Northern Ireland news

UTV documentary tells of young Belfast woman's lasting legacy to promote stem cell donation

The tragic but inspirational story of a young west Belfast woman whose cancer battle helped raise awareness of the stem cell register will be told in a moving UTV documentary tonight. Suzanne McGonagle reports.

Eimear Gooderham (Smyth) died in 2019, aged just 25

EIMEAR Gooderham (née Smyth) was just 25 when she died peacefully in hospital with her family at her bedside.

It was just a week after she had married Phillip Gooderham in hospital and she was buried in the wedding dress she never got to wear.

Almost two years on, her family hope a television documentary about Eimear - a make-up artist from the Coolnasilla area of west Belfast - will help create a positive and lasting legacy in her memory.

The programme, due to be broadcast on UTV and presented by journalist Sarah Clarke, features Eimear's own video diaries, which she had hoped would raise awareness of a campaign for stem cell donors that she launched before her death.

Ms Clarke said the documentary had aimed to "follow Eimear's journey, treatment and her recovery".

"She was very open about her battle and while a lot of the programme is distressing, it shows how courageous Eimear was," she said.

Eimear was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, in September 2016.

She underwent 12 cycles of intensive chemotherapy and was given the all-clear in spring 2017.

But the disease returned and in December that year, Eimear was treated with an autologous stem cell transplant, intensive chemotherapy and her own stem cells returned afterwards to rescue her bone marrow from the effect of the treatment.

Months later she was given the good news she was in remission, but the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma returned again and doctors said her best chance of survival was another stem cell transplant - this time from a donor.

With neither of her siblings a match, she desperately needed to find a stem cell donor.

Eimear and her father Sean launched an appeal to raise awareness of the stem cell register, which allows donors of the correct tissue types to be matched with patients.

Their campaign saw the number of people joining the register in Northern Ireland soar.

Determined to use her own experience to help others, Eimear began filming videos on her phone for the UTV documentary.

Her desire to show her cancer battle as well as her upbeat outlook on life are reflected in the diaries, with many filmed as she underwent treatment.

Speaking ahead of the broadcast tonight, Ms Clarke said her own family's cancer battle had also inspired her to tell Eimear's story.

"In 2017, my nephew Jack was diagnosed with leukaemia, aged just 15," she said.

"I remember my brother Simon, who is a doctor, saying they may have to pursue a stem cell transplant. He knew how difficult it would be to find a match and to endure.

"Fortunately Jack didn't need it, but he had to undergo a year of intensive chemo and four years of maintenance chemo.

"It was rough and a very difficult period and thankfully he's now in remission, but it made me relate to Eimear and Séan's appeal."

On October 31 2018 - a year before Eimear and Phillip had planned to marry - she received her stem cell transplant.

A video extract of the days after the operation shows Eimear describe how "it's been really rough", as the donor's cells began attacking her cells - a condition known as graft versus host disease.

Despite being discharged from hospital, months later she became ill again with complications associated with the transplant - she was losing her brave battle.

Phillip tells the programme: "I wanted to tell her it was going to be ok, but I didn't want to lie to her. I wanted it to be over so she wasn't in pain".

In June 2019, the couple tied the knot and Eimear got "her final wish".

"We had had it planned, we had to cancel our wedding so it was, in the most horrific circumstances, the nicest way to end her life, by her getting her final wish," said Phillip.

Eimear died on June 27 2019.

Since then her family have continued to campaign to raise awareness of stem cell donation.

Her father Sean said they hope the programme will "highlight the need for more people in Northern Ireland to join the stem cell donor register, especially young men aged between 16 and 30".

Sarah also said while the documentary is "not exactly the one we set out to make, it’s still one of hope and courage".

"It was Eimear’s dying wish to raise awareness of stem cell donation and to help further research into the treatment to help others," she said.

"She was adamant she wanted people to sign the register and raise awareness. Her family feel the onus is now on them to continue this.

"The programme pays tribute to a courageous young woman and her family's desire to create a positive and lasting legacy in her memory."

Up Close: Eimear’s Wish is on UTV at 10.45pm.

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