Sophie Walsh, who left this world on Tuesday (18th) aged five, was a ray of sunshine who brightened up the lives of everyone who was fortunate enough to meet her.
Sophie, like most children her age, was due to start school this week. After a long, courageous battle with cancer, she succumbed to the illness that afflicted her over three years at Crumlin Children’s Hospital on Tuesday.
Born a perfectly healthy child on July 3, 2015, into a loving home, her parents Sandra and Thomas were overjoyed to bring her back to her freshly decorated room in Lacken Valley.
Sophie met all her milestones but just before her second birthday, Thomas and Sandra sensed there was something wrong.
‘She was going off her food. We went to doctors, hospitals a couple of times, both in Waterford and Wexford. Then back to the GP and CareDoc. They were all putting it down as a viral thing that would run its course but nothing seemed to be getting any better,’ Thomas said.
They brought Sophie to CareDoc one Sunday evening and a doctor noticed a lump which was examined at University Hospital Waterford and the next day Sophie, Thomas and Sandra left for Crumlin, the first of many visits.
‘Our lives changed overnight,’ Sandra said. ‘Our consultant sat us down and laid out a treatment plan which was going to be up to two years. The doctors said it was going to be an intensive time.’
Sophie was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the central nervous system.
The prognosis was 50/50 as Sophie had an amplified version of the illness which made it harder to treat. Thankfully Sophie responded very well to treatment and after a few weeks her energy levels started improving.
‘She was back to being normal, except without the hair. She completed ten rounds of chemotherapy and had a break over Christmas and had surgery for her tumour, from which she recovered well. She had her own stem cell transplant in March,’ Thomas said.
Throughout, Sandra and Thomas were staying in the Ronald McDonald House near Crumlin on and off, their every waking moment by her side as Sophie recovered from the transplant and had 14 rounds of radiotherapy in St Luke’s, being administered a general anaesthetic every day.
She recovered from her treatment and had five rounds, once a month of immune-therapy.
‘She finished that in January 2019 and then she was finished. There was no evidence of disease.’
Throughout Sophie couldn’t enjoy the social interactions other children take for granted.
‘She couldn’t have a normal childhood as she was susceptible to infections. She could have cousins and friends around (sometimes). When we could, we did. She was in isolation for 100 days after her bone marrow transplant. Sophie made loads of friends at Crumlin. There were families from throughout Ireland we met up there and became good friends with. She was in Tir na ng playschool (when she could). She was looking forward to starting school.’
Throughout the spring of 2019 Sophie was in great health. ‘Everything was going good. She loved her dolls. She loved watching Youtube. Watching kids playing with toys. She loved to play. When she was feeling up to it she wanted to play and when she wasn’t she watched TV.’
Recalling a really happy child, an old soul in a child’s body, her parents said she was ahead of her years in terms of her conversations and speech. ‘She was around adults a lot between nurses and doctors. She had a great imagination. She could pick up a book and even if she couldn’t understand the words she’d make up a story from the pictures.’
Sandra said: ‘She was very witty; very quick off the mark. She was stubborn as well. If she didn’t want to do anything you couldn’t change her mind; it was set and that was it.
‘We often said she was an old person wrapped up in a small person’s body.’
Sophie enjoyed a magical trip to Disneyland with her parents, revelling in meeting Mickey Mouse and all the Disney characters she had seen on TV.
‘She loved it!’ they said.
Having enjoyed great health all spring of last year, something showed up in a routine scan midway during the summer.
‘It was very small and they couldn’t be 100 per cent. We had to wait and see what happened. She did a biopsy in September which confirmed she had relapsed and, at that stage, we knew she would have a very poor prognosis of five or six per cent. But we didn’t give up hope because she had such a good response the first time around so we thought she could do it again. She had a tough road.’
Due to the location of the cancer within the femur and her tender age, the bone broke the day after the biopsy.
Undeterred Sophie went around in her buggy to trick or treat that Hallowe’en, totally embracing the chance to get dressed up.
‘She adapted so well to every challenge. She had a nice Christmas.’
Sophie continued getting treatments after Christmas. ‘The treatment she was on wasn’t working as well as they liked and there was more progression on it. They switched her onto a different treatment again in February. We were running out of options at this stage.’
Sophie’s condition was being kept at bay with the chemotherapy. She still had a good quality of life, but less energy.
‘We had been told that the chemo would only work for so long and the cancer can find ways around it and gets used to it. We were always hoping for a miracle and that something would come along.’
Sophie enjoyed a great fifth birthday with friends and family in the garden.
A few weeks later, Aoibhinn’s Pink Tie charity staff arranged a princess party at the Horse & Hound for her.
‘She had wanted to meet Elsa and Anna. She had her cousins and there was face painting. That was her last good day.’
That evening Sophie started complaining of pain and her leg became more and more swollen.
She was admitted to University Hospital Waterford the following week and a CT scan showed quick progression of the tumour.
Sophie was transferred to Crumlin to help her pain management.
She died on Tuesday, August 18.
‘It happened so suddenly. She was tired from treatment. There was one of us with her at all times; we took it in turns.’
Both Thomas and Sandra, who have been out of work since the diagnosis to care for Sophie, said: ‘Everything changed so quickly and with the diagnosis and the prognosis we didn’t want to wait a second. We didn’t want to be looking back in five or ten years time that we had missed out. We had three amazing years. It was just the three of us, especially during lockdown it was nice just to have that time, the three of us.’
They praised the nursing staff of the hospitals Sophie as cared in.
Thomas said: ‘Throughout, the whole community were amazing; especially neighbours and local businesses. Even just in terms of support. She was treated like a mini celebrity in The Bakehouse and O’Briens. Everywhere she went on the town everybody knew her and was so good to her. She was a little character as well. Every day she’d say something that made you laugh. She wasn’t always in good form but she could change so quick. She would never dwell on things and never left her illness define her; she just kinda got on with it and never talked about it.’
Some of the nurses attended Sophie’s funeral, as did staff members from McDonald’s in Waterford, a favourite destination for Sophie.
‘The nurses left off balloons outside for her. They were so good to her. If she wanted a dance party they held a dance party, copying her moves. The Dunbrody ship was lit up gold for Sophie, ahead of cancer awareness month in September. She would have been starting school this week. We had picked a school and she was looking forward to starting big school.’
Sandra and Thomas left the house on Friday morning for their daughter’s funeral.
‘All of the neighbours were lined up on either side of the road. We had a garda escort down. Fr Tom Orr gave a lovely, personal eulogy. He was excellent to us and even called to Crumlin to see her. Members of the United Striders stood as guards of honour, as did Urban Gym and Tr na Ng staff.’
‘You Are My Sunshine’ rang out from the speakers at her funeral Mass, where not a dry eye could be found.
Sophie was laid to rest in St Stephen’s Cemetery, not far from her home.
The family want to thank everyone involved in sharing their love of Sophie on Friday, from the guards of honour to their neighbours and the wider community.
Sandra and Thomas said the Ronald McDonald House and Aoibhinn’s Pink Tie charities were tremendously supportive throughout the three years.
‘When a diagnosis comes, it’s rushed and people arrive at John’s Ward [in Crumlin] with just the clothes on their back. Even to have a toothpaste and brush.’
They recall in hushed tones, five years of happy memories with Sophie. ‘Just being so happy; a family – the three of us. She could just light up a room; she had a presence about her. She would make anybody laugh and left a lasting impression on people who were just drawn to her. She could come out with anything. She told it as it was.’
They spoke of a child who inspired them to have a positive outlook on life and cherish each day as it comes, no matter what.
‘For a five-year-old she was so happy go lucky. She inspired us. One day in the hospital she was colouring for the nurses and started colouring squiggles. I said why aren’t you doing it properly and she said “life is too boring to just stay between the lines”. There is a lot you can learn from a five-year-old, about outlook on life and how to deal with adversity. If Sophie spiked a temperature it means a few days in hospital and there was never any complaining.’
Sophie is dearly missed by Thomas and Sandra, her grandfathers Pat and Billy, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended family and friends.
New Ross Standard