ERIKA and Joel O'Connell love their netball and football. But the pair have put it on the backburner for the past three years to focus on the health of their children, Jordy and Darcy. The Tallangatta couple spoke to The Border Mail's BRETT KOHLHAGEN this week about the challenges they have faced and what lies ahead.
BRETT KOHLHAGEN: Joel and yourself have always been heavily into sport, but that hasn't been your priority for the past three years has it?
ERIKA: The kids have definitely been the priority, but we've still somehow managed to keep some footy and netball going.
BK: Talk us through the trials and tribulations of the O'Connell family over the past few years
ERIKA: I fell pregnant with Jordy in 2016. It was a perfect pregnancy with nothing going wrong until I went into labour at 32 weeks. He was in a bit of a rush and everything he has done since has been in a rush to be honest.
BK: Anxious times?
ERIKA: We spent a combined total of just shy of five weeks in hospital with him. Three were at Wodonga and two were at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne. It was pretty scary. It was our first baby and you don't anticipate any of this stuff when you are becoming a parent. We just had to adapt and deal with it I guess.
BK: All is going well now though?
ERIKA: He's a perfectly healthy, happy and full-on nearly three-year-old. He's running riot at the footy and doing all those things. Just chaos.
BK: So things got back on track and then Darcy came along. Things got really tricky then didn't they?
ERIKA: They did. I fell pregnant with Darcy last year and thought we'd had our bad luck with Jordy and everything was going to be fine. Then we had a 20-week scan and were told his heart was plumbed up the wrong way.
BK: Where did you go from there?
ERIKA: We did some genetic testing to see if there were any other conditions going on and thankfully it was just the transposition of the great arteries so we had a bit of time to prepare ourselves for what was ahead. It was still pretty emotional and tough to go through. Considering I'd had Jordy so early the obstetricians and pediatricians up here weren't really comfortable with me being so far away from the major hospitals.
BK: So what did that mean for the family?
ERIKA: Jordy and I relocated to Melbourne when I was 32 weeks with Darcy and we spent the last six weeks of my pregnancy down there living with my Nan. Joel was commuting down on the weekends and for appointments and all that sort of stuff.
BK: How did you cope with that Joel?
JOEL: I'd rock up at Erika's Nan's place and Jordy would run to the door after I hadn't seen him all week. He got pretty excited as he didn't really talk on the phone because he would hold it upside down and walk away. It was tough though and I got to know the highway pretty well. My work was really understanding throughout it all as well.
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BK: Then D-day came along?
ERIKA: The week before Christmas we had Darcy. He was as blue as anything when he was born. They did a little procedure where they went up through his groin and ripped a small hole in his heart to allow his blood to mix. That got him through to one week of age and then on Christmas Eve they took him away at 9.30am and had him for six and a half hours to have open heart surgery to correct the condition.
BK: Is that a really risky operation for a child so young?
ERIKA: It's very major in terms of open heart surgeries but it's something surgeons do every week. As the surgeon had said, it was like making a cup of tea because they have done it so many times.
BK: How did you get through it?
ERIKA: It was pretty tough, poor Jordy's life was uprooted for a couple of months. We adapted though and got through it. Family is very important in all of that. My mum and dad and Joel's mum and dad I don't think we couldn't repay them for what they have done for us. Even now with football and netball they are still always putting their hand up to help and watch the kids.
JOEL: Erika's been remarkable all the way through. She's a great girl and great mum. All the Butlers have thick skins and Erika certainly continues that tradition.
BK: Was there a moment when felt you couldn't cope?
ERIKA: The scariest bit would definitely be when we told we could go and see Darcy after his surgery. Joel and I walked into the intensive care unit and I think we counted 13 different wires and cords and drains and everything coming out his body. He was so heavily sedated they said if he even so as much flinched they would up his medication because they didn't want him to move whatsoever. That was a pretty confronting moment.
JOEL: It was full-on to tell you the truth. When he first came out of intensive care he was still quite swollen. It was unbelievable to think a body so small could go through it and still come out on the other side. It was amazing. We still have a video and you look back at it and think how did he survive.
BK: Darcy is going well now?
ERIKA: Apart from the scar on his chest, if you looked at him you would have no idea what this little body has been through. We go back to the Royal Children's at the end of May for his next cardiac follow-up. So far everything is looking perfectly fine.
BK: You've spent some time in hospitals recently haven't you?
ERIKA: Next weekend is Easter with the Good Friday appeal. I couldn't encourage people enough to donate because the money is vital in going towards some amazing facilities. Unfortunately but fortunately we have discovered that first hand. Between the two boys we have spent a total of just shy of eight weeks in hospitals, five in Melbourne and three in Wodonga.
BK: I guess it's easier to see why people say there is more to life than football?
JOEL: There definitely is. I do love footy but what makes it even better is that I have Jordy running around in a Tallangatta footy jumper. I love him being a part of it. Darcy will be there soon doing exactly the same thing. We just have to make a small enough jumper for him.
Joel and I walked into the intensive care unit and I think we counted 13 different wires and cords and drains and everything coming out his body. He was so heavily sedated they said if he even so as much flinched they would up his medication because they didn't want him to move whatsoeverErika O'Connell
BK: The boys sound like they can be a bit of a handful?
JOEL: Jordy is going through a stage where he's becoming a real terrier. A lot of nos are coming out of him. He's the cheeky one at the moment.
BK: You played A grade for Albury and returned to Tallangatta a few years ago to play. How did they convince you to coach this year?
ERIKA: I wasn't intending to coach but it sort of fell into my lap. I've been lucky enough to convince Anna Avery to have another run around this year. Having her at the club is completely invaluable.
BK: You have some really close ties to the club don't you?
ERIKA: It's my home club. I grew up out there and my dad and brothers played footy at Tallangatta. When Joel said he was leaving the O and M, I said you can go anywhere if you play in the Hume league but if you play in the Tallangatta league then it's got to be at Tallangatta.
JOEL: She put the foot down and I'm glad she did.
BK: Tallangatta won the grand final with an extra time against Kiewa-Sandy Creek last year. It must have been a great game?
ERIKA: For someone who was pregnant it was pretty stressful to be jumping up and down on the sidelines. We had tight games against Kiewa-Sandy Creek all season with only a goal or two the difference.
BK: People say it's a great competition
ERIKA: It is. When I first went back out we were a pretty dominate side and there was a probably a big gap in the competition. Last year it evened up and looking at the quality of players coming into the league this year it will be stronger again.
BK: Joel, how have you found the transition from the Ovens and Murray to Tallangatta league after playing in four flags for Albury?
JOEL: It's a really good club. They have been great to Erika, myself and the boys. I've really enjoyed it.
BK: You've always been a fitness nut, how is the body holding up?
JOEL: I'd like to think I'm as fit as ever, but I'm probably not. It sounds pretty full on at training at Albury this season. I remember the Spargo days and they were pretty brutal.
BK: You guys obviously still have a strong link to Albury as you are speaking at the Tigers' Hey Sisters luncheon during the Wodonga Raiders game on June 1?
ERIKA: I had a call from Kim Packer one night saying the club wanted to raise some money for Heart Kids Australia and I said I'd do anything I could to do to help someone else. I'm not sure how I will go because I cried last time I did something like this but it's important to raise awareness for funding and support.
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