lifestyle

My sister died in front of me but there was nothing I could do


As I got into my car with my sister Deborah at about 5pm and started our journey home from our jobs in October last year, we were talking away about how positive we felt after the day’s work. 

My sister had done training with a new starter so she told me she was relieved and happy that she was going to have some assistance with her workload. I even joked with her and said that she would be able to have a holiday now.

She’d been completely fine all day but in recent weeks, she’d randomly started having seizures as a result of a head injury she’d sustained in 2003.

Following the seizures, doctors told her that the injury had caused blood cells to be disrupted in her brain that could either lie dormant for the rest of her life or cause life-changing problems down the line.

They were in the process of figuring out what had caused the sudden seizures, but I never really considered the possibility of it being a real threat to her life.

Within five minutes of the usual half an hour journey home – just around the corner from the office on Southport Road near Walton Vale – she suddenly stopped talking and said ‘oh my god.’ Then there was nothing.

It wasn’t a painful shout or anything, it just seemed normal so I thought she was just remembering that she had forgotten to do something or had left something in the office.

I asked her what was wrong but she didn’t respond. Her breathing was heavy and I was in the middle of rush hour traffic so couldn’t look directly at her face. 

I thought maybe she felt sick so asked if she wanted the window down. When she didn’t respond, that’s when I started to panic.

As we travelled for another minute or so towards the Breeze Hill junction, I knew I had to try and pull over. She had started to lean forwards and sideways and I thought she may have had some sort of seizure so had my arm across her to stop her from falling into me or anywhere else.

I managed to pull into a petrol station. I clearly saw something was very wrong so I panicked and phoned my daughter, which is always the first thing I do in an emergency.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was saying to her, but within a minute she could hear Deborah’s breathing and I knew I needed to phone an ambulance. I dialled 999 and even had to run into the shop of the garage to ask for their address because I didn’t know exactly where to tell the ambulance to go.

Deborah was a huge sports fan, specifically the Philadelphia Eagles (Picture: Beverley Leeman)

I was absolutely panicked and had no idea what was happening at the time. It didn’t look to me as if Deborah had had a seizure – it was different to previous times; I just didn’t know how to help her at that moment.

Within three minutes, a paramedic and an ambulance arrived at the same time. They knew immediately it was serious so three of them lifted her out of the car and got her into the ambulance. They were trying to wake her up but it wasn’t working.

After answering some questions about the incident, they encouraged me to get back into my car and follow them to the hospital, where I was immediately allowed in, despite Covid-19 regulations.

That’s when I realised it was probably very serious but even then, I never in a million years thought it was going to be as catastrophic as it was. The journey to Fazakerley Hospital took about 10 minutes and as soon as I got there, I had to sit by myself in a relatives’ room – just waiting for news about my sister.

I was nervously on and off the phone to my daughter. I didn’t know anything about Deborah at the time but I told my daughter to be on standby just in case she needed to swing around and urgently pick up my dad to come over.

Even then, I was still hopeful that it wouldn’t have to come to that.

Two hours after arriving at the hospital, the doctors came and told me that Deborah had a bleed, which was immediately catastrophic. They told me that her brain had basically died while she was sitting next to me in the car, and she wasn’t going to survive.

Deborah was a huge sports fan, specifically the Philadelphia Eagles. She went to as many games as possible when she lived in the States and watched them on TV religiously. We all got to know what was happening throughout the games with her constant posts on Facebook.

She lived in the US until 2019 when she moved to live and work with me, and that’s when we really became close.

We eventually found a radio station that we loved for our drives to and from work when we went into the office. We didn’t need to have conversation in the car because we were just always singing to some of our favourite songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

She was always the life and soul of the party too. On one occasion at a work party, I was trying to leave and had a taxi waiting outside, but every time I went to try and get Deborah I found her back on the dance floor again with her shoes off, singing and dancing.

So as soon as I heard that she wasn’t going to make it, I went into shock and couldn’t really comprehend it all. How was I going to explain this to family and friends when it didn’t feel real at all? I immediately called my daughter to bring my dad but absent-mindedly didn’t explain anything else.

We completed an ‘Order Donor Passport’, which just asked for personal information about Deborah (Picture: Beverley Leeman)

It was at that time that I was allowed to go and be with Deborah in the emergency room. They were keeping her alive, but she was clearly gone.

They also had to cut her clothes off – including the Eagles jersey she was wearing at the time – to properly assess her condition.

I ended up holding her hand and talking to her – as if she’d open her eyes and everything would suddenly be fine – but silence filled the room. I was still just in so much shock and disbelief that it was even happening.

Time seemed to stand still and then my daughter arrived with my dad. They didn’t know the extent of things yet so I had to get the doctors to tell them as I just wasn’t able to process it all.

After that, the three of us sat with Deborah on and off for a few hours, just not wanting to leave her on her own. The medical staff were still doing tests and waiting for a bed to open up in the ICU so we were allowed to just be together in her presence, which was really special.

Then came the task of having to call various family and friends, which my 74-year-old dad felt like he couldn’t emotionally do at the time so I had to do it. I spoke to my brother in Tennessee USA, aunt, cousin, our workplace and some other family members – having to relive the experience with each and every one of them. It was incredibly difficult.

That’s when my brother Stuart brought up organ donation, which is something I hadn’t even considered. He said it was something Deborah would’ve wanted and after careful conversations with other family members at the time, we approached medical staff to start the process of it all.

The donation team said they were immediately going to look for people who could benefit from the organ donations, including Deborah’s heart, kidneys, liver and tissue.

Knowing Deborah had the potential to save multiple lives, there was no question in our minds that it’s what she would’ve wanted. 

While waiting for the organ recipients to be found, Deborah was transferred to Horsley Hall for palliative care, where we were able to spend as much time with her as we wanted.

It took no more than 48 hours for the transplants to be arranged but within that timeframe, we spent a great deal of time with the organ donation team talking through the whole process.

We completed an ‘Order Donor Passport’, which simply asked for personal information about Deborah like the family she was leaving behind, her likes, dislikes, favourite animals, songs and of course, her favourite American football team – the Eagles.

We were able to have a funeral for my sister (Picture: Beverley Leeman)

About 10 minutes before they were ready to turn off Deborah’s life support, the team took the ‘passport’ into the operating theatre where the surgical team were ready. They held a minute’s silence and read out the information we had given them about Deborah – so they felt like they knew more about her as a person rather than just a donor. 

Then it was time to say goodbye to Deborah.

So my dad and I held her hands, kissed her head and spoke our last words to Deborah as she was wheeled out into the operating room for the transplant.

Having read the information card, one of the nursing staff uttered the words ‘Fly, Deborah, Fly’ as she was being wheeled away for the surgery – which was a version of ‘Fly, Eagles, Fly’ – and we all burst into tears.

And that was it. Deborah was gone.

From the moment I phoned the ambulance, the hospital was amazing and all NHS staff went above and beyond, so I cannot thank them enough for their support.

Given we were in the middle of Covid-19, the fact that we were allowed to stay with Deborah was amazing. 

I am just so grateful to the entire team in Horsley for being so understanding and caring and allowing us to spend Deborah’s final days with her. It really has meant so much.

Three weeks later, we were able to have a funeral for my sister – with a cap of 30 people – and that was really heartbreaking.

We managed to sew up the Eagles jersey that had been cut by the ambulance workers on the day of Deborah’s incident, then we draped it over the coffin. After the service, we’ve framed it and it’s now in my living room as a memory of my gorgeous sister.

We couldn’t thank the NHS and funeral staff enough for all of their support during such a hard time in our lives. They managed to turn something really tragic into something beautiful and I don’t think a lot of people would understand what that feels like.

All I can really say is: Fly, Deborah, fly.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk.

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