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family's heartache Mum recalls 'worst ever' Christmas after daughter (3) received shock cancer diagnosis

'The fear of losing our little girl was overwhelming - our normal family life was destroyed."

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Katie-Mai is doing well after her cancer treatment

Katie-Mai is doing well after her cancer treatment

Katie-Mai is doing well after her cancer treatment

Christmas should be special but one mum recalls the worst festive season she could have ever imagined.

Kay McGonigle's daughter Katie-Mai has come out the healthy side of a heartbreaking battle for her life.

She tells the Sunday World: "It should have been a fantastic Christmas because all three of our children were finally old enough to really appreciate Santa. Jack was seven, Charlie was five, Katie-Mai was three.

"But then, in a hospital room full of tinsel, we heard those awful words, our little girl had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Katie-Mai had been pale and tired, and had unusual bruising on her legs, so on the 26th of November I took her to our GP and then to our local hospital in Clonmel.

"It is impossible to explain how quickly life can change. Within hours we were told that our beautiful little girl had a life-threatening illness and the following morning we were taken by ambulance to Crumlin Hospital in Dublin.

"We were walking down St John's cancer ward before we knew what was happening, looking at all the sick children, unable to believe this was happening to us," recalls Kay.

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Katie-Mai with brothers Jack and Charlie

Katie-Mai with brothers Jack and Charlie

Katie-Mai with brothers Jack and Charlie

"That devastating diagnosis turned our world upside down. I just cried and cried. We didn't get home for three weeks and by then, Christmas was around the corner.

Diagnosis

"Unknown to us, the teacher at Katie-Mai's crèche wrote to parents telling them what was happening and presents came flooding in for all three children so that the magic of Christmas still happened amid the horror of her diagnosis.

"Secret Santas from around our community made sure Christmas morning was the best it could be, despite the devastation our family was going through. We will never forget their kindness. That Christmas was the worst time of our lives."

After two and half years of treatment Katie-Mai was one of the lucky ones and her mum says she is the 'life and soul' of their house.

"We were lucky. She is eight now. She was due a check-up during Covid and they checked absolutely everything, and she is fine. We have been very protective of her during this time, as you can imagine."

The mum-of-three is urging people to donate to Barretstown as it was where they found sanctuary on two trips that offered the family a chance to forget. "Katie-Mai was so ill, we didn't know what to expect, and the fear of losing our little girl was overwhelming. Our normal family life was destroyed.

"We needed something to look forward to. We first experienced the magic of Barretstown through their amazing Outreach team in Crumlin Hospital. They brought some much-needed joy and laughter to long, hard days filled with chemo treatment and appointments.

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Katie-Mai and her family had a ball at Barretstown

Katie-Mai and her family had a ball at Barretstown

Katie-Mai and her family had a ball at Barretstown

"To see Katie-Mai smile with the Barretstown team while going through so much meant the world to us, and to her. We were then offered a chance to go to Barretstown and I knew my family needed it, so we jumped at the chance.

"The minute we drove through those gates, it was like we could feel the sense of adventure beginning. Although Katie-Mai was extremely ill, it was still the best thing that had happened to us.

"Our family had been blown apart by cancer. Barretstown reminded us how to be together again. We had two more amazing family trips to Barretstown. That time in Barretstown made us remember the magic of our own family again - how to laugh and have fun, when all we had gotten to know was fear and separation.

"The kids were having so much fun they didn't even realise that they were actually going through a specialised therapeutic recreation programme developed by Barretstown that has been proven to help with recovery for the whole family. As we all know, the secret of Santa is the magic. The secret of Barretstown is its magic too. It makes you forget the illness and the hardship; it brings you back together.

Protective

"Our two boys were in the sibling camp and the difference in them afterwards. Jack and Charlie had gone through so much and it was great for them to meet other kids who had been through the same trauma. The boys are doing great and they are very protective of their little sister."

Kay and her husband Shane, who is originally from Donegal, have since opened a cafe - named in celebration of their 'big girl' called Mai's Café in Market Place, Clonmel.

Barretstown was founded by Hollywood actor Paul Newman in 1994 and it offers free, specially designed camps and programmes for children and their families living with a serious illness - supported behind the scenes by 24 hour on site medical and nursing care. Barretstown's mission is to rebuild the lives of these children and their families.

The services provided to all children and families who come to Barretstown are entirely free of charge, so donations and fundraising efforts are vital.

To overcome Covid-19 restrictions, Barretstown has been offering its programmes virtually through Barretstown Live, an online interactive platform. This year Barretstown's income will be down by approximately 30 per cent.

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