‘My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister’

Una McNicholas from Lucan has learned how to administer life-saving injections for her sister Elizabeth

While it is usually true that blood is thicker than water and families tend to look out for each other, there is a limit to the amount of attention most teenagers will give their siblings. While the majority will help out at home, particularly when a brother or sister is unwell, there are very few who would give up most of their spare time to care for a family member.

But Úna McNicholas from Lucan, Co Dublin takes care of her 28-year-old sister Elizabeth who is living with brain and spinal injuries, of which some of the effects can be life threatening.

The 18-year-old also has a 26-year-old brother called Sean, lives with her parents Brenda and John and is in sixth year in Coláiste Cois Life, Lucan. She learned how to prepare and administer life-saving injections and ensure that her sister receives the necessary medication to help control her severe neuropathic pain and many other conditions such as narcolepsy with cataplexy and a life-threatening adrenal insufficiency.

The teenager, who also monitors her sister’s breathing machine, won Young Carer of the Year in 2016 and is most definitely a health hero.


We asked about her proudest moment, her hopes for the future and how she likes to spend her time.

What is your proudest achievement?

“My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister Elizabeth who is an inspiration to all who know her. So I was very surprised and humbled to win the Dublin Young Carer of the Year 2016 as I would never expect to be rewarded for looking after my sister as it is something I do out of love.”

What motivates you in your school and in life?

“I try to maintain a positive mental attitude by taking each day as it comes and making the best out of every situation. I try to do my best in school as I would one day hope to work in the healthcare sector and have a positive impact on the lives of those living with illnesses or disabilities and also for their carers’ and loved ones.”

What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

“I love to de-stress by listening to music or taking some time out for myself, which as a carer can sometimes be incredibly hard to find.”

What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

“A healthy society is one in which all members are treated with respect and dignity and accepted for who they are. One issue that needs to be tackled at a community level is the isolation experienced by those with illness or disability and their carers’.”

What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“One method of addressing this issue would be to encourage others, be they extended family members or members of the local community, to share the care.”

What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

“To be honest there are too many issues facing our health service to choose just one. My own family have experienced issues with numerous different areas of the health service from lack of access to timely care and surgery, to issues with community healthcare services and housing adaption grants. It is exhausting dealing with these issues on a daily basis on top of caring for a loved one.”

How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

"Personally I think that the entire healthcare system needs to be overhauled. Simon Harris along with his colleagues must develop an action plan to deal with the crisis affecting the HSE. I wish he understood the impact that this crisis is having on those who rely on the services along with their families – and the amount of stress and heartache that citizens of this country are allowed to suffer at the hands of the government and HSE. I would love for Simon Harris to live in my house for a week to see the damage caused to my sister Elizabeth and the impact this has had on my family as a whole by a department under his control. To be honest I don't think that he would last a day."

What do you do to relax and unwind?

“I love to listen to music, sing and play the piano and violin. I also enjoy learning Irish sign language and spending time with my friends Michael, Robyn, Suzi, Jane and Niamh. And I like to keep Elizabeth company; whether it is building Lego, watching TV or colouring.”

What makes you laugh?

“Things that make me laugh include my sister’s handsome assistance dog Bart who is a nine-year-old black labradoodle from Dogs for the Disabled. He has an amazing personality and gets up to all type of mischief. He makes the most mundane daily tasks that he has been trained to assist Elizabeth with entertaining as he gets so much enjoyment out of helping her.”

Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?

"I would love to live in Scotland as the health service is more efficient and young carers and carers in general are treated with more respect. Also, Scotland has free third-level education with excellent university degrees in the healthcare sector which is an area I am very interested in as I would love to work in the medical field."

“Due to the deterioration in Elizabeth’s health and lack of care from the HSE we now have no choice but to fundraise an astronomical amount of money for her to receive urgent treatment abroad,” she says. “Without Elizabeth will continue to deteriorate and we are desperate to get her treated as soon as possible before anymore irreversible damage is done.”

Our Health Heroes
1 - Martin Nevin: Even unwashed and medicated up to my eyes, Martin makes me feel beautiful
2 - Maureen Durcan: That so many live on the poverty line in Ireland is incredibly sad
3 - John Burke: Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain
4 - Derek Devoy: The Kilkenny taxi man whose drive saves lives
5 - Sarah Fitzgibbon: Society has to stop treating the marginalised and disabled as charity cases
6 - Kathleen King: I wanted to make sure no one else would have to wait nine years for a diagnosis
7 - Caoimhe Bennett: The schoolgirl raising understanding about young carers
8 - Ann Norton: Our hospitals are a disgrace. We are letting down our doctors, nurses and whole society

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories