“Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in the muscles.”
The above quote is one from American Football player and actor Alex Karras.
These are words that resonate greatly for Lanesboro teenager, Stephen Donohoe, who has a most extraordinary story to tell, one that highlights the veracity of the above quote.
In October 2010, a group of scouts from Lanesboro went kayaking to mark the re-opening of the canal in Killashee.
After hours on the water, and further time spent jumping into and swimming in it, the scouts went home happy and tired after a long and enjoyable day. For Stephen Donohoe, the tiredness seemed to last longer.
His mother Fiona recounts the story: “I remember a couple of days after the kayaking, he was saying, ‘Mum, my legs are really sore’. I thought nothing of it, until I called him from bed the following Sunday, where he said he couldn’t move his legs. He was paralysed form the waist down.”
Stephen had spent the day in the canal with no footwear, as he had brought the wrong ones. Laced runners, the type of shoe Stephen had, were not permitted - should he capsize, the laces could get caught in the kayak. Stephen’s reaction to his paralysis was one of shock.
“It was a shock at first, really was a shock. I didn’t really know what to do. I went to the local GP, and I could hardly walk in. He sent me straight to Mullingar Hospital, and I remember him and my dad had to carry me out to the car.”
When Stephen reached the hospital, the sudden loss of power in his legs mystified the doctors.
“I was in A&E for a few hours, and they didn’t really know what was wrong with me. They did blood tests, everything came back clear. They decided to keep me in overnight for more tests.”
Stephen was forced to spend a month in hospital. “It was tough, but the nurses were nice.”
A student of Mercy Secondary School, Ballymahon, Stephen was eager to return to school and to some semblance of normality.
“I returned home from hospital on a Thursday, and was back in school the following Monday.”
Going back to school in a wheelchair was a huge adjustment for him. “You don’t realise what people in wheelchairs are going through until it affects you. In school I had to ask people to carry my bag, and even getting through busy corridors was hard.”
He said that while his friends were initially shocked, they were very supportive. Stephen did not allow his being in a wheelchair to totally put his life on hold. Through his persistence, positive attitude and the support of his friends, family and teachers, doors opened for him.
“I went everywhere with my friends, to the zoo, discos and on day trips”.
Through his activity while in a wheelchair he became a DJ, and is making great strides. “Every few weeks I play in the Attic Youth Club in Longford, and once every three weeks I support Fergal D’Arcy in the Abbey Hotel, Roscommon. Also, last May, I played to 3,000 people at the Hype youth festival.”
Stephen’s DJ alias is ‘I’m Stevieful’, and can be found on Facebook. Stephen even continued kayaking.
The illness remained a mystery until a medical professional in Charlestown diagnosed Stephen as having severe nerve damage in his legs, caused by an “unknown virus”. The youngster was told by all doctors and physios that, with proper care and physical therapy, he would walk again.
Stephen faced a huge task in walking again, both physically and mentally. He describes the physio as being, at times, excruciating. He had to learn to walk again by balancing himself on two bars, and walking between them.
“At the start it was hard. Sometimes I got annoyed with people, and it was really tiring. Sometimes, going back to school, I would be really tired.”
At times, the intense physiotherapy and the slow progress affected Stephen.
“When I was really down, I thought I would never get walking again.”
Yet he summoned extraordinary mental strength to keep on working hard. “There was always something keeping me going to work hard and get out of that chair.”
When asked about what exactly that ‘something’ was, he said he drew upon the strength of family and friends who told him, “Stephen, you will walk again.”
After first sitting in a wheelchair on the October 8th 2010, Stephen Donohoe walked again on March 21st this year.
“It’s brilliant to be walking again. It is great being able to walk somewhere and do my own thing.”
He is back walking normally, although sometimes struggles slightly to make it upstairs. He still does physical exercises every day to help propel him back to full strength.
Stephen describes his achievement of walking again as the greatest achievement of his life. In future years, he wishes to do charity work to help others in wheelchairs.
“When I’m older I want to help people in wheelchairs, I want to do charity work. I want to share my story with others.”
Stephen Donohoe spent almost 18 months with limited physical strength, but his mental strength never wavered.
When asked if he had advice for anybody in a similar position to the one he was in, he said, “Keep your head up and keep going, don’t say you’ll never get out of that chair.”