Cathal Dunbar is five and from Ferns, Co Wexford. He loves tractors, nature (specifically owls), being read to and being around his friends and family.
Although Cathal has additional needs, his mother, Dawn Dunbar, prefers to focus on what her son can do, rather than the challenges he faces.
“He’s a typical five year old boy in very many ways, to be honest. He’s more like children his age than he is unlike them,” she says.
Cathal was born in March 2017. He’s Dawn and Jamie Dunbar’s second child - Cathal has an older brother Conor.
“Cathal was a very typical pregnancy,” Dawn says. “We really had no concerns until the very end when the obstetrician noted that Cathal’s growth had slowed down. As a result, he was sent for tests after birth. One being an MRI of the brain. It was then we discovered that Cathal had suffered a severe brain injury while in the womb.”
Cathal was born with congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV), which means he picked up CMV in the womb. While CMV is harmless to most adults and children, it is very dangerous for an unborn baby.
This resulted in Cathal having quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a very severe form of epilepsy, is non-verbal and has difficulty swallowing.
For Dawn and Jamie this was a huge shock.
“We were going down this route with Cathal that not many people go down, raising a child with additional needs, especially medical needs that are very challenging. We really didn’t know how we were going to navigate this new journey we had ahead of us with Cathal.
“We were scared and we were sad for the loss of that typical life we had imagined for him while I was expecting him.
“Jack & Jill came into our lives then in the guise of Joanne Doyle, their local liaison nurse in Wexford. Joanne said, ‘Look it, we don’t know why this happened to ye. It doesn’t seem fair to ye at the moment. We can understand how ye’re feeling. We can’t take it away, but we can help you navigate this new journey, to help you care for Cathal.’
The Jack & Jill Children’s Foundation funds and delivers specialist home nursing care for children from birth to six years of age who have highly complex and life-limiting medical conditions.
Jack & Jill helped the Dunbars navigate the path of caring for Cathal in two main ways, practical care support at home and emotional support for the family.
“They provided us with a carer for Cathal in the home who had experience with children with additional needs. That allowed me to spend time with Conor who was only two at the time,” Dawn explains.
“It’s very intense looking after a child with special needs. So it just gave me a little break from that. Sometimes I would go for a run or a walk or I’d go get a cup of coffee, even do the groceries.
“As time went on and Conor got more involved in extracurricular activities in his community, I was able to bring him to those and know that Cathal was cared for here at home by someone who knew him well and could react if anything ever arose on the medical side of things.”
It’s Jack & Jill’s mission also to empower parents to care for their child at home in communities. For the Dunbars, Jack & Jill did just that.
“Jack & Jill helps you to deal with this new challenge that nobody expects to be given when you’re expecting. You just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. Jack & Jill helped empower us to make sure Cathal was included in his community as much as possible.”
Cathal attended playschool locally in Little Acorns and this September started in junior infants in Scoil Naomh Maodhóg in Ferns. Dawn says the support they receive from teachers and friends is phenomenal, and that all around, the school community is very supportive of Cathal.
“For example, I was walking down the street to the shop with him and an older kid who I don’t know very well shouted over, ‘Hey Cathal.’ He smiles going into school and that’s all any parent could want,” Dawn says.
“He’s a part of the community in Ferns and it’s all any parent can want for their child, is just to be treated the same as everybody else. And Ferns community has definitely done that.”
Last year the support for Cathal amongst the local community was seen in a very tangible way through a tractor run that was organised locally.
As was mentioned earlier in this article, Cathal loves tractors – especially New Hollands - and for his birthday during lockdown in 2021 his mother organised a “mini tractor run” for him.
“Ferns is very much a rural farming community. We asked friends who are farmers and my own brother who’s a farmer in Bree, a nearby village, just to do a little mini tractor run for Cathal. It was outdoors, a couple of his friends came to watch and I think there were four or five tractors. Cathal really enjoyed it.”
From there, some local friends asked Dawn and Jamie could they arrange a tractor run that would support Cathal. The couple immediately decided to do it in aid of Jack & Jill and First Light, a charity that supports bereaved families. Friends of theirs, the O’Malleys, lost their son Barry suddenly at five weeks old and accessed First Light’s services.
The tractor run raised no less than €33,000 between the two charities and 182 tractors took part. The Fr Jim Fitz Tractor Run will take place for the second time on Sunday 30 October from Ferns GAA pitch. Registration begins at 10.30am.
There are sure to be plenty of Co Wexford children (and big children) who will enjoy it immensely, but we know one little boy in particular, Cathal.