One woman’s triumph over adversity
Living with a limb disorder gave Meg O’Gara the courage to launch a design business
Megnificent Creative founder Meg O’Gara: “I would like tell others not to be afraid to be their true, authentic self because this is when they shine the brightest.”
Meg O’Gara is a successful businesswoman and recently co-authored, designed and illustrated The Mammy Handbook – a compilation of stories and advice from mothers around the world.
Living in Donegal with her husband Andrew and their two sons, Phaedra (four) and Iarlaith (two), the 33-year-old, who is expecting her third child, is undoubtedly busy but, unlike most with a similarly hectic lifestyle, she was born with a birth defect which doctors predicted would drastically reduce her capabilities in life. Thankfully, she proved them wrong.
“I was born with symbrachydactyly of hands and feet, a rare, non-syndromic limb reduction defect disorder,” she says. “Patients typically present short, stiff, webbed or missing fingers and/or toes which are often replaced with small stumps with residual nails,” she says.
“I am missing fingers and toes. On my left hand I have just my thumb and baby finger while I am missing the first two toes on my left foot and the third is not fully formed – this means one foot is two sizes smaller than the other in footwear. I was also born with a clubbed foot and my right foot was rotated internally at the ankle. The foot points down and inwards with the sole of my foot facing towards my left leg.”
When she was born, doctors suggested amputation of Meg’s hand, but her parents refused as believed that their daughter should be able to make her own decisions in life. “My parents ferociously defended my right to decide for myself if amputation was something I wanted and that they would not make that decision on my behalf,” she says.
“I had two different medical teams, both giving my parents conflicting medical advice. One said my right clubbed foot needed to be in splints and the other would object and say the splinting needed to be removed and only manual manipulations and physiotherapy to be used to try to correct my limb. Both agreed that I required surgeries, but this would be mostly for cosmetic reasons and nobody held any hope that I would walk.
“My mother wasn’t quite sure what was best, so she took it upon herself to try both approaches, bandaging my leg at home between wooden spoons and then removing them and doing hours of manual manipulation and physiotherapy to try and physically turn my foot and leg outwards. My maternal grandmother also spent many doing the same. Between them, every spare moment they had, and every nappy change meant doing exercises to try and help me.”
This work undertaken by Meg’s family to try to minimise the physical limitations doctors said lay ahead was accompanied by daily encouragement that life was hers for the taking.
“My mom told me daily that I could do anything in life, and nothing would hold me back,” says Meg, who runs her own graphic design company, Megnificent Creative.“So I was always fiercely determined to never let it come between me and my goals. Nobody taught me how to do things any differently, I just had to ‘get on with it’, which I think was a really good approach. I took up horse-riding and I recall being shown how to hold the reins, which I obviously had to do my own way, and from that day I was hooked. I was always finding ways to adapt things in order to do whatever it was I wanted to do and find a way to succeed.”
But despite her mother’s bolstering, being a child who is seen as ‘different’ to others is always difficult to endure.
“I remember a time in school when everyone had to do recorder lessons and the teacher gave me a biscuit tin and wooden spoon and said I would have the ‘important’ job of keeping the beat,” she recalls. “When I told my mom how sad I was about this, she presented me with a recorder, a small drum and a triangle. She said she would do the finger part of the recorder while I blew so we would do it as a team. My heart soared to be able to make real music and I danced off to school the next day with my real drum and triangle in my bag.
“But during those years, I loathed my difference. I hated being singled out, isolated, taunted. Nobody was like me and I felt that nobody understood. I would ‘punish’ my left hand for ‘letting me down’ by hitting it as hard as I could off pebble-dashed walls, hiding it in photographs and in daily life while finding evidence anywhere I could to back up this strange idea that left meant bad. I was in a convent school, where left-handed writing was unlearned in favour of right-handedness and daily we were told that Jesus was seated at the right side of the Father – surely this also meant even God preferred the right.
“I don’t believe anyone was aware of the full scope of the turmoil I felt as I didn’t want to show I was struggling with being different because I didn’t want to upset those around me. When I look back now, I feel so sad for the little girl I once was and the pain I was obviously experiencing but not sharing. Nobody had answers so I saw no point in asking questions.”
Symbrachydactyly of hands occurs in about one in 32,000 births and is considered to be rare. Meg’s parents looked for answers but have never been told why their daughter was born with the condition. Her brother, born five years later, was not affected, nor were her own children.
She underwent several surgeries over the years, encountered bullies, people who were openly curious about her and even a midwife who “screamed” and fled the room when she realised that Meg was missing several fingers. But despite or perhaps because of these obstacles, she went from being a lost little girl to a happily married mother of (soon to be) three children who has a thriving business and great outlook on life.
“I always have been very determined never to let anything hold me back still often hearing ‘no such thing as can’t’ and ‘there is always a way’ ringing in my ears,” she says. “I had to get on with things when I was growing up and find a way to achieve whatever needed to be done. The incident with the midwife caused shock and horror for my husband but for me, the night our first son was born was also the night the real me was born as I suddenly felt unashamed and unapologetic for simply being myself. For the first time ever, I had found, accepted and embraced who I am and found real peace.”
Having finally accepted herself, Meg also decided to follow her dreams of working with her hands. Because although it may have been the least likely activity for a girl with seven fingers, Meg learned how to sew at her grandmother’s kitchen table and would spend hours engaged in art and craft projects. After school she studied psychology and criminology before going on to specialise in autism and working in worked in adult mental health services. But by her own admission, the call to be creative always loomed in the background.
Leap of faith
“I loved my career and got to be creative at home, for myself, or when friends and family would ask for something beautiful and unique – but I yearned for more,” says Meg. “I wanted to live my creative life every day and got the chance after my second son was born. Facing a daily commute to work – which averaged two hours each way – was no longer an option. I was living in rural Donegal where unfortunately job opportunities, particularly for women, are few and far between. I knew I needed to do something and the only way this was going to be viable was to take the leap of faith, to believe enough in myself and my creativity and set up my own business.”
Meg, who is originally from Dublin, says she now realises that ‘being different’ has made her stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons. “My limb differences have given me unique opportunities to see and experience life differently to how others normally do,” she says. “It has really shaped me as a person, allowed me to look at things differently, and have experiences that others don’t have.
“A lifetime of questions and interactions, some more pleasant than others, has given me the confidence and ability to finally love, accept and fully embrace my difference and all of the experiences and opportunities it provides me with.
“I would like tell others not to be afraid to be their true, authentic self because this is when they shine the brightest. Life is too short to worry about what others think. I am a huge believer in things happening for a reason, it may take some time for that reason to become clear but eventually all the pieces slot together like a jigsaw puzzle and you get to see why things are just how they are – and that it is all for the best.”