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New Yorkers rally to seriously ill Dublin boy

By Peter McDermott

Two New York women active in Irish organizations in the city have joined forces to help a very seriously ill teenager from Dublin.

Rory Sheils, who is 15, came to America last month for treatment for a rare form of cancer. Three days later, on Nov. 18, his left leg and part of his pelvis were amputated in an operation at Sloan Kettering Hospital.

Signed uniforms from soccer stars and tickets to big games have been donated for an auction that is just one part of a major fundraising drive for Rory in his native city. But Madeleine Conlon, a member of the Carlow Association, thought that the New York Irish community should be involved in helping the young 6-foot athlete and his parents.

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She found a natural ally in long-time friend Mary O'Dowd, who with Tony Pope founded the Frances Pope Foundation in 1982 in memory of their daughter. After toddler Franny died of leukemia, they dedicated themselves to helping families caring for a child with cancer.

The Foundation has provided the funds for Rory's parents, Paul and Louise Sheils, to stay at Ronald McDonald House, on 73rd Street at First Avenue, as well as money for some other incidental expenses.

"That's what we do," O'Dowd said. "But they'll need much more than that."

She said that the $150,000 mentioned by those raising funds in Dublin is certainly an underestimate of the long-term costs, even though Dr. Patrick Boland, the surgeon, has provided his services free of charge.

"It's really admirable of her to see if there's something we can do here in America," O'Dowd said of Conlon's efforts to get the word out to the Irish community in the Metropolitan New York area.

Conlon first heard about the case over dinner in Dunmore East, Co. Waterford, on a recent trip to Ireland. The son of an old friend told her about his friend, Paul Sheils, whose son was headed for Sloan Kettering after being diagnosed with Clear Cell Sarcoma and told nothing more could be done for him in Ireland or England. She said to the friend that her daughter was once a nurse at that hospital and that her daughter-in-law was still there.

"We know so many nurses at Sloan Kettering," she said.

If nothing else, she believed, New Yorkers could show a welcoming face to the Sheils family. She added that people like Fr. Joe Fonti and Fr. Tom Pasquele have since done just that, in addition to providing emotional support.

"She's really helped us so much," Paul Sheils said of Madeleine Conlon. "It's totally unexpected. We wouldn't have gotten through it without the help that people have given us.

"It's been phenomenal. Absolutely fantastic. Friends of friends and total strangers have helped," he said, adding that he's been impressed with the Irish presence in the city and the good will shown towards visitors. "People's generosity has been overwhelming. We came to a strange country and in a lot of ways it's like being at home."

Rory's father reserved special praise for the surgeon who diagnosed the boy's extremely rare form of cancer when in Dublin. "Dr. Boland is an incredible man," said the Sandymount resident. "We've been here five weeks and he has visited three times a day every day, even on Thanksgiving and on Sundays."

Speaking Tuesday, Sheils said the family was hopeful that Rory would be let out of hospital later that day and that he would celebrate Christmas with his 16-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister, who'd traveled from Dublin. If things go according to plan, he will stay at Ronald McDonald House and return for outpatient treatment each day.

"They're such lovely people," Conlon said of Paul and Louise Sheils. "And Rory is such a lovely boy."

Conlon and O'Dowd would like the network of New York Irish organizations to ease the parents' financial burden as they get the best treatment possible to save their son's life.

Conlon said that President Roosevelt's March of Dimes in aid of polio victims is a good charitable model.

"My mother remembered from the Great Depression that a little could really help a lot," she said.

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Mail Madeleine Conlon c/o 82-78 Caldwell Ave., Middle Village, NY 11379, or call her at 718-639-3680.