Belfast Telegraph

The big Saturday read: 'I'd rather spend my life caring for Stephen than having to visit his grave'

By Laurence White

As the New Year dawns, Toomebridge woman Yvonne McCoy has one special wish - that her brother Stephen, who was critically injured in the Kegworth air disaster, remains in relatively good health.

Stephen, 16 years old at the time and a promising boxer with Olympic potential, almost died in the crash that killed 47 people on January 8 1989, and was left with brain damage and paralysed down one side of his body.

But Yvonne, who cares for her brother full-time, says Stephen's health improved a great deal this year after he was put on a new medication regime.

"A doctor recommended that he should be given antibiotics three times a week to counter the constant stream of infections which he had to endure," she adds.

"That seems to have done the trick because he has not had to go to hospital on any occasions during the past year with infections. I hope that his health continues to hold up during the coming year."

Stephen, one of a family of nine, was on his first trip alone - to visit a cousin in England - when he boarded that fateful flight from Heathrow to Belfast.

While 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.

Yvonne, who was preparing for a night out when she heard of the crash, says: "My heart sinks every time I hear of a plane crash. I know what the relatives of those on board are going through as they wait to hear if any passengers survived.

"I often say a little prayer for the relatives of those on board the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared en route to Beijing.

"No trace of the plane or those on board has ever been found. I don't think we as a family could have coped if Stephen had never been found.

"I pray that that missing plane will be found one day. It might give the families some sort of closure".

Prayer is a big part of Yvonne's life. Every year, she and Stephen make the pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France.

"We go as part of a group from the Down and Connor Diocese, and there are nurses and doctors with us all the time," she says. "Stephen stays at a hospital in Lourdes and they wash and dress him and give him his medication. Helpers push his wheelchair to the grotto and church.

"It is like a holiday for Stephen, and it also gives me a break."

Yvonne also recalls with affection how the Rev Ian Paisley and his wife, Eileen, were a great support to the family on the night of the crash.

"My dad, Idris, and mum, Rose, had gone to Aldergrove airport to meet Stephen on his return from London when news of the crash broke," she says.

"Dr Paisley and his wife came there to meet the relatives. They spent a long time with mum and dad, and Dr Paisley promised them that he would find Stephen.

"He did when he went over to the hospital in England where the injured passengers had been taken, and he made sure that the police telephoned us to say that Stephen had survived but was very seriously ill.

"Years later, I had the opportunity to meet Dr Paisley, and I thanked him for his help and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"I know that he was a man who would help anyone regardless of who they were or what religion they were."

Stephen lay in a coma for 18 months. At one stage, doctors were contemplating switching off his life support machine.

Yvonne recalls: "His boxing trainer, who has died since, brought over a relic of Padre Pio and blessed Stephen.

"The next day, his big toe moved, and that convinced doctors to abandon any decision to switch off the life support."

It was three years before Stephen was able to leave hospital. He was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and later Massereene Hospital in Antrim - and Yvonne spent every day with him.

She was working as an auxiliary nurse in a home for the elderly before the crash and has put those skills to use every day since. "I look after Stephen in the day, washing and dressing him, feeding him and giving him his medication," Yvonne says. "My mum and dad, who live here, look after him at night if he needs help."

They live in a specially adapted home built with some of the £1.4m awarded to Stephen after he sued British Midlands in 1995.

The round-the-clock care needed for Stephen obviously places big demands on Yvonne and her parents, but she says: "We are very lucky to have him because he is so good to work with. It makes our job so much easier. We would rather be doing this than going to visit his grave. I think his health has improved. I believe his speech has improved.

"He has a great sense of humour - very wicked - and is just a pleasure to be with. I have never had a bad day with him."

But she admits that even days out require careful planning: "We have to make sure that any building we are going to - for example, a restaurant - is wheelchair-friendly and has facilities for people with disabilities.

"I have been pressing councillors in this area to get a public disabled toilet built in Toome. We live about a 10-minute walk outside the town, and in the good weather Stephen likes to go there, but if he requires the toilet then we have to rush home."

Stephen, she adds, still has great spirit: "He says he is going to walk again. That is a great positive attitude.

"I cannot believe how strong he has been after all he came through - not just the accident, but later operations and countless admissions to hospital with infections and other problems."

Does she ever wonder how her life would have panned out if Stephen had not been injured?

"I never think of what might have happened. I believe God has life laid out for us. I know that Stephen gets better care here than he would anywhere else. Although I have to say that the medical and nursing staff in all the hospitals where he has been treated over the past 27 years have been marvellous.

"I do think that if that crash had happened now, Stephen might not have survived, given the pressures on hospital staff nowadays and the infections that seem so common in hospitals.

"The staff work extremely hard and there has been great medical advances and new technology and we will always be extremely grateful for what they have done for Stephen.

"I am just hoping that the next year brings more good health for him and more progress".

Belfast Telegraph


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