Belfast Telegraph

Maeve broke her spine on trek in the Mournes - now she takes on Great Wall of China

By Gillian Halliday

Nearly four years ago she was lying on the side of a mountain in the Mournes, in agonising pain and unable to move, and had broken her spine in two places.

Such was the extent of Co Down woman Maeve O'Neill's injuries, consultants at the Royal Victoria Hospital told her they were astonished that her spinal cord had escaped intact.

Today, and three spinal operations later, the 22-year-old is not only on her way back to full strength, but she's busy training so she can walk the Great Wall of China. Every step of the six-day journey will be for the "unsung heroes" of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team (MMRT) who came to her aid.

Scout adventure leader Maeve, from Holywood, was volunteering on an expedition with the 10th Antrim Scout group on November 8, 2014, when disaster struck around mid-afternoon as she was attempting to descend from the summit of Slieve Meelbeg, close to the Happy Valley.

A fall caused her to tumble down the mountainside, leading her to collide with a boulder, which sent her flying over it mid-air. She eventually landed five feet below it, on her back. Two of her friends, Mark Gillespie and Conor McGeough, rushed to her aid.

"I just couldn't breathe at all," Maeve - who was aged just 19 at the time - recalls of the initial moments following impact. "There was a big group of us as it was part of a county-wide event, and they were taken off the mountain as Mark and Conor rang the rescue team.

"There was a wait of two hours before they got to us. It was a very strange feeling. On the one hand it felt like the longest wait of my life, and on the other hand it didn't feel that long at all.

"Both Mark and Conor were amazing. I felt so, so cold, even though I was told later that my temperature was fine, and they both gave me their clothes to keep me warm.

"They ended up with hypothermia."

Although she remained conscious throughout her ordeal, the Queen's University student - who is set to graduate next month with a degree in Geography - says she can remember very little of the actual rescue itself. "I was stretchered off the mountain on a spinal board. I don't remember much but I know that the team drilled into the mountain to use ropes to get me down," she said.

Fourteen members of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team were involved in helping Maeve off the mountain, in a painstakingly slow rescue, but one that ensured that by early evening she was placed in the care of an ambulance crew, which then rushed her to hospital.

There she found out she had broken two of her vertebrae completely in two.

"Several spinal surgeons made me aware of how lucky I was to not have damaged my spinal cord. They were astonished at the fact that I had been transported from the top of a mountain with such serious injuries.

"My injuries were serious, but could have been much more life-altering."

And that's why Maeve feels such a deep sense of gratitude to her rescuers. "I've to remind myself of how much worse that day could have ended had it not been for the amazing work of the rescue team," she said.

Maeve decided she would repay them for helping her that day. Remembering that one of her past teachers had trekked along the Great Wall of China, it seemed like the perfect choice for her too. First, however, she had to focus on her own health.

"For a long time I wasn't able to do a lot myself. I couldn't even take a shower without help, so I was living with my parents. I still have a lot of pain now."

Maeve is currently building up her strength so she can take on her challenge this autumn. A JustGiving page she set up for the trek raised nearly £500 in days - although Maeve is hoping to reach her target of £1,000.

"I'm so grateful for everything the team did for me," she added.

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