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Inspirational Belfast mum celebrates First Class Honours Degree

Sarah O'Neill and son Laurence. Photo: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

An inspirational young Belfast mum has graduated with first class honours from Ulster University, less than two years after she donated part of her liver to save her baby son’s life.

Sarah O’Neill (26) from Black’s Road, Belfast graduated with a BSc Hons in Leisure and Events Management on Tuesday 4th July. It was an emotional day for the young mother, who, in October 2015, went through a live liver donation.

At the end of her second year studying at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus in 2014, Sarah gave birth to her son, Laurence.

Recalling the days after his birth, Sarah says:

“When Laurence was two days old we noticed something wasn't quite right. He was very lethargic and was vomiting after every feed. After being taken to our local hospital via ambulance, he was then rushed to Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a extremely rare condition called Citrullinema.”

Citrullinema is a rare urea cycle disorder, which affects around one in every 57,000 people worldwide. The condition causes ammonia and other toxic substances to accumulate in the blood, which, if not treated, can be fatal.

It was a challenging time for the young student, who balanced her studies with caring for her young son, along with husband, Laurence.

“Life was extremely difficult. We were constantly in and out of hospital with over 20 emergency admissions in Laurence's first 12 months of life. Any illness such as a cold or even teething could cause Laurence's ammonia to rise at a rapid rate and there was no way we could test his blood at home. It was so hard have to look at our son and not know if this horrible toxin was building up, it was impossible to know.”

Faced with a transplant list that could take years, Sarah took the brave decision to donate part of her liver in a live transplant surgery.

“On 7th October 2015 when Laurence was just 12 months old, he received the left lobe of my liver and the transplant was deemed a success. Although Laurence still has to take medication daily and for the rest of his life to stop him rejecting his new liver, his outlook is so much better. We do have to be more careful when other people are ill and cautious of chicken pox etc as they are very dangerous but overall he is doing amazingly well.”

Over a year and a half since the transplant and having balanced caring for her son with her studies, Sarah is making her final preparations for graduation and beginning to focus on the next steps in her career.

“It's been hard at times trying to manage my son’s medical worries and focus on university work but I feel so proud that I have finished and achieved a first class honours with the obstacles I faced.

“It was difficult but I'm so glad that I returned and finished. Everyone at Ulster University and my course director, Adrian Devine in particular, were very supportive and accommodating."

The bright young graduate has her sights set on a career in the events industry, citing Northern Ireland’s progress in this sector as an exciting opportunity for young graduates:

“In recent years, Northern Ireland has really developed as an events host destination contender. I felt the Leisure and Events Management degree from Ulster University would provide me with plenty of opportunities in the future, due to the increase in events within the last five years.

“Northern Ireland is doing amazingly well in this sector and is certainly standing its own as an events host destination for major events against other destinations and building a broad profile of events. It’s an exciting time to be entering the industry.”

Sarah hopes that sharing her story will inspire others to return to education.

“Overall, I feel that I have proven to myself that I am a strong individual that can handle any obstacles they’re faced with. I feel I've underestimated myself in the past. Completing my degree, given the circumstances, has certainly highlighted my drive and strength to do well and succeed. I really want to make my son proud of his mum.

“I also hope that other students that may be facing difficult situations in their lives will take comfort from my experience and know that they too can achieve their goals in spite of all the odds.”