Friendship and community can save your life. That’s just one of the takeaways from Neilí Conroy’s emotional chat on Today with Claire Byrne about her good friend and neighbour Susan Kelly. During the first lockdown in May last year, The Fair City actor acted on a call from a friend who was worried their mutual friend Susan wasn’t picking up his calls. Between them, they ended up saving Susan’s life:
"I got a call from a mutual friend to say 'Can you check on her? She hasn’t been online and she hasn’t rung me back.’ He thought ‘She’s probably just broken the phone. It’s probably in a bowl of rice and she’ll kill me for asking you.’ I went straight around and her front door was open. It’s one of those new doors that you open from outside. She obviously hadn’t locked up for the night and she was in the foetal position at the end of the stairs; and really just breathing mechanically."
Neilí didn’t know it at the time, but her friend had been in that position for the past 16 hours, following a serious accident. As it later turned out, 57-year –old Susan was very close to death. Just a few hours later, Susan’s family were called into Dublin’s Beaumont Hospital to say goodbye. Literally at the last moment, things turned around, Neilí says:
"We were in saying goodbye to her and there was a reaction in her pupil, so they have to do the brain surgery. She went into brain surgery that night for 5 hours, came out about half one in the morning."
Susan had survived. She was alive after a very close brush with death and her family and friends were overjoyed. Neilí says there was no guarantee that Susan would recover, but her family and friends treasured the tiniest flicker of hope:
"We had glimmers of hope, like blinks, or she’d yawn. I know they mean nothing, but they were everything to us. And her daughter was very positive; Jess, throughout the whole time. She was going ‘No, she had loads of times she could have died, but she hasn’t died yet, she’s coming; she’s there.’"
Susan’s recovery has been slow, Neilí says. After her initial brain surgery, the 57-year old was in an induced coma for two months, and then she spent another two months in ICU. Then came almost a year in a nursing home before Susan was moved to the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire. Neilí says that family, friends and neighbours all kept the faith that Susan would be back with them, even though her condition was very serious:
"When she was booked into Hamilton Park originally, she was booked in as a "semi-conscious person". But she wasn’t semi-conscious, she’s all there, you know?"
Neilí spoke lovingly about her friend who she calls "a social butterfly". She describesSusan as a fun, spontaneous person,much loved by the diners in Captain Americas restaurant in Dublin’s Grafton Street, where she’s worked for 30 years. Now that she’s feeling a bit better, Susan wants to be kept updated on all the goss from her neighbourhood in Kilbarrack.Neilí says Susan’s greatest wish is to get back to her own home in her own community, surrounded by the people she loves and who love her right back:
"She wants to come home and have some sort of independent living and to have a life, because there’s a whole lot of life in front of her. We don’t want her staying in a room in a home somewhere for the rest of her days, which could happen."
Susan was captured on video in September as she made an emotional visit back to her neighbourhood for the first time since the accident, and it had both Neilí and Claire Byrne choked up when they talked about it. Neilí says Susan wants to get home to the life that she loves in the home that she loves:
"She loves her house so much. And she loves living there. And she just, she was just so happy before this accident."
Susan’s workplace Captain Americas held a fundraising event recently to support her move back home. Susan will need a new bedroom and an extension to the house as well as ongoing care. A GoFundMe page has been set up, but it will be costly, Neilí says:
"We need about €130,000 to get her home and get the house adapted and for the initial care package."
Neilí says everyone is pulling together to make Susan’s dream come true. Her friends and her community want her back where she belongs, Neilí says:
"I had to set up a WhatsApp group for the people that she knew to update them on her progress. We said we’d do a Spotify playlist, so every single person had a song that they thought of Susan with, you know. So she’s just a very, very special person."
Neilí talks about how the pandemic made a tough situation even harder in the full interview with Claire Byrne here.
You can find out more about the campaign to bring Susan home here.
And you can see Neilí Conroy as Sharon Collins in Fair City Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights at 8pm on RTÉ One and on RTÉ Player.