Northern Ireland news

Flu brought on my girl's hidden diabetes

Carla O'Brien pictured in her hospital bed with her parents, Aine and Eoghan
Marie Louise McConville

THE mother of a talented young dancer has told how her "perfectly healthy" seven-year-old was left fighting for her life after a flu exacerbated an underlying but unknown diabetic condition.

Aine O'Brien is speaking out about her daughter Carla's case to warn other parents to keep a close eye on their children when they are sick.

The mother-of-four, who lives in Greenlough near Portglenone in Co Antrim, said her "very fit, strong" daughter, a champion Irish dancer, was sent home from school last month with flu-like symptoms.

After a few days the schoolgirl - who also does gymnastics and is a member of the Belfast School of Performing Arts - had not recovered and looked as though she had lost weight.

The following night Mrs O'Brien decided to sleep beside her daughter and noticed her breathing was erratic and her heart was racing.

Carla also began slurring her words, was not making sense and was disorientated.

The next day, Carla was referred to Antrim Area Hospital by the local medical centre.

Carla O'Brien pictured in her hospital bed at Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

When she reached hospital her condition had deteriorated so much that it was declared an emergency and at one point seven doctors were around her, trying to find a working vein.

Blood tests revealed Carla had type-one diabetes and the onset of the flu had put her young body under so much pressure it had aggravated the underlying condition.

It emerged that she had diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition which can occur in people with diabetes if their body starts to run out of insulin.

Ketoacidosis occurs when harmful compounds called ketones build up in the body. The condition can be life-threatening if not spotted and treated quickly.

Mrs O'Brien said because Carla was "fighting the flu, the ketoacidosis kicked in so quickly".

"I felt like throwing up," she said.

"My dad had to physically hold me and my mum and family started saying the Rosary.

"She was so small and thin in the bed and it just seemed she had such a battle and mountain to climb.

"In the back of my mind I knew she had a healthy body and diet to begin with and hopefully that would hold her."

Despite the medical team working to "gently" get fluid and insulin into Carla, her condition worsened and she had to be transferred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children where she was taken into intensive care.

"She wasn’t recognising us and losing alertness," Mrs O'Brien said.

Mother-of-four, Aine O'Brien described her seven-year-old daughter, Carla - a talented dancer, camog and gymnast - as "unbelievably brave"

"Her eyes were rolling back in her head. It was like she was looking at us and nothing was there and there was no response at all."

At this point, Mrs O'Brien and her husband Eoghan, a pharmacist in Portglenone, were told the next 24 hours were critical.

"It was just nail-biting," she said.

"They kept saying, `You have a very sick child here'."

Doctors then revealed that Carla was also suffering from pneumonia.

Her Co Meath-born mother, who is a former fiddle player with Michael Flatley's Lord of The Dance troupe and whose father Antóin Mac Gabhann is one of Ireland's best known traditional fiddlers - said her daughter has now begun to make "baby steps" towards getting better and is determined to get back fighting fit.

She said she will be transferred to Antrim Area Hospital once she has recovered from the pneumonia and will then begin diabetes education so she and her family can learn to manage her condition.

Mrs O'Brien said the family are indebted to all those who have supported them through their ordeal.

She said the family had received messages of support from near and far, especially the GAA community - Greenlough GAC, where the family are members and Geraldines Camogie Club in Portglenone, where Carla plays.

They are also thankful for all the prayers offered for Carla.

"One day you have your perfectly healthy little girl and then in the click of a finger, it was an emergency," she said.

"We have had constant messages... immediately people were saying prayers. I was getting messages from people I didn’t even know.

"The strength I got knowing there were hundreds of people out there praying for her was incredible. It gave me the strength to stay sane, to hold it together. Whenever I would go into her then, I was able to stay a little bit upbeat.

"To us, she’s just such a special wee child but after getting all those messages of support, you realise how many hearts she has touched.

"Everyone thinks their own child is special. It's only when you read the comments you realise she is so special to so many other people as well. It just lifted me so much."

Mrs O'Brien said she wanted to highlight Carla's experience to warn other parents as her daughter had not displayed any of the symptoms typically associated with type-one diabetes.

"We had absolutely no idea," she said.

"My husband is a pharmacist. He knows the symptoms of guzzling water and going to the toilet.

"It was only that I slept with her on the Monday night. I was huddled in beside her. I said: `This is not the flu'.

Mother-of-four, Aine O'Brien described her seven-year-old daughter, Carla - a talented dancer, camog and gymnast - as "unbelievably brave"

"I'm just hoping by doing this, that other parents will just keep it in the back of their mind that if their wee child gets the flu, it might be something more."

Mrs O'Brien praised the "absolutely outstanding" medical teams who looked after her daughter.

She described Carla as "unbelievably brave".

"She never complains and has been so determined to get better so she can get out to see her friends," she said.

"Carla and our family are now planning to move on from here and put this awful ordeal behind us.

"As a family we will ensure that Carla can live a normal seven-year-old life with her type-one diabetes and return to the activities she loves.

"Her determination, along with her caring school, dance, gymnastics and drama teachers will definitely enable this."

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TYPE-ONE DIABETES

AN ESTIMATED 85,000 people in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed with type-one diabetes.

However, it is thought that many others also have the condition but do not know it.

A lifelong condition, diabetes causes a person's blood sugar level to become too high.

The hormone insulin is responsible for controlling the amount of glucose in the blood but in the case of someone with type-one diabetes, their pancreas produces none and therefore they must inject themselves with insulin.

Typical symptoms include feeling very thirsty, passing urine more often, feeling very tired and unexplained weight loss.

These occur because a lack of insulin means glucose stays in the blood and is not used as fuel for energy.

The body then tries to reduce the blood glucose levels by getting rid of the excess glucose in the urine.

The more common type-two diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin to function properly, or the body's cells don't react to insulin.

It is often associated with obesity and tends to be diagnosed in older people, with treatment usually involving tablets as well as diet and lifestyle control.

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