Ex-teacher walked Camino for daughter who survived meningitis and GAA duo who didn't
Retired principal Sean McAuley recently walked 1,000kms over 40 days on the Camino De Santiago to raise funds for meningitis research. He tells Joanne Sweeney why his daughter Michele, who survived the disease, and young GAA stars Feargal McCaughan and Aaron Devlin, who sadly didn't, were in his thoughts every step of the way
IN THE Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela at the end of the centuries-old Camino pilgrimage trail, Sean McAuley draped identical purple T-shirts over the tomb containing the relics of St James, one of the 12 Apostles.
It was a silent, private tribute as the shirts bore the names of two young rising GAA stars cut down in their prime by meningitis, Feargal McCaughan and Aaron Devlin.
Feargal (18), was a hurler for Glen Rovers Armoy GAC who showed great promise for the senior game.
The Glenshesk teenager died at home in October 2010, having become unwell during his first week at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.
The GAA community was shocked once again when Derry and Ballinderry Shamrocks player Aaron (23) died in July 2015 after succumbing to an aggressive strain of meningitis.
Both deaths left their mark on Sean, a Creggan Kickhams GAC man who played for Antrim in the 1980s and who recently retired as principal of St Benedict’s College in Randalstown after 11 years.
The father-of-six, who had previously walked individual sections of the Camino de Santiago, wore the special T-shirts during his full 1,000km, 40-day trek to the beautiful cathedral in north-west Spain to ensure that the names of these young men were not forgotten, and also as a way of saying thanks for his daughter Michele surviving the disease.
Starting on August 31 from Manciet in France, he walked 25km (15.5 miles) each day, crossing the Spanish border and, from there, completing the 800km walk to the city of Santiago de Compostela, enjoying the beautiful scenery while meeting and befriending a diverse set of pilgrims along the way.
“For many Camino pilgrims, who are known as peregrinos in Spanish, it can be emotional when they reach the cathedral,” says Sean, whose trip raised funds for the Meningitis Research Foundation while helping to highlight just how indiscriminate and deadly meningitis can be.
“Some people laugh and are completely overjoyed and some get very emotional and cry.
“And yes, it was emotional for me as I thought about the families of Feargal and Aaron and other friends whose children were lucky enough to survive meningitis, and I thought of Michele.
“In some way, I guess I have felt a bit guilty that Michele survived and it’s a way for me to pay back.”
Sean knows only too well that he and his wife Sheila are fortunate that they did not lose their daughter to meningitis in 2010.
Two weeks after Feargal McCaughan’s death, the first-year QUB dentistry student and goalie for Creggan Camogie Club arrived back to the family home in Creggan, outside Randalstown, complaining of a severe headache.
“Michele had never missed a day of school in 14 years,” says Sean.
“She had just started Queen’s along with her twin brother Patrick and was staying in halls of residence. “Michele came home on a Friday night with a severe migraine and complaining of feeling nauseous.
“We did wonder about meningitis right away, mainly because we were aware of it, having learnt of the tragic death of Feargal through GAA circles, and because two of my other children were studying medicine at the time and had knowledge of the symptoms.”
Fortunately, Sean’s GP brother-in-law also suspected meningitis when Michele further deteriorated overnight.
“My brother-in-law knew right away that something was seriously wrong and contacted the hospital early on Saturday morning. As he arrived at our house, so did the ambulance, and by then, she was falling into a coma.
“Medical staff were waiting for her to arrive at Antrim Area Hospital and I’m sure they had a needle into her before she got in the door and after that, she was in a coma.
“We didn’t know how it was going to come out over the next few days but the staff at the hospital did a fantastic job and saved her life.
“Their speed of treatment was everything as every second counts when treating meningitis.”
Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
For Michele, now 24 and working as a dentist in Strabane, her father’s Camino trek was something that she fully supported.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” she says.
“It’s hard enough to do the walk for any reason but he did it for something close to his heart – I can imagine it was very emotional for him as well. It’s the greatest achievement that I think he’s done so far. He’s just amazing.”
Apart from some ringing and a slight hearing loss in one ear, Michele is fully recovered.
"I can't remember anything from when I was taken to hospital in the ambulance," she says.
"When I woke up a few days later, I was told by the doctors I was going to be fine so I never had to worry about it, whereas my family had to go through all that while I was happily sleeping.
"The whole ordeal was so much worse for them."
Since his return home three weeks ago, Sean has presented the special T-shirts to the McCaughan and Devlin families as keepsakes.
He is particularly grateful to the support from his sponsor McManus Brothers Surfacing and to Conor McCann, who helped him with the social media aspect of his fundraising campaign.
After 34 years in teaching, Sean plans to enjoy his retirement working three days a week as a delivery driver for a joinery firm while devoting his time to continuing with his charity efforts in Romania.
"I've walked the Camino for eight years now in various sections at 10 days at a time and I thought it's time that I did the whole thing.
"Funding research is so important as while there are vaccines for meningitis, there’s no vaccine for every strain and these need developed in order to save more lives."
:: To contribute to Sean McAuley's appeal to support the Meningitis Research Foundation, visit Justgiving.com/fundraising/john-mcauley3; see Meningitis.org for more information on the disease.
PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN FROM MENINGITIS
While the incidence of meningitis has reduced over the years due to effective vaccines, there is no one vaccine that prevents every strain of the disease.
The MenACWY vaccine is available free of charge from your GP to any young person under 25 starting university for the first time and who has not received it in school.
As an extra precaution, the MenB vaccine is available privately for parents who may wish to purchase it.
SYMPTOMS OF MENINGITIS
:: Fever and/or vomiting
:: Severe headache
:: Rash (anywhere on the body)
:: Stiff neck
:: Dislike of bright lights
:: Very sleep/vacant/difficult to wake
:: Seizures or fits may also be seen