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Michelle's first proper taste of Christmas dinner in 15 years

Published: 20 Dec 2012 13:000 comments

On Christmas Day this year, Michelle Cowan is looking forward to sitting down and tucking into her first proper family Christmas dinner in 15 years.

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The joyous event will mark another exciting milestone for the 30-year-old from Tamlaght, who has been suffering from a very severe form of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) since she was 15 - a debilitating illness which took her out of circulation for much of that time.

Last Christmas, she had a liquidised meal, which also marked a progressive step for the young woman, who is relishing everything Christmas this year for the first time in years.

A recent special honour for her was switching on the Christmas lights in Lisbellaw. "I was really honoured to be asked - quite surprised," said Michelle, who adds: "When Johnny (Nelson) came to the door I did not know what to think. I thought it was really lovely to think of someone who was ill."

She got into the spirit of the occasion and had her wheelchair specially decorated and she dressed up as an elf - something that she could not have even contemplated before! It was "a lovely experience," said Michelle, who is thankful to Lisbellaw Christmas Lights Association and Johnny, its treasurer.

Reflecting on the past 15 years is not easy for Michelle, who describes her ME as a "hard and long illness". In fact, she said it all began when she came home from school one day and had symptoms like a 24-hour flu.

"Over 18 months I went lower and lower," indicated Michelle, who ended up bedbound for 12 years. After spending 10 and a half months in hospital, she said her parents, Fred and Ivy Cowan brought her home. "Mum took early retirement and basically without her I could not stay at home." (Her mother was a nurse for nearly 30 years.)

"I could not do anything for myself," explains Michelle, who for eight years was nasal gastric fed and then for four years, peg fed into her stomach.

On July 4, last year, US Independence Day, she was able to have the tube removed and be physically fed. "I could eat ordinary food," declared Michelle, who also enjoyed a recent Christmas lunch outing with the Cedar Foundation at Squires Restaurant, Enniskillen.

"I was able to have turkey and ham and all the trimmings," said the delighted young woman, who also shared in a subsequent craft session. She is appreciative of Geoffrey Kennedy, of the Cedar Foundation, and the other members.

These are major accomplishments for Michelle, who during her bed bound years could not move or turn; she could not move her hands, her feet were crossed and her curtains were closed all the time. "My carers and mum worked with me with a tiny light; I went out of circulation for all those years."

Over time, her body is improving itself - restoring and recovering itself. She admits that she does not know what really caused her ME and reckons it could have been hormonal or due to allergies, or vaccines.

"Something was triggered and it just floored me," mentioned Michelle, who through her illness found that sensations, smells and noise were heightened.

"I am so much better now," says the young woman, who two years ago was hoistlifted into a chair on her 28th birthday - another mark of progress.

"I sat in it for 10 minutes a day and would go back to bed," she said, adding that gradually she would do to it a bit longer.

She also used a blindfold and the curtains were opened bit by bit. "Now I have special glasses which allow me to go into light," says Michelle, who wears a peaked cap, and describes her eyesight as "extremely poor".

About a year ago, she acquired her outdoor wheelchair and her carers take her and her dog out for walks, which she feels is lovely.

She also got her specially adapted car, about a year ago, and said her brother David and father drive her around.

"I am able to spend longer in the wheelchair and I am going longer distances," she explained.

Every Wednesday night, she goes to an Essential Skills Literacy course at South West College, Enniskillen and is coming on really well.

"I did not think I would be able for it," admitted Michelle, who acknowledges her "lovely classroom assistant, Hazel."

Having become unwell at 15, she said she had no qualifications when she left school and for her it is nice being able to go back and attain them. She also finds that her voice recognition computer has really given her independence.

Over the festive period this year, she has been to a number of carol services and believes it is "really lovely getting out and about". She uses Rural Lift and speaks about the lovely drivers, bringing her in and out of town.

Her father was captain of Castlehume Golf Club and she was thrilled to be able to join him at his Captain's night in July. "I have to pinch myself that this is happening to me; that I am able to get out and about."

On Tuesday nights she plays bingo in the Royal British Legion and on Thursday nights in the Unionist Hall, accompanied by carers.

"They mark my book and tell me what number I am waiting on. I am waiting to shout check many times."

She loves animals and every Sunday, her parents bring her to the Round O' where she says 10 geese come to them to be fed bread.

Her cousins have a goat farm and they ring her when a new set of kids arrive. "Dad is nabbed to bring me down," says Michelle, who believes it is lovely to be able to go to her relatives, instead of them coming to her. She also has her dog Snowy and through her illness she had budgies, one of which Misty became a constant companion.

A delightful opportunity last year was acting as Godmother to little Cathy Davies, which saw her shed tears of joy. The Minister came to her house for her to say her part and then the service continued in the Church.

Among her interests is the Talking Newspaper and in recent years she is enjoying being able to listen to the talking books she receives from RNIB. The Library Service also calls once a month and her brings her CD books.

"Through my illness I was not able to listen to music," says Michelle, who in the last couple of years has found that it is getting easier for her when it comes to noise. She has been getting all the backdated 'Now Music' CDs and instead of telling people to turn music down, she is asking them to turn it up!

She also enjoyed attending a concert at the Ardhowen Theatre - and she was delighted to have the chance to meet singer Nathan Carter.

Her recent surprise 30th birthday celebrated on November 3, 2012 at the Mandarin restaurant in Enniskillen, organised by her carers, also proved a great night. Having "missed out" on so many birthdays, she disclosed: "Blowing out the candles made me weep."

With no memory of what happened prior to her illness, she has had a lot of catching up to do and she has been on a learning curve.

"I have had to learn everything from scratch," reveals Michelle, who referred to everything from swallowing to spelling.

Achieving these things are 'massive' developments for the young woman, who mentions that every day she is feeling stronger.

She believes there is no point asking the question why did this happen to her; "I am making the most of every day and I am trying to put the past behind me. The future is out there for me now."

She thanks her GP, Dr. Edward (Ted) Burke, whom she says is "always at the end of the phone. I could not ask for a better GP."

"It has been hard and without everyone I would not have got through it," feels Michelle, who is appreciative of all those who have been involved with her over the years, including carers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, doctors, district nurses, her dietitian and especially her mum and dad and brother David.

At the minute, Michelle is really enjoying herself. She knows she "could be a lot better and it is going to take time", but she is so pleased to be as well as she is. "There are times when it is frustrating but I have got to be patient."

Although she is still hoistlifted and totally dependant for all her care, she believes the future is looking bright and she mentions that "everyone comments on my smile". And if anyone inquires how she is doing, her reply is that she is "improving all the time".

"I just love getting into shops even though my eyesight is poor," she said, adding that "it's lovely hearing Christmas music in the shops." This is also the first year that she says she has been able to buy Christmas presents herself.

"For years, I did not like Christmas because I was not fit to enjoy it, now I am all out for it," smiles Michelle.

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