Cathán Owens from Maghera received a liver transplant in August.
Six year-old Cathán Owens is just like any other young boy his age.
He loves Iron Man, playing for and supporting his local club Watty Grahams GAC Glen, and meeting up with his friends.
However, the last year has been extremely tough for the Maghera boy, who underwent a liver transplant in August.
Cathán, who turns seven on Boxing Day was just four and a half weeks-old when he was diagnosed with Biliary Atresia, a rare liver condition in which inflammation develops within the bile ducts leading to duct damage and scarring of the liver.
Cathán's proud parents Joanne and Paul were delighted when their fourth child, and only son, was born in 2014 weighing a healthy 8lb 6oz.
As the days went on however, Joanne noticed that something wasn't right.
He was jaundiced and blood tests soon confirmed that he had a rare liver diease.
At just six weeks-old, little Cathán was flown to Birmingham Children's Hospital where he underwent a Kasai procedure to remove the blocked bile ducts.
“Basically we were told then that Cathán at some stage of his life may need a transplant,” recalled mum Joanne.
Less than five months later, Cathán became ill again and was immediately flown to Birmingham where he was assessed for transplant.
Fortunately, Cathán's condition soon improved and doctors suspended him on the transplant list and after a year removed him from it completely as he was doing so well.
Nicknamed 'our wee warrior' by his family, Cathán had a lot of 'ups and downs' over the next few years suffering from ill health due to his condition.
He spent a lot of time in Antrim Area Hospital and was flown back and forth to Birmingham, via air ambulance, for treatment.
However, in February of this year, things took a turn for the worse for the St Mary's Glenview pupil.
“Because of his disease, his body wasn't absorbing vitamins and he needed extra vitamins injected into his muscles,” explained Joanne.
“Unfortunately a bug got in and caused a bad infection which shocked the liver and it didn't cope too well with it.”
Things started to go downhill rapidly and Cathán was transferred from Antrim Area Hospital to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
“He spent two weeks there being treated for the infection. He was in so much pain and then his tummy started swelling,” Joanne continued.
“One day, four of the staff said they wanted to speak to me and they took me into a room. At that stage they could see that Cathan's wee tummy was getting bigger. I knew that something wasn't right with his liver. They took me into the room and explained that they had done an ultrasound on Cathán and seen that a lot of fluid had gathered. They said that Birmingham wanted us over. We flew again by Air Ambulance and once we arrived we were hit with it that Cathán needed to be assessed straight away for transplant.
“The big worry was that this had happened him because he took this infection, his liver couldn't cope – what would happen if he took another infection?”
The medical experts in Birmingham got together and soon made the decision that they felt the time was right for Cathán to get an organ transplant.
“They just didn't want to leave him any longer just in case he took another infection,” said Joanne, also mum to Nicole (24), Clioná (18) and Tiarna-Rose (9).
Cathán spent another few weeks in Birmingham where he underwent a transplant assessment.
As part of the assessment, they had to remove eight of his teeth to get him prepared and make sure his body was healthy enough for him to go through a major operation.
When the Owens family returned home from Birmingham, Joanne said it was a case of 'a waiting game'.
Unfortunately, in the weeks that followed, things got progressively worse for Cathán.
Joanne said: “We noticed that his liver just wasn't working as well as it had been before this infection. He would have been more tired and just wasn't himself. I often wondered to myself how was his liver coping? His wee tummy was getting bigger and he would have been admitted again into hospital for further treatment and blood transfusions.
“We knew ourselves that the decision the team made in Birmingham was obviously the right one but we were just hoping and praying that a suitable liver would come up for Cathán. Another worry was the fact they had stopped doing live donors due to covid. That really worried me because when people would ask 'how long do you have to wait on an organ', the answer is 'how long is a piece of string?' So that was one of our main concerns.”
Despite everything Cathán was going through, he took it all in his stride and just like the meaning of his Irish name – he became a 'little battler'.
“We knew he was sick and different things were happening with him but Cathán just got on with it. He was just a wee warrior,” said Joanne.
Weeks later, the Owens family received the call they had been waiting for saying that an organ had become available for Cathán.
They flew to Birmingham at 6.30am and waited all day. At 11pm that night, doctors came to see Joanne and Paul and informed them that the organ wasn't suitable for their son.
Feeling deflated, the family flew back home again but tried to remain positive.
One morning, some weeks after, Joanne went into Cathán's room to get him up when she noticed he was struggling to breath.
“He wasn't able to talk to me or respond, other than a nod of the head. I knew this wasn't Cathán so I rang an ambulance straight away. His heart rate had gone up and we were sent to Resus in Antrim Hospital. One of his bloods indicated acute failure,” said Joanne.
After being admitted to the ward, Cathán thankfully started to show signs of improvement.
“They told me he had an infection and it (the liver) just was't working as well as it should be. Everything was going down hill and I knew that wasn't right. His health was deterioriating and his liver wasn't able to cope.”
As the weeks went on and spring turned to summer, the Owens' made plans to take a short vacation.
“We tried to enjoy the summer as a family while we could but were also prepared at the same time for that call,” said Joanne.
“So we went away in the caravan for five days but had our suitcases with us just in case we got the call. We managed to get five days away and Cathán enjoyed every minute of it.”
Just two weeks after returning home from their break, Joanne received the call they had been dreaming of.
“We got the call on the Sunday morning - 22nd August – we arrived in Birmingham at 12noon that day and we had a long wait.
“It was the sceond time I had got the call so I kind of knew a bit more about what to expect although it wasn't any easier taking your child over. We got over, had to wait and wait, not knowing if it was going to go ahead.”
Conincidentally, as Paul was getting some fresh air outside the hospital later that night, he noticed an ambulance pull up outside with a special delivery.
He managed to capture a short video of the organ being transported into the hospital.
“Paul came in and said to me 'an organ has been delivered to the hospital, I think it's Cathán's'. At that point we were wondering is he going to get it and thinking to ourselves that this could be the one,” said Joanne.
“A short time later they came up and said 'right, we are ready for him'. It was still at the back of my head that they might come to us and say the organ wasn't suitable but it was also real, it was happening and Cathán was having a transplant.
“His daddy carried him down to the theatre and I walked beside them. It was a hard thing to do, it was very emotional leaving him there and having to wait, not knowing what was happening and how they were getting on.”
Seven and a half hours after going into theatre, Cathán was back in the hospital's intensive care unit.
Although the operation came at the right time for Cathán, doctors said the damage caused to his liver was worse than they had expected.
“The liver disease had progressed over the years and the liver itself was quite damaged and they said to us aftewards that his liver was practically dead. Roughly only five percent of it was still working and they said we were very, very lucky to have him. It had lesions and was starting to stick to the organs,” said Joanne.
All the family know about Cathán's organ donor is that she was a 33 year-old woman however Joanne says they intend to write to her family.
Speaking about the importance of becoming an organ donor, Joanne is urging others to consider signing up to the register.
“At the time when Cathán was born, I wasn't on the organ donor register,” said Joanne.
“When Cathán came along and we were learning about the disease and that, we realised that we needed to sign up and we did. We wouldn't have Cathán here today without that donor. They were telling us another two weeks and we could have been in trouble.
“Some people like ourselves don't think about organ donation until something like that hits home and it is real life for us and other people out there if you have a child or other famiy member who is ill.
“It's hard because someone has had to lose a family member for us to gain that gift of life for our son. We are forever grateful for that.
“I have seen other children waiting for organs in the past and unfortunately they don't get it in time and that was one of the big things for me with Cathán when he was younger and being in the hospital surrounded by other children and seeing some good stories and some not so good stories. It was always in the back of my head 'is Cathán going to be healthy enough for the transplant when it comes?', 'will it come at the right time for him?' Some people would have said to me 'would they not just take that wain and give him a transplant?' Unfortunately it just doesn't work like that. It's scary to think what might have happened if Cathán didn't get the transplant on the 23rd of August.”
Since his transplant, Cathán is recovering well and although he hasn't yet returned to school, Joanne says she has noticed a 'big change' in him.
“About two weeks after the transplant, the colour of his skin changed, his cheeks started to fill out as he was starting to gain weight. His tummy was very large before he went in and now the difference in that is unbelievable. He is healthier looking, he's just a different wee boy,” said Joanne, who has nothing but praise for the hospital teams in Birmingham and Antrim.
“The staff there are amazing and we are so grateful to them,” said Joanne, adding that her son got his transplant 'just in time'.
“Leading up to transplant, we always tried to enjoy each day and worry when you have to worry. Life's too short. The fact that Cathán is such a little warrior, it makes life easier for us at times. Nothing is ever a problem with him. Don't get me wrong, he's had it tough and he deserves a trophy for that. He's missed out on so much and so many special occasions so I'm hoping we stay out (of hospital) for Christmas this year so he can enjoy his birthday,” she added.
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