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'Seeing Sadie fight cancer prepared us for lockdown' - Family practised in social distancing after daughter's leukaemia battle


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Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan, her parents and younger sister Grace

Sadie Sullivan, her parents and younger sister Grace

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Sadie, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her family, ringing the bell at the end of treatment and with the medical team who looked after her.

Sadie Sullivan and her family, ringing the bell at the end of treatment and with the medical team who looked after her.

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

WHEN lockdown restrictions were introduced almost three months ago, the parents of little Sadie Sullivan were already prepared.

The north Belfast family had adapted their way of living after Sadie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia during Easter 2017 when she was just five years old.

With two years of treatment - intensive chemotherapy for six months, followed by a year-and-a-half of maintenance - ahead for their daughter, mum Pauline McCallion and dad Toby Sullivan took every measure possible to protect Sadie, whose immune system was compromised.

They limited visits to the house by family and friends, park play dates were only held in locations where there were no other children and trips to the supermarket were ruled out.

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Sadie Sullivan, her parents and younger sister Grace

Sadie Sullivan, her parents and younger sister Grace

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Sadie Sullivan, her parents and younger sister Grace

Sadie's school, Cavehill Primary, was put on alert and staff routinely informed her parents if any other child displayed symptoms of illness.

Living with restrictions became the new normal for the young family. Thankfully, Sadie's treatment ended last July and she's made huge progress.

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the lockdown which followed has seen Sadie, her parents and two younger sisters, Grace (5) and Meabh (15 months), return to a life of precautionary steps, but this time they're doing the best to protect not just Sadie, but the community and the NHS.

"We went into lockdown with our eyes wide open. We knew what it was like to live like that, being extra careful all the time, so we knew how to prepare," says Pauline. "Sadie has finished her treatment and is doing well. We're still looking out for her, taking the right precautions, but this time we're trying to be safe for everyone's sake."

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Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie Sullivan and her two younger sisters, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie, now eight, had been suffering from flu-like symptoms in the run-up to her diagnosis. When a rash and achy joints continued to bother her, she was sent to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

After tests showed she had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, she was admitted to the hospital straight away, remaining there for four weeks while undergoing treatments.

It was a fraught time for the family, who were supported throughout by the Children's Cancer Unit Charity.

"During the first six months of treatment, we were pretty much in isolation. We couldn't have people coming to the house, except our parents," explains Pauline.

"Each time we left the house, we had to plan ahead, packing hand sanitizers and gloves. During the maintenance period, we kept Sadie away from large crowds when we went out.

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Sadie Sullivan and her family, ringing the bell at the end of treatment and with the medical team who looked after her.

Sadie Sullivan and her family, ringing the bell at the end of treatment and with the medical team who looked after her.

Sadie Sullivan and her family, ringing the bell at the end of treatment and with the medical team who looked after her.

"We couldn't risk taking her to the supermarket, in case she touched something or someone coughed on her.

"We made a mental list of empty playgrounds. If other children arrived, Sadie and Grace both knew to come away. If we went out for a meal, we had to go to a quiet restaurant.

"Staff at her school were great. They would call us up if a child had a cold or stomach bug. It became our way of life.

"When lockdown started, our children were used to being told not to touch gates or gym equipment and to back off if other kids ran up to them."

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Sadie, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Sadie, Grace (five) and Meabh (15 months)

Because of Covid-19, Sadie, who was settling into school again when lockdown was announced, hasn't been for a hospital check-up since February, but doctors keep in touch with her parents and the last routine visit showed her bloods were good.

But Pauline stresses: "We are the lucky ones because she's finished treatment and her prognosis is very good. It must be so frightening for parents with children who are still going through treatment."

The family, who live in the Cavehill Road area, are calling on the public to help the Children's Cancer Unit Charity, which has launched a fundraising drive to help people affected by childhood cancer. The Miles for Smiles campaign challenges participants to walk, run or sprint one or more miles, raising vital funds to help put smiles on the faces of young patients of the Children's Cancer Unit.

Felix Mooney, chairman of the charity which supports the work of the medical team and staff at the Children's Haematology and Oncology Unit at the Royal, says: "For families affected by childhood cancer, the concept of social distancing and isolation is not new.

"However, that doesn't make it any less worrying or frightening and these already very vulnerable young children and their families still need support.

"Fundraising and the capacity for many charities to continue to provide their services have declined drastically.

"We hope that as many people as possible will come out to support our Miles for Smiles campaign, so we can all continue to do this very important task."

n To take part in the campaign, choose your challenge. Walk, clock or time your miles, tag the Children's Cancer Unit Charity in your photos, distances or times and text SMILES to 70490 to donate £5. For more information about the Miles for Smiles campaign and the work of the Children's Cancer Unit Charity, visit www.childrenscancerunit.com

Belfast Telegraph