GAA Football

Ballinderry Shamrocks' Jamie Joe Conway thriving and living his best life

Jamie Joe Conway had life-saving surgery earlier this year in Dublin and is thriving ahead of his first birthday next month Picture: Mal McCann

WHEN Jamie Joe came into this world last November, James Conway and Sonia Daly were in total shock. Jamie Joe was born with Down syndrome.

All the perceived worries of the world descended on the couple.

For Sonia, though, the shock and upset left her as soon as mother and baby touched.

“I have three boys,” says Sonia, “and I had three very straightforward pregnancies. Jamie Joe was just a wee bit different. He was an emergency C-section.

“Nothing was picked up at the 20-week scan. Up until my due date there was nothing suspected about his heart problem either. He was delivered in Craigavon. The hospital staff were lovely; I’d such a lovely experience…

“I was told in the theatre that Jamie had features of Down syndrome. For maybe 10 seconds it was a big shock to me, but as soon as that baby touched my skin he was no different. I was his mammy. I loved him and that was it.

“He is the happiest, loveable wee baby, he’s so good and, yes, it will take him a wee bit longer to reach his milestones but he’s doing really well and is getting stronger.”

For James, his emotions were all over the place after the birth of his fourth son. The Ballinderry clubman and former Derry midfielder remembers “crying on the ground” at the news.

“When the nurse said that to Sonia it shocked me and I broke down outside,” James says.

“I was very emotional. I remember lying on the ground and ringing my ma; she’s an emotional person and she just said: ‘Don’t be emotional James. It’s a gift from God. Only a slice of people get to have these kids’.

“Then I rang a couple of my friends and they were the same. I went back into the room a half-an-hour later and I apologised because I nearly thought I shouldn’t have cried. Sonia was the strongest. After that, it’s honestly just normal to me. Every morning he’s in giggling with us.”

Jamie Joe will celebrate his first birthday next month. Already, the latest addition to the Conway clan is a life lived.

A week after he was born, doctors picked up on a heart defect. It emerged Jamie Joe had a hole in his heart and a valve that needed repaired. Once one emotional rollercoaster ended another began for Sonia and James.

Four months later, the couple and their baby were in Dublin at the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin where their son had to undergo open-heart surgery.

It was the longest six hours of their lives.

James recalls handing over their baby to the nurses and doctors and in doing relinquished all sense of control. The surgery was a success but Jamie Joe required a further procedure to have a pacemaker fitted.

The stress of those weeks was unrelenting: intensive care, the transfer to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Waiting and waiting.

All the while edging closer to Ballinderry. Home. Where Jamie Joe’s life really began, with Senan (six), Jensen (four) and Seamus (three) – Ballinderry Shamrocks’ next generation – doting on their kid brother.

Being around those corridors and waiting rooms in Crumlin Hospital and the RVH made James and Sonia view life through an altogether different prism. Their son was coming out the other side. Not every family experienced a happy ending in those corridors.

“When I saw Jamie Joe after his operation I was upset, he was in a bad place but you soon realise there are others worse off,” says James, who also has a daughter, Isla (10).

“It was heart-breaking to see. I remember being up in the Royal and there was a wee cub in there who was three-and-a-half and he’s never been out of the hospital since he was born.

“His father stays every night and his mother comes in every morning. You imagine what that’s like for that family. Nobody knows what a family is going through.

“Once we got Jamie Joe home we never cried after it because we saw some bad cases at the hospital. We were the lucky ones, we were taking our cub up the road to a good place. That’s the way I look at it.”

James, who retired from playing Gaelic football four years ago, adds: “Jamie Joe is just a normal child to me. The rest of the boys just treat him the same. Look, he mightn’t be able to do certain things as he grows older but we’ll enjoy every challenge along the way.”

To celebrate his first birthday next month, the Conway clan have organised a special charity football match on Saturday, November 6 (Ballinderry Shamrocks, 5pm throw-in) to raise funds for the Children’s Heartbeat Trust and the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin – their way of saying thank you to the nurses, doctors and surgeons who aided Jamie Joe’s recovery and supported James and Sonia in their darkest moments.

“We just want to raise awareness of the work of the Children’s Heartbeat Trust and the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin and to help other families in the future,” says Sonia.

James, a seven-time county championship winner, double Ulster medallist and All-Ireland holder, has been overwhelmed by the amount of top players, past and present, who confirmed their participation in the upcoming fundraising match between the Ulster-winning Ballinderry team of 2013 and an Allstar Select, managed by Martin McKinless and Paddy Crozier, respectively.

Sean Cavanagh, Colm Cavanagh, Chris Lawn, Stephen Lawn, Niall Morgan, Stephen O’Neill, Enda McGinley, Brian McGuigan, Tommy McGuigan, Neil Gallagher, Eamon McGee, Benny Coulter, Aaron Kernan, John McEntee, Tony McEntee, Paul McFlynn, Johnny McBride, Paddy Bradley, Eoin Bradley, Fergal Doherty, Mark Lynch, John McKeever, Brian McGuckin, Shane O’Hagan and Marty McGrath will take part for the Allstar side.

“Ballinderry is just my life,” James says.

“I played for my county for years [2003 to 2012]…I retired from playing when I was 36 and I took the seniors for two years. Because of Jamie Joe this is the first year I’m not involved in football.

“There’s a man who was buried last Tuesday night (Damian Brown). Bellaghy played Newbridge and his cub (Declan) came on with seven minutes to go.

“The Newbridge and Bellaghy supporters and the neutrals all stood up and clapped. That’s what the GAA is about. That’s why I’m organising this game. Doesn’t matter how many fall-outs I’ve had with people on the football field, the GAA always comes together.

“That was always my experience of the GAA. Now I’m retired. There are boys playing in this game I went toe-to-toe with, some days it was nasty… but what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch. The GAA is my life. Our cubs are just mad about football. That’s what we were growing up, and that’s what I want for my children.”

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