IN four decades of performing Ballynahinch singer Donna Fleming has never cancelled a show.
But that all changed last Christmas when doctors revealed she could never take to the stage again.
A well known musical theatre star, producer, director and singer, Donna is better known as Northern Ireland’s top Dolly Parton tribute star, having performed hundreds of shows across the UK, Ireland and Europe.
Writhing in pain, unable to move and hospitalised Donna, 45, broke down in tears as she slowly saw her performing career slipping away.
Her back, which she had always had trouble with, was crumbling. It was deteriorating at such a pace that consultants believed prolonged performances could see her confined to a wheelchair or using a walking aid before she was 50.
Now, against all the odds, she’s back on stage thanks to her fellow tribute stars Niall McClean (Neil Diamond), Gary Gibson (Elvis) and Martin Gildea (Kenny Rogers).
“Last year was the worst Christmas I’ve had since my mum passed away around the same time in 2013” revealed Donna.
“In early 2015 I started suffering from sciatica and an extremely painful back. I’ve always had back problems but just took pain killers and got on with the shows.
“Around the same time my M.E was beginning to improve from moderate to mild, I thought things were looking up healthwise.
“I went for an MRI scan, I genuinely believed the results would come back and show a trapped nerve or something that we could get fixed easily.
“Instead the results were devastating. I was called into the doctors so they could explain to me whilst showing me the scan. Still to this day I don’t understand fully what he said. The doctor told me that the MRI scan showed disc degeneration at L45, left sided ligamentation flavum hypertrophy, nerve root irritation and a cyst in the sacral canal.
“Then things got serious. The doctor told me that in no uncertain terms was I allowed to perform again. My fiance Niall Toman was with me, we didn’t really understand the reality of what the doctor was saying. He was telling me I couldn’t do normal everyday things such as bending, housework and other things we naturally do everyday. Myself and Niall even joked about the fact that I was being told not to do any housework.”
Determined as ever, Donna was adamant she was going to adhere to every booking in the diary, she hadn’t let anyone down in 40 years and wasn’t going to start now.
Against the advice of her doctor and pleas from her friends and family Donna declared “on with the show”.
“I knew I had a stack of bookings coming up to Christmas. I couldn’t let people down, I just couldn’t. I was convinced I could do it, I was convinced I could see it through and take time off after Christmas to sort out my health.
“So I ignored all the advice and for two weeks solidly I performed over and over again. I had new medication that helped with the pain during the show, when the adrenaline was pumping, but when the shows ended and I got home the pain was unbearable, it was excruciating, even with the painkillers.”
And it didn’t end there, things got a lot worse for Donna.
“I got what I thought was viral bronchitis. I had been doing too much. I had written, choreographed, costumed, directed and did the lighting plan for 14 cast and crew shows in the November. I thought I was just run down” said Donna.
“I had then written and costumed a panto for December as well. All whilst trying to do my Dolly work too. Still I continued and my last gig in Europa Hotel was done with me not knowing I was much worse than I realised.”
Eventually, in tears and at her lowest, Donna realised she was going to have step back from commitments, a decision that saw her plunging into depression.
“It was at this stage I knew I had to let people down” admitted Donna.
“Lots of people were angry with me and some still don’t speak to me. I understand that. They don’t understand the full reasons and that’s OK. In 40 years of performing I’ve never missed a show.
“I was in bed in my home nearing the anniversary of my mother’s death, I was feeling exceptionally low and my doctor said I should rest as she believed I was suffering from severe depression on top of the hugely busy schedule and a heavy chest infection, at that point I was treated for depression and put on strong antibiotics.
“After a visit to the doctors and finally accepting that I had no choice but to rest I arrived home and within minutes I fainted.
“Niall [my fiance] phoned an ambulance and on arrival at hospital I was told I had double pneumonia. What’s worse is that while in hospital I went into anaphylactic shock, I was allergic to the drip. It literally couldn’t get any worse.”
Finally, hospitalised and facing the harsh reality of her failing health, Donna realised her Dolly days were over.
“Lying in a hospital bed you get a reality check and lots of time to think. I had to stop thinking about other people, I had to look after myself.
“Lots of people lost faith in me because I had refused to admit publicly what had happened, I was afraid.”
However, knowing his future wife wasn’t one to be beaten, Niall [her fiance] began hatching a plan.
Donna explained: “Niall had the original idea for a show and all my fantastic friends who are not only top notch performers but amazing musicians, put it together. They all literally met up and collaborated together to make sure they found a way I could still perform.
“When I found out I was so touched and I believe it’s even more entertaining show than my last one.
“I’m so grateful to have so many talented friends who are ready to be part of letting me still perform, even if it’s not for as long, and maybe sitting for a while during my set.”
Now back on the road as Dolly’s Rockin’ Country Club, Donna is on the road to recovery and now managing her pain wisely.
Niall McClean, who is a tribute to Neil Diamond said: “Performing is in Donna’s very DNA. We all agreed her early retirement would be a loss to the industry as a whole. So our good friend Gary Gibson, who is our Elvis tribute, along with our band, put our heads together and came up with a solution.”
Gary Gibson, Elvis tribute added: “We couldn’t stand to see our fellow tribute star be forced to leave the industry so we decided to rally round.
“Donna is the ultimate performer, she puts her all into everything she does, her attention to detail can’t be surpassed and her talent is breath-taking to watch.
“We all agreed we would be doing her and her audiences a great disservice if we did nothing. We are so happy we did. “
Meanwhile she says she will forever be in debt to her tribute buddies who have helped keep her on the stage.
“Mum used to say I’d never let challenge big or small beat me” said Donna.
“Well as usual, and thanks to great friends, she was right. Thanks to the wonderful organisers of the biggest family festival in Northern Ireland, Dalriada where I played last year.
“They heard my story and surprised me by giving me the main stage to do my new show. To say I’m excited is an understatement.”
See Donna and her tribute pals at Rock The Castle at the Dalriada Festival at Glenarm Castle on July 17. Tickets are £18 and available from www.tickemaster.ie, check out www.facebook.com/rockthecastle for more information.