There’s hardly a day goes by that Ruth Cahill does not pause to count her blessings.

And that is especially true this – and every other – Mother’s Day.

“Now, I feel that nothing can stop Harry,” she smiles, referring to her first-born, and now 15-year-old, son.

“But when I look back at him as a baby and how fragile life was, I feel so blessed because I have a friend who lost their child in Ireland at 11. I have a friend who lost a child at 15, at 18… I’m not naïve. I know how lucky we are.”

That’s because Harry was born with a severe form of cystic fibrosis: an unexpected diagnosis that left Ruth with little option but to leave a career she loved in order to become a carer.

Greeting card business

What she never expected, however, was that this would eventually inspire her to start her own greeting card and illustration business, Duck Blue, with her work now available in outlets including the National Gallery of Ireland shop.

Life turned upside down

Originally from Foxrock, Co Dublin, Ruth lives in Maynooth, Co Kildare with her husband Henry and children Harry and Emily (13). Having fallen in love with art at school, she studied graphic design and worked with a leading brand agency for seven years before Harry was born.

“It was an innocent pregnancy,” she reflects. “Now I’m very grateful for that; but then the flip side is the utter shock when our lives were turned just upside down.”

The first indication that something was wrong was when Harry began to vomit on the night he was born, and was whisked off to special care. Doctors identified a blockage in his bowel and he was transferred to Crumlin children’s hospital by ambulance.

Ruth remembers following in complete shock.

Ruth Cahill pictured at her Duck Blue studio in Maynooth, Co Kildare. \ Claire Nash

“I walked down the street, got into my car and drove up the road in my pyjamas,” she recalls. “I didn’t even have a dressing gown.”

Cystic fibrosis

While Harry was discharged after a week, both Ruth and Henry were convinced that there was still something seriously wrong as he was failing to thrive. After insisting on a six-week check-up with a paediatrician, Harry was sent back to Crumlin again, and at seven weeks old was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis: an inherited chronic condition that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system.

Plunged into the unknown, this was a “very scary time”.

“The only cystic fibrosis I knew back then were people who died when they were teenagers,” recalls Ruth. “They do use words like life-threatening, life-limiting, lots of hospitalisations.”

Isolating time

As a new mother, this was also a very isolating time, as Ruth effectively “cocooned” in order to protect her son.

“It’s lonely being at home, just you and your baby,” she recalls.

“There was a breastfeeding group down at the HSE and I remember going the week that Harry was diagnosed; the panic of, ‘Oh my God, there are 20 people in this room and 20 babies, that’s 40 people and 40 germs’. I never ran so fast. I kind of thought, ‘Are we going to have to avoid people for the rest of our lives?’ At the time, it’s all-consuming.”

Adding to the uncertainty was that doctors eventually identified that Harry had a rare mutation of the cystic fibrosis gene that originated in Israel and is regarded as a ‘class one’ mutation.

“There’s class one to five, with one being the worst mutation,” Ruth says. “Of course, you Google and you just hear horror story after horror story. So, I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to look at that anymore.’ You kind of have to make the decision to follow your own path.”

Organisations such as Cystic Fibrosis Ireland proved hugely supportive at this time, as did family and friends. “It’s amazing how quickly we got a network of other people,” says Ruth.

Full-time carer

In order to protect Harry’s health, Ruth decided to leave her job to become his full-time carer, as she was reluctant to put him into a creche setting where he would be exposed to coughs, colds and other common illnesses.

“Things were really hard financially,” she says of swapping two salaries for one wage plus carer’s allowance; especially as they had only recently taken on a mortgage.

“We survived; but we purely survived.”

Family remained Ruth’s focus, especially with the arrival of daughter Emily after an anxious pregnancy. (While scans indicated she may have issues pointing to cystic fibrosis, tests after she was born showed that she did not have the condition.)

Although Harry was fortunate to never experience serious issues with his chest, he was on antibiotics full-time until the age of two, was hospitalised frequently from four and, at one stage, was on a nebuliser seven times a day and receiving physio at home both morning and night. Other side effects included severe sinus infections from which he suffered badly.

“When I say badly, he had broken eye sockets, he had a broken nose, broken cheeks, multiple fractures,” explains Ruth.

Starting Duck Blue

Caring for her family left little time for Ruth to pursue her old hobbies, in particular art. But something of a lightning bolt struck one day when she found herself looking at a card that her friend had made when Harry was born.

“I said, ‘God, Anna, she really knows how to make a beautiful card,’” she recalls. “And then I went, ‘Well, I know how to make a beautiful card too.’”

Ruth Cahill first set up Duck Blue while caring for her son Harry. \ Claire Nash

At that time, Ruth was allowed to work 15 hours a week (now 18.5 hours) while in receipt of carer’s allowance, and so she began to create cards to order at her kitchen table.

“Some days I might have no work done, but if someone wanted a card, I’d make a card. And I’d charge a fiver; and I’d feel bad taking a fiver off someone for a card when it probably took me three hours to make it. An unsustainable business!” she says, laughing while recalling her early efforts with Duck Blue.

“But I thought, ‘This is nice: I’m getting to do a bit of work’ and it made me happy.”

Ruth continued to work on her fledgling business; but a huge turning point occurred four years ago, when Harry became eligible to start on a drug called Kaftrio that proved, “life changing”.

“He hasn’t been in hospital since he started this medication,” explains Ruth. “He has gone from seven nebulisers to one nebuliser…I couldn’t tell you the last time he had an antibiotic.”

Indeed, Harry has gone on to hurl for Kildare and is also an accomplished cross-country athlete.

“If you see Harry now, he’s a strapping teen,” says Ruth. “[But] it doesn’t come easy. He has to work extra hard.”

Building a business

With Harry’s health improving dramatically, Ruth made the decision to come off carer’s allowance and work full-time on Duck Blue. She credits Kildare Local Enterprise Office for their support, but is justly proud of her own wins; such as selling enough cards to allow her to invest in her first professional printer.

Setting up her own website in 2020 using Shopify also proved transformative, given that so many people returned to sending cards during the pandemic. Since then, she has exhibited at major trade events like Showcase, with 70% of her sales now through retailers and 30% online.

Ruth’s whimsical cards and illustrations are created in pencil, watercolour and fine ink pen, and produced as sustainably as possible; for instance, she powers her printer with solar panels.

Her ethos, however, is “cards you want to keep” and she is keenly aware of those who are on the receiving end, showing Irish Country Living a card that she has just printed that morning for somebody who recently experienced baby loss.

Ruth Cahill creates her original art using pencil, watercolours and fine ink pen. \ Claire Nash

“Cards aren’t life-changing,” she acknowledges, “but they can touch people at the right time.”

Thinking back on her journey, Ruth credits the experience and skills she acquired as a carer, from administration to advocacy.

“I think a lot of carers lose their self-belief,” she reflects.

“People need to realise that they are learning on the job and they need to value that they are learning; that they’re not only helping that person at the time, but they’re educating themselves in different roles and all of that is vital, whether it’s moving forward in a hobby or in a business.”

And for Ruth, her success with Duck Blue would not have been possible without the sacrifices – and more importantly, lessons learned – along the way.

“I think I’m a very different person having reared Harry and started my business,” she says, smiling.

“I’m so proud of all these little steps in the right direction.”

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