The Crawl: Mark aims to summit Carrauntoohil on his hands and knees

Diana J. Smith

Mark (centre) with friends Dermot Carroll (left) and Les Byrne, who are going up the mountain with him, to make sure he gets up and down ok.

Mark Rowan from Kilbeggan is going to crawl up Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland, over two days to raise funds for the Ronald McDonald House and Accessible Counselling, Tullamore. Having come through a traumatic childhood, the loss of his baby daughter, Amber Rose, and a battle with mental illness, Mark (37) is determined to reach out and help others.

The crawl is symbolic of the fact that anyone can scale any mountain once they have help and support and can do so by crawling if needs be, Mark explained in an interview with the Westmeath Examiner. He said that the fact that he is overweight makes the challenge all the greater, but again highlights that no obstacle is too great. He will crawl through the Devil’s Ladder and walk out through the Heavenly Gates.

Mark will set out on September 8 with his friends, Dermot Carroll and Les Byrne, who will walk with him in case he needs help along the way. He hopes to complete the 1,038 metre climb on September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, and be back down by September 12, Amber’s birthday.

Mark and his wife Cheryllee and their daughter Amber, RIP.

Mark describes himself as “your average fella that got dealt a bad hand in life”. A traumatic childhood led to mental health problems in later life, and he firmly believes that schools should provide mental education as they do physical education.

“Even one class a day would equip children with the basic self-help techniques that would assist them if they ever got into a situation like mine,” he says.

He feels that if such classes were provided the system would not be so clogged up with people waiting years for care, and he says that with bullying on social media being so rampant, there was never a greater need.

In 2014 tragedy struck after Mark’s wife, Cheryllee, gave birth to their third child, Amber Rose. She was born with a rare condition known as diaphragmatic hernia and was taken to Crumlin Children’s Hospital for surgery. Her operation was performed when she was just two weeks old and initially, all was well, but within week three problems had arisen. “It was like being on a roller coaster,” Marks recalls.

“The strain on my family was horrible. Our two sons were very young at the time. We had to get them up at the crack of dawn to travel to Crumlin every morning, trying to beat the rush hour traffic,” he explained. The family had nowhere to stay and only he or his wife was allowed into ICU to be with Amber. They took turns, one in ICU, the other trying to entertain the boys in the hospital corridors. They lived on takeaways, which added to the financial burden every day.

Then everything changed when they were offered a room in the Ronald McDonald House. “It was like winning the lotto for us,” Mark said. They had somewhere safe to stay, a private room with beds for all of them and a private bathroom. There was a kitchen filled with food they could cook, most of it donated by generous individuals and companies. The boys had a lovely play area and a TV to watch. The place was amazing and the staff were nice, but the best part was that they were on the grounds of the hospital and only five minutes’ walk from their “little princess’s bedside”.

“Unfortunately, everyone staying there was the same as us, consumed by worry, stress and anxiety for their sick children. Yet in this building, filled with so many hurting souls, we found a community of people that supported us and we offered our support too. It was the first time I realised that there were good people in the world. I’ll never forget the way we were treated. It was when our princess started to go downhill that it really made a difference. We weren’t living day to day, it was minute to minute, but being so close and being able to be with her whenever we needed, helped enormously. Ronald McDonald House gave us so much, but their biggest gift was time as a family with our princess.”

He remembers when Amber’s health spiralled downwards and an infection meant she was going to die. His smiling face confused doctors, who called him back to ask if he understood what was happening. “It’s only looking back now that I see I reverted to my normal habit of pushing trauma to the back of my mind,” he said.

Then came the point when Mark and Cheryllee had to give permission to turn off Amber’s life support. For the first time, they got to hold Amber, as she passed away peacefully in their arms.

Amber’s funeral triggered Mark’s realisation of his own mental health issues. He was having a breakdown. He tried to get help, but it wasn’t there. He tried to self-medicate, but that only “poured fuel on the fire”. Finally, he tried to admit himself to hospital, but was turned away and referred to day services.

Mark was eventually admitted to hospital, where he developed a love of art. He discovered he could paint and express what he could not say in abstract painting, a form of personal therapy he still uses.

After his discharge, Mark describes the services available to him as “like putting a plaster on a wound that needed stitches”. He was on so much medication he was “a shell of a man,” a “zombie drooling in a chair”.

He took out a loan and “went private”. That meant he got to spend at least an hour with a consultant rather than 10 to 15 minutes with a junior doctor that did not have the experience he needed. He got a different diagnosis from his private psychiatrist, but unfortunately, he could not afford to continue with private treatment and ended up in hospital again. He then started attending his GP in the evenings and there, he got the help he needed – knowledge. He started reading about how the mind works, from psychology to neuroscience. He learned mindfulness and a number of other alternative therapies. After each session he would spend days painting “it all out”.

“I have rebuilt my mind and have found pride in a job helping others,” he said.

Now that he has completely recovered and is off all medication for a few years, he wants to show everyone that if he can come through what he did, anyone can do it.

He looks at the positive outcomes of every situation and although he would change what happened to his daughter if he could and suffer himself instead, he accepts that if she had not passed away, he would never have realised he was not living his life and would have continued suffering. “She saved me from a life of hell and I hope by me crawling up the highest mountain in Ireland I might also help someone realise every mountain can be conquered, even if you have to crawl.”

ACT, Accessible Counselling Tullamore, were not established when Mark needed help, but he recognises the support they offer to those with mental health problems and he wants to support them.

He wants to raise money too for Ronald McDonald House in recognition of the “lifeline” they offered his and so many families with sick children. Mark and Shirley have two sons, Marshall and Arthur and two daughters, Ivy Rose and Summer Rose.

To make a donation to Mark’s fundraiser see Already the funds are pouring in and it is hoped that the courage and inspiration shown by this brave survivor of trauma, loss and heartache will encourage others to give generously.

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