Ulcerative colitis sufferer Jenny Byrne with Gary Neville, as a child and today. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission

A young woman who first met Salford City manager and Manchester United legend, Gary Neville, when he visited the children’s ward she was staying on, has now joined his marketing team at the further education college he has founded.

Jenny Byrne was first admitted to Booth Hall Children’s Hospital after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at just six years old. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease, whose symptoms can include diarrhoea, bleeding, rapid weight loss, loss of appetite and fatigue. While not necessarily fatal, the disease often requires lifelong treatment.

Jenny recalls how her family was informed of her diagnosis: “It was when I was six that I first started getting symptoms of ulcerative colitis. These symptoms can often cause misdiagnosis of other illnesses, like eating disorders for example, but because of my young age this wasn’t the case, and I was lucky to be diagnosed quite quickly, in comparison to others with the illness who must fight for a diagnosis for years. I had an incredible consultant at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital, Dr Fagbemi, who diagnosed the Ulcerative Colitis relatively quickly following tests and colonoscopies, and I received the diagnosis in December 2006.

“It wasn’t a very well-known illness back then, in fact there was little awareness of it at all, and especially in children as young as me. For my parents, I know it was a very scary time seeing their daughter so poorly, but it was also scary for them not knowing what the future of the illness or my health held. Despite this, they never let me think like that, and always ensured I was headstrong about it and I’ll always be grateful for this outlook they made me have.”

Ulcerative colitis sufferer Jenny as a child with Gary Neville. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission.
Ulcerative colitis sufferer Jenny as a child with Gary Neville. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission.

Following her diagnosis, Jenny was moved to a specialist ward to continue her treatment. It was there that she first met footballing icon Gary Neville, when he and other members of Manchester United’s golden-era squad came to visit the ward. For Jenny, and indeed her whole family, it was a moment of delighted surprise.

She said: “There was always visitors in and out of the ward, particularly with it being close to Christmas but when Gary walked through the door, my Dad said he was genuinely just confused – he was actually wondering who he was there to visit!

“I was in the second bed so we could see the doors clearly, and in followed Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Alan Smith behind Gary and it was at that point, as we are a family of Manchester United fans, that my parents clocked on as to what was happening. I can genuinely remember my parent’s reactions as they sat at the end of the bed in disbelief. I think it was the first time in a while I’d seen them genuinely smile too, after everything that had been going on and it was then that I realised something special was happening and this was no ordinary visit!

Manchester United teddy. Photo: Jenny Byrne
Manchester United teddy. Photo: Jenny Byrne

“Gary, as he was captain at the time, lead the team over to speak to us, shared gifts and took pictures. I remember being given multiple chocolate selection boxes, an annual, a page with all their signatures on for my 10-year-old brother who was at school that day, and a Manchester United teddy, who I still have! Gary made sure to properly sit down with us and talk to us all, asking about my condition and not just how I was, but how my parents were coping too. They’ve always remembered how kind he was that day.

“That day, and how much it resonated with us as a family has always been something we’ve never forgotten. The difference it made was incredible. It was something to just give us hope in a very unknown period of life.”

After spending much of the following year in hospital, Jenny was eventually able to return to school. Though she still required regular hospital care throughout her childhood, she thrived in education, and went on to complete a digital media apprenticeship at The Juice Academy in Manchester.  After graduating, she began looking for jobs in marketing, which is when the opportunity of a position at University Academy 92, the further education college that Gary Neville co-founded in 2017, arose.

In Jenny’s eyes, this coincidence seemed the stuff of fate: “When I saw the role at UA92, it felt right, and deep down I knew it was the future for me. The approach to learning at UA92 is exactly what I’d have wanted to have when I left college. The way they cut through the noise and do things deliberately different was something I knew I wanted to be a part of.

“I applied for the role, with no mention of my earlier meeting with Gary until I knew I’d got the role. Working in marketing, I know all too well how interesting this story appears and I didn’t want to get the role based off that. I wanted it to be about me and my skills and what I could bring to the table. Once I got the job and shared my illness with my new team and the UA92 People team, I also shared the story, and they just couldn’t believe it.

Jenny and Gary today. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission.
Jenny and Gary today. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission.

“Gary was on-campus on both my interview and on one of my first days anyway as he is always around campus, and that was when Head of Marketing, Stacey, introduced me, and I told him the story. He didn’t quite remember me as an individual, but he did say he always remembered visiting Booth Hall and did for a few years with it being the local hospital at the time, and how much he loved doing so because it truly felt special. We had a good laugh looking at the photo from back then, and talking all about the day, sharing how special it was and then took the now ‘after’ photo too.  Now, I work alongside Gary regularly as he is highly involved in UA92 as co-founder.”

As an adult, Jenny is able to manage her condition well, though she still receives treatment to help improve her immune system and maintain the amount of active disease that remains in her bowel. Though having a compromised immune system has been made even more challenging by the pandemic, Jenny remains upbeat as ever about the journey she has been on: “For young people suffering with colitis, I would say exactly what my parents always told me and that was just to power through. Don’t see it as a ‘why me’, but rather that you are strong enough to deal with it and you will. Staying headstrong and looking after yourself is key. My mum always swears by having a good consultant and team at the hospital, and fighting for the right one if it isn’t working for you. I was incredibly lucky to be in the care of Dr Fagbemi, and the support nurses Jane and Jane, and I owe a lot to them.

Jenny as an adult with Gary Neville. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission
Jenny as an adult with Gary Neville. Photo: Jenny Byrne, used with permission

“I think the outlook my parents encouraged me to have is what has made me tackle this illness so well over the years and possibly even contributes to keeping the illness maintained. I always look back and say I won’t ever really know any different, or I won’t know my life without the illness and regular hospital stays as I was so young, so for me, this is just normal life! I say if you can’t change your physical health, change your mental outlook towards it. Your mind and the way you approach things really can do wonders.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by ulcerative colitis, there is information and support available on the Crohn’s and Colitis UK website.

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