infection.

"Hannah spent 12 months on immunosuppressive drugs and she wasn't able to go back to school - she missed most of her P3 year. She wasn't allowed out of the house - she had to have a home school tutor," Sasha says.

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The sisters during Hannah’s isolation period

The sisters during Hannah’s isolation period

The sisters during Hannah’s isolation period

"We really had to be very careful around any kind of coughs and colds - she is on antibiotics for life. After we got home the other two children did go back to school and nursery, but they weren't allowed to go on playdates or to go to big crowded events.

"It was a very upsetting time - we always had to be very vigilant about infection and that can be quite useful now, with the discipline of remembering to wash your hands constantly."

Sasha says the family were very isolated, but the experience has helped to build their resilience.

"It was sad watching life go by. I was sad for the children who were not getting a normal interaction with their friends," she says.

"But it was something that you had to do. It wasn't something we questioned, we got on with it.

"We did what we had to do and we made it work."

Part of the coping strategy was to make sure there was always something to look forward to, says Sasha.

"We were writing lists of things that we would plan to do in the future, simple things like Hannah wanting to go out with her primary school friends, just on normal soft play trips - very average normal things that you take for granted until you don't have them, trips to the cinema, swimming."

The other strategy was to come up with ways round the isolation. For example, it was Ryan's birthday when the family were staying in Bristol and they hired a party play bus just for the family.

"I think we learned that we are a tight-knit wee unit. We got by, we did what we needed to do and we kept everybody's spirits rallied as best we could," Sasha says.

"We tried to have something to look forward to each day and we tried to keep a structure each day in terms of mealtimes and not letting the day drift on.

"We did a lot of indoor things like painting and baking buns, we played board games and there were some apps that the teacher gave us, like stargazing apps.

"I think we realised that the most important thing is keeping your spirits up and accepting that's the way it is.

"You just have to take it day by day."

‘I like to be out among the people, along with all the other tenants’

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Gail Majella Heaney

Gail Majella Heaney

Gail Majella Heaney

Gail Majella Heaney (53), from Lurgan, has been living in a supported living scheme run by Leonard Cheshire for the past two months. Affected by MS and asthma, she uses a wheelchair full-time and has many days when she is unable to leave her bed.

"I've had MS for about 17 years. The first symptoms were when I got pins and needles in my head and then I fell down the stairs in a block of flats where I used to live," she says.

At times when she is unable to leave her bed, she sees very few people.

"I see the staff all the time and they are very good. But I like to be out among the people, along with the other tenants," says Gail Majella.

"When I'm able to get out of bed I get up into the wheelchair and go out and mix with the others. But if I'm not able to get up I'm not able to go out and I wouldn't be mixing with others at all.

"I just have to wait for the staff to come to see me. I'll be waiting on staff to call. I get support if it's needed, but if I'm in bed it's harder to do support there.

"If I'm in bed, I read and I would listen to music - anything from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s - I love music."

Like many people who are isolated, the daily structure is one way of coping.

Gail says that when she is confined to bed, her days are defined by the tablets she takes.

Much of her time is taken up with preparing her medication for the week ahead.

"Tablets are the big things - I take an awful lot of medication," she explains.

But life is much better when she is able to get up and mix with the other tenants.

"If I'm fit to get up, I do a bit of travelling round the home and see the other tenants. I brush the floor and all - I keep the place clean," she says.

Now, even on good days, those social contacts are starting to dwindle, thanks to social distancing.

"I don't like being on my own - I'm a chatterbox. I put a letter into the lady who lives next door to me - I feel like I am delivering the post," Gail says.

Leonard Cheshire service manager Anita Scullion says social distancing restrictions will hit service users like Gail hard.

"Tenants most likely will mix in their own flats, but it's about how we keep the engagement with the outside world for them," Anita says.

"Our tenants are among the most vulnerable and we need to keep morale high - this is a very troubled time for everybody."

‘To go into retreat you have to have a structure, otherwise it is chaos’

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Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus

Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus

Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus

Jesuit priest Father Brendan McManus (58) trains people in Ignatian spirituality, which is rooted in the experiences of Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a Basque aristocrat whose conversion to a fervent Christian faith began while he was recovering from war wounds. Part of that training is a 30-day silent retreat focused on prayer and reflection on the life of Christ.

"This is a key part of our training, we would do this 30-day silent retreat which is almost like solitary confinement and we do a series of meditations on the life of Christ as part of that," says Fr McManus.

"It's like a remake of the person - getting to know yourself is one of the big things and you see yourself in a new light with all your faults and frailties. There is no running away - you can't get away from yourself.

"The first bit is quite difficult -you're slowing down and you stop escaping or distracting yourself into entertainment or music. There is nowhere to run."

The retreat is based on the experiences of Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola who underwent a conversion experience when he was in isolation recovering from a war wound.

Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide practice the silent retreat which includes a series of prayers and reflections under the daily guidance of a spiritual director in a process that moves from purification to illumination and unification.

A day in the retreat begins with a silent breakfast, eating alone at a table in a room with others, followed by a daily routine including five hours of meditation split into five periods, each with an introductory prayer, contemplation of a piece of scripture and reflection on that scripture in the light of your own life and experience, identifying the aspects that are life-giving (consolation) and death-giving (desolation). The day will typically include a meeting with your spiritual director and some exercise, such as a walk. Later, there may be a mass and at the end of the day comes the Examen, a review of the day you have just experienced.

"It's like a review where you're going back over the day you've just lived and you replay it - it's like watching the video of your day. You are looking for those moments of light, darkness, consolation and desolation, life and death," Fr McManus says.

But the key thing is the routine, he says. "In order to go into retreat you have to have a structure, otherwise it's chaos, really tough. You have to put in a structure of how you're going to do it," he says.

Fr McManus says that his personal experiences would have led him to become caught up in "crushing" thoughts about his upbringing and use of the silent retreat helped him to develop perspective, heal the wounds and move on.

"The advantages are enormous and self-knowledge is the big thing. You suddenly get a sense of this God that is close to me and has walked with me all along my life journey and has good things in store for me," he says.

The process has enabled him to change the way he lives his life, reset his values and help him live his life in a more constructive and compassionate way while becoming reconciled with his story.

"It's just trying to constructively use the time, realising there is a process going on here. It's a U-shaped steep curve. Don't be put off, tackle the awful unpleasant feelings - there is a breakthrough that happens and it brings peace of mind," he says.

The silent retreat may have lessons for ordinary people who are now forced to self-isolate due to the coronavirus, bringing an opportunity to realise the humanness of your body and its limits and possibilities, he says.

"Use it as a chance to spring clean - to clear out the house. It's difficult and it takes a lot of work but you get a new start, a new energy and a new direction," he says.

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