‘I’m full of hope for 2021… I’m back teaching, there’s a new CF drug and we’ve got the Covid vaccine’

By | April 5, 2021

June 18, 2018: It was the day my final year college exam results were coming out and my heart was racing. I had always wanted to be a teacher. My mam had also been a teacher and we’ve always been close. It made sense that I would want to follow in her footsteps.

eceiving my acceptance letter to undertake a bachelor of education degree at Mary Immaculate College was a dream come true. It had been very tough getting there. These difficulties began the moment I first opened my lungs and let out a roar.

I was born in South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel. However, my stay was short-lived. Within an hour of being born, I was transferred first to hospital in Waterford and then onto Crumlin Hospital in Dublin, where I would spend the first three months of my life. I had two life-saving surgeries in my first few weeks of life. A week after my second surgery, at just six weeks old, it was confirmed to my parents that I had cystic fibrosis.

Growing up, I liked to think of myself as like ‘everyone else’. Although I had a life-long illness, I tried my best not to let it get in the way of what I wanted to achieve. At times this was a struggle, and I learned the hard way that I was not like everyone else. I always seemed to have a lot more plates spinning than my friends. From hospital appointments to hospital admissions, life was made all the more difficult trying to keep on top of my daily medications and routines, and trying to catch up on school work due to missed classes.

I knew college was still going to be an uphill battle, but I could do it. I was once told by a concerned doctor that he wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete my degree while managing my cystic fibrosis. This only made me more determined.

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I completed my final year exams while on three different types of intravenous antibiotics. Every day for weeks, I had the same routine. I would wake up and hook myself up to an antibiotic that would take an hour to go through. I would do my nebulisers, inhalers and take my array of different morning tablets with my breakfast. I would get dressed and jump in the car. My mam would drive me to Limerick to complete my exam for that day.

After the exam, I would have to take my second intravenous antibiotic of the day, head home, and study for my next exam. I would take my third intravenous antibiotic and repeat the morning ritual of tablets, nebulisers and inhalers before finally going to sleep, and then start the routine again the very next day.

When I was finally awarded a 2:1 honours degree, the next challenge was to figure out how to manage my cystic fibrosis as a teacher. I was delighted to get a job at Scoil Mhuire Newcastle National School. The school holds a special place of affection for my family as my mother taught there for 37 years. At times it has been a struggle and I have spent many nights in hospital correcting stacks of copies and preparing for lessons to try and keep on top of everything.

Last year was a milestone for my teaching career. In January, I became a permanent member of the staff, was appointed assistant principal and began teaching one of the special classes. I was developing a successful routine and keeping those ever-present plates spinning. Then Covid-19 shut down the country in March, and like most vulnerable people, I spent the remainder of the year cocooning and working remotely.

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So, 2020 swiftly changed from a year of triumphs to a year of trials and tribulations. As a teacher, I faced the challenge of establishing an online learning environment for my students where I could engage with them and support them in their learning.

As a cystic fibrosis patient, I faced the challenge of protecting myself from Covid-19. I stayed inside as much as possible — my only exception being for my daily exercise in the garden to keep myself healthy and out of hospital.

As a granddaughter, I faced several months of not being able to see my grandad, with whom I am extremely close. Like everyone else I longed for my normal, mundane life, and routines that I had taken for granted.

I kept myself positive throughout all of the lockdown by telling myself that this was a necessary, temporary measure. However, at the end of August last year when all of my colleagues were returning to work, and I had no information about when I would be permitted to return to school, I felt incredibly dejected. I did not know when I could go back, if at all. The days ahead that were to be spent cocooning at home, as I had been doing since March, stretched ahead of me further than I could see, with no end in sight. For all of my experience taking medication, this was an extra hard pill for me to swallow. However, swallow it I did, and I continued to support my students and school from home.

At the beginning of October, the dark clouds hovering over me finally lifted as the government guidelines were updated, and in consultation with my cystic fibrosis team, I was given the all-clear to return to work. While this was the day that I had been longing for, for so many months, the prospect of returning to work during the middle of a pandemic was still daunting. I wore my face mask from the time I entered the school building until the time I left. I had two screens in my classroom, one on a round table where I work with the children and one at my main desk. The days were long and draining, however, I was delighted to be in the classroom again, doing the job I love.

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Now 2021 has brought hope in the form of Kaftrio, which is a life-changing cystic fibrosis medication, the Covid-19 vaccine, and exciting beginnings as I moved into a new house. It has also brought lockdown number three and the need to stay apart from people to protect ourselves.

After several weeks of online learning, I have now been back in the classroom for a number of weeks. The delight on the children’s faces to be back in school was the boost we all needed. It is still an anxious time for me working during the middle of this continued pandemic, but I cling to my favourite quote to remain positive through this whirlwind — ‘This too, shall pass’.

Áine Stafford is a cystic fibrosis ambassador for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. Unfortunately, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland cannot proceed with their 65 Roses Day collections on Friday April 9 due to Covid-19. Please support people with cystic fibrosis on 65 Roses Day by donating online at 65rosesday.ie or taking part in a 65 Roses Challenge.

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