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NI ex-pat inspired to take on Everest challenge after her dad's life-changing accident

Frances at base camp
Frances at base camp
Frank with Frances
Frank with Frances
Frank with wife Mary
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

A phone call one afternoon to Frances Carlisle from her brother Mark broke the news that would change their family's lives for ever.

Frances and her dad Francis, known as Frank, from Markethill, were more like best friends than father and daughter.

Frances works in Sydney at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and has been living there for 15 years, but they were still incredibly close.

"The relationship was more like a friendship rather than father-daughter one," she said.

"We talked in the morning, we talked at night and we used to meet in places on holidays."

But on March 21 last year, everything changed just months before Frank was due to celebrate his 70th birthday on July 14.

They had planned to travel to the US together as Frank had dreamed of visiting Nashville, Tennessee, but it was not to be.

He suffered a devastating accident at work when a large amount of steel fell on his head from a height.

The truck driver was unconscious for two hours before anyone found him.

Frances said: "He worked for himself and it happened about 3.30pm in the afternoon.

"He was found a couple of hours later when one of the staff from the yard drove past and wondered why the gates were still open."

Frank was semi-retired when the accident occurred.

Frances said: "I was still in work. It was about 5.45pm in the afternoon, Sydney time, when my brother Mark rang me.

"I just knew there was something not right and I sat down and held on to my desk.

"I answered the phone and said, 'What's wrong?' and he said, 'Who told you?'.

"I said, 'Tell me now', and he said, 'Daddy's had an accident'."

Frances, who went into a state of shock, could not get a flight home until the next day.

In that time her dad had been moved from Craigavon Area Hospital to the Royal Victoria Hospital's intensive care unit, where he was to undergo surgery.

The family were told there was a 95% chance he would not survive. Thankfully, he did.

Frances spent the next 31 days in intensive care with her father and a further 10 days in the high dependency unit with him.

"It was just a case of talking to him, telling him stories and trying to revive any movement," she said.

"He was unrecognisable due to the blow to the head and the extent of the surgery, which removed half of his skull. He is now blind in his left eye."

But she added: "They did an amazing job in saving him."

Frank was then moved to Craigavon Area Hospital and spent a further four months having rehabilitation, assessment and testing.

However, such was the extent of his injuries that it was determined he had to have full-time specialist care in a home.

This news and the meeting with the health professionals is something Frances will never forget.

It was a difficult decision for the family to make, especially for her mother Mary (69), who Frances said had been "numb" to the situation. Frances offered to be her father's full-time carer, but that was not an option because he needed at least two people and 24-hour care.

This prompted her to want to raise awareness of brain injuries and the aftercare process.

Frances said her dad was now in a brilliant care home, but he is the only person there because of a brain injury.

"Anyone else is there for old age and dementia," she explained.

"Sometimes my father would have the ability to understand that he's not on the same sort of page as these other people are."

Frances later came up with the idea of trekking to Mount Everest Base Camp in order to raise awareness and funds for the life-saving services of Revive, which supports the work of the regional intensive care unit and the high dependency unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

She flew to Nepal on March 18 and started the climb on the anniversary of her father's accident on March 21, finishing up 10 days later on March 31.

To prepare for the challenge, she had been getting up at 4.30am and training twice a day for four months to be physically strong enough to climb.

She said: "It was very tough. You have a limitation of 15 kilos you can carry with you for your living supplies.

"There are organised tea huts on the climb, but you are limited to what you can eat or drink because nothing is fresh.

"Anything you get on the trek, any produce, is flown in from the mainland to the base of the mountain and then it's transported by yaks or donkeys.

"It really makes your diet and nutrition suffer."

It was extra tough on the nutrition side for Frances because she has Crohn's disease.

She said: "It was an absolutely freezing temperature. Your water bottle is frozen when you are drinking it through the night.

"There were rodents running around the tent at night, we were sleeping on 8x4 boards raised in the ground and we had three layers of clothing, including the sleeping bag."

But she also admitted completing the challenge was a life-changing experience.

"I found climbing up good and really enjoyed it, but coming down I found really, really difficult," she explained.

"The descent is three days downhill, as opposed to taking seven days to get up, and it's something you can be proud of.

"I look at it that it's 20% fitness, 30% mindset and the other 50% is if you can deal with the acclimatisation to the altitude."

The trek was expected to take 12 days, but Frances completed it in 10, thanks to her training, fitness and mindset.

She left a model of a Volvo truck there as a memory - because that is what her dad had owned all his life.

Frank is aware of what his daughter did, but he doesn't fully grasp the extent of it and that it was for him.

But he was very proud when Frances appeared in the Ulster Gazette after completing the climb.

"He doesn't get to the extent of what it is, really," she said.

"He saw the Ulster Gazette clipping and he was showing people and saying, 'That's my daughter'.

"But he doesn't understand that it was for him and the purpose of helping people with brain injuries because he doesn't believe he's in a care home.

"He thinks that he's in a hospital because he's lost the sight in his eye.

"It's something that he knows about, but the extent to which he understands, it's quite hard to know."

Frances is determined to keep raising awareness and will be taking on a half-marathon in the next few weeks.

She has also vowed to keep up their routine chats - and while she was doing the trek it was the first time she was not in constant touch with her dad.

She said: "I still do call him with the routine I had prior to the accident - every morning, every night.

"This was the first time I had no contact with him. With being so remote and limited, you could get a connection to wifi.

"I was lucky enough that some friends had been touching base with him every day to keep him aware of what was going on.

"It's very hard to break that routine when it's something I committed myself to and may be something that will help in progress, in the hope that there may be some recovery to his brain, and I won't give up on that on a daily basis.

"Research has proven that even after 10 years people can have a difference in their recovery and might become a little more aware."

Overall, the trauma has brought the family closer together.

"It's something that would bring anyone closer together - it's been a long road," Frances said.

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