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'I was shaking and crying. But I somehow managed to ask: ‘Can I still play sport?’'

Cork City Women’s coach Áine O’Donovan on being diagnosed with JIA.

Áine O'Donovan was diagnosed with JIA at the age of 13.
Áine O'Donovan was diagnosed with JIA at the age of 13.

ÁINE O’DONOVAN GREW up with an innate love of sport.

In primary school, at lunch time, while most of her female friends were sitting down and chatting, she would stand out as the one girl playing soccer with the boys.

This passion was inherited — she had an aunt who played camogie at a high level, as well as soccer and basketball.

She tried nearly everything as a youngster — hurling, Gaelic football, tennis, badminton, hockey, but soccer won out in the end.

Hamilton High School in Bandon was generally quite sports-mad — one of O’Donovan’s classmates was future Cork hurler Michael Cahalane.

At age 13, however, O’Donovan’s life changed irrevocably. She was finding it increasingly difficult to write. Her hand had become swollen. Initially, she thought it might be just a bruise picked up from one of the multiple sports she was playing.

The swelling wasn’t abating though, and it gradually went from the thumb to her elbow.

When the blood test results came in, O’Donovan was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). It’s a condition with an unknown cause, affecting around 1000 people in Ireland and is described as “the most common type of arthritis in kids and teens. It typically causes joint pain and inflammation in the hands, knees, ankles, elbows and/or wrists. But, it may affect other body parts too.”

“I just burst into tears [when I found out],” she tells The42. “I was shaking and crying. But I somehow managed to ask: ‘Can I still play sport?’ Even then, sport was such a huge thing for me.

Once I knew I could still play sport, just at a lesser level, I still had control over something — it hadn’t taken everything from me.”

Nonetheless, O’Donovan effectively stopped playing sport towards the end of secondary school, having been diagnosed at the start of it. JIA tends to significantly impact energy levels. Up to that point, she wanted to play full matches, but had to be content with 10 minutes a half — the maximum her body could cope with.

The required medication also restricts O’Donovan from drinking alcohol, but she still describes herself as a “social butterfly,” more than happy with a can of Cidona on a night out.

In retrospect, the Cork native believes she had suffered with JIA long before she was diagnosed with. Her hand constantly felt “tired” when she was writing, though she put this down to her hectic, sports-packed schedule.

Now 24, she still must visit the hospital regularly, undertaking weekly physio and occupational therapy.

bandon O'Donovan pictured with the Bandon U13 team, which she coaches

She still goes for a kickabout on occasion, but O’Donovan has largely been focused on coaching in recent years, having taken it up on the advice of Niall O’Regan, who was working with Bandon at the time and is now Head of Coach Education at the Football Association of Ireland.

In addition to a degree in Early Childhood Education & Care at Cork Institute of Technology, which she is on the verge of completing after four years, she has coached underage boys and girls teams in Bandon, as well as being involved in the Cork City Women’s set-up. Her younger sister Kate plays for the senior team and there was a particularly memorable moment in November 2017, where the pair were involved in the team’s FAI Cup final triumph at the Aviva Stadium.

“It’s what dreams are made of, winning it with a brilliant bunch of girls,” she adds. “Having your sister on the team was so special and then the men winning as well [on the same day].”

O’Donovan is looking to improve her coaching CV, as she is currently doing her Uefa B licence.

“If someone told me 10 years ago, I’d be coaching seven days a week and on my Uefa B licence, I’d be like: ‘Absolutely not.’”

She is also a mentor and youth panel member for the Irish Children’s Arthritis Network — described as “a parent-run network providing support & information and advocating for best care for those affected by Juvenile Arthritis”.

Similar to an older person’s arthritis, you can go into remission, but it’s not as common,” she explains.

“I’ve never gone into remission, but I know one or two people who have.

“There are so many different branches of it, it’s not just rheumatoid. It can depend on which type you have.”

Once she finishes her degree, O’Donovan is looking at a career in primary school teaching, but is adamant she will be continuing with coaching in the evenings.

“It’s kind of a release and it’s down time — the boys and girls in Bandon are such good craic. If you’re having a bad day, they cheer you up in an instant.”

More recently though, she encountered another issue that doctors believe has nothing to do with her arthritis.

One morning, I woke up and my knee was swollen. I thought ‘it’s to do with my arthritis’. I went and got it checked out and it’s actually not. Last July, my right knee basically collapsed onto my left knee and my whole leg just turned out.

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“No one can seem to pinpoint what it is. I’ve gone to four or five different specialists and they’ve all ruled out their areas of expertise. I’m just like: ‘What is it?’ But thankfully, since January, it’s starting to change a bit. I was highly dependent on walking with two crutches and a knee brace up until March. I’m still walking with one crutch, but taking a few steps every now and again with no crutches. It’s similar to how my Juvenile Arthritis journey started — in and out of hospital.

“I was in and out so many times last summer and still this year, trying to get a cause for it, and nothing’s coming out of it.

“But I’m improving on little things every day. At the minute, I go for a walk with the crutches to try to build up my strength. Every day, I add a minute — I have a timer. So the first day I did a five-minute walk, the second day was six minutes.”

Such challenges are nothing new for O’Donovan, who has consistently had to make the best of a difficult situation.

“[The JIA] flared up during my Leaving Cert year, so for my orals, I had to take breaks. I couldn’t talk for the full 15 minutes of the Irish oral, I had to have a little bit of time to get the examiner to stop, so I could put a heat pack up onto my jaw.

“It was mental that I couldn’t write in any of my sixth-year classes. I was sitting in the class hoping I wouldn’t go into absolute agony. I remember one or two of the classes just sitting there, a heat pack up to my jaw, a heat pack up to my thumb, and I thought: ‘I want to get out of here.’

“In my head, I was like: ‘How am I meant to do my Leaving Cert, study for exams, do practicals and stuff?’ In the end, I was like: ‘I can just be the best that I can be.’

In the past, I’d gone through six months of being in absolute pain and not sleeping. I ended up doing a College of Commerce course in Cork, doing Early Years education, and it was one of the best things I ever did. So from the challenge, came something positive.”

O’Donovan consequently hopes others can learn from her struggles and maintain a similarly upbeat philosophy in challenging circumstances.

“I told a few of the girls in my year when I was first diagnosed. They were so helpful — if I needed them to write notes in secondary school, they did. They just saw I was struggling, and knew what to do.

“If I kept it to myself and just struggled through secondary school, I wouldn’t have had the same help and backing.

“I remember just being open about it and if you can, [it's important to take] the good days as good days, and then there’s also those bad days.

“But everyone goes through bad days, even if they don’t have Juvenile Arthritis.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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