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*Donna McGettigan holds a special photograph of her with the late Noel Phelan. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Life will never be the same for Shannon woman Donna McGettigan who was denied the opportunity of having a proper wedding and also from giving her late husband a fitting send-off.

Everyone in their own mind has ideas of what a family carer does from day to day. It is not until the situation hits your own front door that you become fully aware of exactly what is entailed in the role, Donna reflected. “Although I thought I knew the life of a family carer, little did I know how hard it was until I was thrown into it by a disease called cancer”.

Her partner Noel had been sick for some time, he was a frequent visitor to hospital. “We had guessed he was gravely ill bit our lives were on hold until we got a diagnosis”. Then they were informed Noel had pancreatic cancer and between three to six months left to live, “such a short sentence but with long ramifications”.

Marriage had been considered by the couple, his diagnosis accelerated their plans and on July 29th they tied the knot. Restrictions prevented the possibility of their close friends and family joining them for such a momentous occasion, Donna’s son Jamie and Noel’s daughter Louise were their only witnesses. She vividly recalls crying the words ‘I do’ on the occasion.

Unfortunately there was no honeymoon bliss for the newly-weds, instead Donna found herself as Noel’s wife and carer, “it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do,” she admitted. “I had to disconnect in order to be able to carry out my duties while watching someone I loved, someone I wanted to grow old with waste away in pain at times, suffering. As Noel slowly lost abilities, my life as a carer became 24/7, having to do simple things like roll his cigarettes, holding Noel while he cried, laughing with him at memories, sometimes being so exhausted that you just stand in the shower crying, denied respite due to COVID-19, only allowing a small bubble to help which I will be eternally grateful for”.

In October, they were both diagnosed with COVID-19. She lamented “the whole debacle” whereby she was denied a test until Noel was deemed positive. When she was offered a test, Donna had to leave Noel “at home on his own, terminally ill and with COVID-19, so I could drive to Ennis to be tested. We beat COVID-19 despite the odds, it did however take its toll, it stole our energy”.

Donna McGettigan holds a special photograph of her with the late Noel Phelan. Photograph: Joe Buckley

When restrictions intensified life became tougher for the couple. The Belfast native said it denied Noel’s friends and family the chance “to come and say goodbye, to have that last chat, that last match, that last movie, that last time to say I love you”.

Around this time, a nurse from Milford Care Centre assisted Donna in caring for Noel as he required the attention of two people 24 hours a day. Sadly, their time together ended at the beginning of March when Noel died peacefully at home in Purcell Park.

Donna is content with her decision to have cared for Noel herself but looks back with anger on the precious moments they were deprived of. “While I do not regret keeping Noel at home and would do it all again if it meant I got to look into his eyes, I am so angry and frustrated that we were robbed of a big wedding, robbed by having everyone around in those final months, as a carer not even being considered in the vaccine rollout.

“But the cruellest, saddest thing was having only ten people at Noel’s funeral. Because we have not been strong on testing and tracing, vaccine roll out, people being able to fly in and out of our country, we had to tell some of Noel’s family that they could not attend his funeral, we will never get that time back, a big black hole sits in our lives and I never want to see anyone else have to go through that horrendous day again,” she told The Clare Echo.

Last January, Donna was chosen to fill the Clare County Council seat vacated by her dear friend and Sinn Féin colleague Mike McKee who also died from pancreatic cancer. Looking beyond the pandemic, she believed it was essential adequate supports are prepared to assist persons denied the traditional means of coping with death. “A lot of people will be coming out the other side of this pandemic with mental health issues, those who will not have closure due to not being able to attend a love ones funeral, family carers will need particular help to cope with all that they have and are going through”.

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