'Miracle' children's recovery after being hit by car as they stepped off school bus
A CO Antrim woman who was told that "only a miracle" would save the lives of her two children after they were knocked down getting off a school bus a year ago today, has told how their recovery astounded doctors.
Amelia O'Neill said her family were counting their blessings and believe they are "the luckiest people in the world".
The mother-of-three recalled how medics told her and her husband, Kevin to "expect the worst" after Fintan (15) and Mary (13) were struck by a car on the Staffordstown Road, between Randalstown and Toome, on January 17 last year.
The siblings were returning home from St Patrick's College in Maghera and had just stepped off a school bus when they were hit at around 4.40pm.
Mrs O'Neill said it is only the support and "kindness of other people" that has carried her family through the traumatic aftermath of the crash, which saw doctors have to resuscitate Fintan and at one point declare that Mary may be brain dead.
Fintan suffered 11 broken bones, including a broken bone in his neck, broken ribs, a broken collar bone and two broken bones in his leg.
He also sustained a bleed on the brain and when he reached A&E at Antrim Area Hospital, his lung collapsed and he had to be resuscitated.
Mary suffered serious head injuries and a broken wrist.
Mrs O'Neill, who also has a six year-old daughter, told how she had been waiting nearby to pick her children up from the school bus - but didn't see what happened.
"I was sitting on the side of the road as I do all the time," she said.
"Usually as a rule I see that bus every day but that day, there was a crossword book in the car and Katie was in the back and I gave her my phone and I looked at the crossword and I didn't see anything."
On hearing what had happened she jumped from the car and found her two children on the road.
"I was the first one there. I knelt down beside them. He was wrapped around her. They were holding on to each other.
"I looked into both their eyes. I knew when I looked into Fintan's eyes, they were OK and when I looked into Mary's eyes, I knew that one of them was gone, as such".
After initially being taken to Antrim Area Hospital - where Mary had been given the Last Rites - the siblings were transferred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Mary was taken for an emergency splenectomy and on coming out of surgery, was put into a room with her brother in the intensive care unit.
Doctors then informed Amelia and Kevin O'Neill that "only a miracle" was going to save Mary.
Both children survived the night as their parents kept a bedside vigil.
Mrs O'Neill told how the community rallied in the following days and after spending two nights in hospital she went home to attend a Rosary for the children, which had been organised by their GAA club, Kickhams Creggan GAC in Randalstown.
While there she recalled receiving a phone call from the hospital to say that Mary "wasn't good" and she should come back.
"They said to expect the worst," she said and recalled that the hospital spoke to them about possible organ donation.
"She came through the night and there was a boy came up with a Relic of Padre Pio. He blessed her and prayed with her and she came through that night," she said.
After almost three week in intensive care however doctors told the O'Neills there was no hope for their daughter.
"They suspected Mary was brain dead. They couldn't declare her brain dead until the stuff (medication they were administering) was out of her body and it was taking weeks."
However despite their worst fears Mary started "to move, twitch her eyes and her arm started to move".
The family were "on a high" and hoping that things would improve but Mrs O'Neill said doctors urged caution.
"We don't think you understand," she said they told the family. "Yes, Mary may still live but she is not going to get out of the bed. She's not going to talk, she's not going to walk, she's not going to feed, she's not going to do any of these things'. They said she was just going to stay in that bed the rest of her life."
The O'Neill's then had to make a heartbreaking decision.
"So we sat down and we talked about it," she said.
"There was a DNR (do not resuscitate) on her and we said the best thing to do was to remove the breathing machine.
"They said she was starting a breathe or finishing a breathe but she wasn't doing the full breathe. This was just all Mary was going to do and it wouldn't have been the life that she would have wanted and it wasn't the life we wanted for her."
However, when doctors turned off the ventilator, Mary took a breathe herself but "didn't do much more for a long time after that, she just lay there," Mrs O'Neill said.
Doctors told the family not to expect it to get any better. But when Mary was later moved on to a ward she "came on leaps and bounds".
"When she went down into the ward, I don't know what happened," Mrs O'Neill said.
"She just one day stopped shaking and started to make movements. She wasn't talking or anything but I gave her a white board and said `Mary can you write? and she wrote `Yes'.
"She continued to write and the occupational therapist came down and started teaching her sign language."
Her progress continued and by August she was discharged from hospital in a wheelchair but is now able to walk unaided.
A year Fintan and Mary are both at home - and continuing to improve.
While Fintan has returned to St Patrick's College, Mary - who suffered brain injuries and has limited movement on her left side - has started Fleming Fulton School in Belfast.
Mrs O'Neill said the family are counting their blessings and feel like the "luckiest people in the world".
"We didn't expect Mary to be here," she said.
"At times in the hospital, we thought well, she might be here but she's different, she's not going to be doing anything.
"She has astounded everybody. She's just a miracle. I think for Mary, it wasn't the life we had planned for her but it's a good life."
Mrs O'Neill said she and her husband are indebted to all those who helped them through the past year.
She is especially thankful to Kickhams Creggan GAC who continued its Rosary for months after the accident and who held a fundraiser for the family, which raised more than £40,000.
"Although the bulk of the money went to the hospitals, we couldn't have got by this year. For the first four weeks, we were at the hospital constantly," she said.
"Neither of us was working and we really appreciated the club. I couldn't have faulted it in any single way. We're so grateful for it".
She added: "We have cards from as far away as America. We had them from everywhere. We have a big, massive storage box and it's full with cards.
"We have a picture of two wee children in an African school with a picture saying `We prayed for Fintan and Mary today'. It just seemed to go around the world."
The family also paid tribute to the "fantastic" medical teams who cared for Fintan and Mary.
"We wouldn't have been here without them," she said.
"They stayed hours behind their time just to sit with us. They always had time to stop and talk to Mary. They were so dedicated. They're so brilliant.
"We can't thank them enough and it's not just the nurses and the doctors. Even the cleaners came over to talk to Mary, the teachers, the play therapists.
"I think everybody has carried us through. We couldn't have coped. It is just the kindness of people".
Mrs O'Neill said the family were now looking to the future.
"I feel a year ago, we were just the unluckiest people in the world and some people probably looked at us and said `God love them'," she said.
"But we are the luckiest people in the world because we could have been sitting here today with two children instead of three. We do feel very, very lucky".
I look at the positive side of life
FINTAN O'Neill says that despite the traumatic events of last year he now looks at the "positive side of life".
A year after he and his sister were knocked down by a car Fintan is now back playing football and enjoying life.
The 15 year-old returned to school at St Patrick's College in Maghera, Co Derry in September.
Speaking for the first time, the teenager said he is "grateful" for all those who helped him and his family through the past year.
"We wouldn't be as happy as we are now if they were not there for us," he said.
"I feel overwhelmed... I'm just thankful to everyone who helped me along the way".
Among some of the highlights in the past 12 months are receiving 82 Valentine cards last February as he recovered from his injuries and also travelling to Florida with other children thanks to the charity Dreamflight.
"I loved every minute of it," he said.
"I didn't want to come home. I made so many new friends as well. I'm still in touch with a few of them.
He added: "I think it's changed me massively. I look at the positive side of life. I don't look at the bad stuff."
Both Fintan and his sister were recently recognised for their efforts in overcoming their ordeal.
The siblings were honoured for their bravery, hard work and positive attitude and received awards at the Belfast Hospital School annual prize-giving event.
Fintan has also been named a Child of Courage.
Mary is also looking to the future by continuing to attend the local youth club and drama group.
Although she still has to attend hospital, she loves spending time with her friends and pets - Bella, her dog and Charlie, her guinea pig.
"When I get out of the hospital, I'm like... freedom," she said.
"I want to be an author".