LVIING WITH LOSS
It was Easter weekend 2005, The Murphy family were looking forward to a short break in Co Cork.
Dr. Dan, a Salthill based GP and his wife , Rose were taking their three children Orlaith (15) Eimear (12) and Daniel (8) to visit his mother in Bandon.“I got them Easter eggs before we set off on Good Friday evening to see their nana”, he recalls. “It was going to be a great weekend”. The children chatted and laughed on the journey. Orlaith, his eldest daughter, a Junior Certificate student at the Dominican College, Taylor’s Hill, was listening to her Walkman. She liked singer/songwriter Damien Rice and would later listen to the Kildare musician before going to bed. They arrived in Cork to a warm welcome. Dan’s father had died in 1990 and his mother was more than delighted to see her son and his family. The hours passed quickly with everyone catching up on what had been happening since they saw each other last and sharing the latest news. All too soon it was time for bed. The children went to sleep in single beds in the spare room. Dan remembers that night so well, the smiling faces, the laughter, the fun and the eager anticipation of the long weekend that stretched ahead. He especially remembers how he kissed Orlaith goodnight and told her he loved her at 1am on Holy Saturday morning, March 26.
That was the last time he saw his beautiful teenage daughter, whose name means Golden Princess, alive. Around 9am her sister Eimear rushed downstairs saying something was terribly wrong. Orlaith had died.“Eimear knew, she called us”, recalls Dr Murphy. “We contacted the emergency services and our priest and a doctor. It was an unspeakable shock, the devastation was instantaneous and indescribable. I knew from the way she was when I found her and later from what I was told after the post mortem that her passing was instantaneous, there wasn’t a struggle”. About one person a week is estimated to die from sudden cardiac death, according to Dr. Murphy. There are two main causes: (1) an abnormality in the structure of the heart – which is termed cardiomyopathy – and which exists since birth and (2) abnormal heart rhythms – the best know of these is Long QT Syndrome in which case “you see nothing wrong in the post mortem”, he explains. There is increased awareness about the condition in recent years, particularly due to the deaths of high profile sportspeople, such as Tyrone footballer Cormac McAnallen. The 24 year old teacher died suddenly in his sleep in March 2004 from an undetected heart condition. People under 50 years appear to be most vulnerable to the condition, according to Dr. Murphy. “Slightly more men than women are affected. Typically, these deaths occur suddenly and often without warming. However there may be a history of symptoms.“Technically, we don’t know what happened to Orlaith. She was in perfect health as I know now is typical of this condition. She played hockey with Taylor’s Hill. She never complained of breathlessness or pain.”
The days after her death passed in a blur. “You go into automatic mode. You are guided by friends and family and the superb professional services and undertaker staff. At least we had support, a month beforehand we were on holidays in France. I shudder to think if it happened there”.“We waked Orlaith overnight in Bandon and came back (to Galway) the following day and waked her in our home on the Sunday night. Then we brought her to the church on the Monday. You remember everyone (at the funeral) and what people said. You remember those who came to support you and you carry with you the things they said. I had experienced my father’s death but this was totally different. It broke all moulds.”The haunting Damien Rice song “The Blower’s Daughter’ – one of her favorites – which was used in the 2004 film Closer to express the pain and confusion of love was played at her funeral.Dr. Murphy finds consolation in the fact that Orlaith was a happy girl. She loved school, pop music, movies and Galway hurling. She enjoyed being with her friends and playing hockey for her school team. Science was her favourite subject. She played the piano and took part in a charity fundraising concern for the victims of the tsunami not long before she died.“In a lot of ways she was her own person,” says her dad, proudly. “She was happy and outgoing but very responsible. When I look at photographs of her I think she had a good life. As teenagers are, she was very popular with her friends. She was awfully caring of her brother and sister and frightfully good to her mother during her illness. I adored her. She was lovely”. “Sometimes I’d take her shopping and say “Maybe you’d like this (outfit)”. She’d turn to me and reply: “Are you serious? That’s crap”.
At times he was angry after her death asking the unanswerable. “Why her”? “She was innocent. She never smoked, she exercised. I see it still as her life being stolen. To this day I find it difficult to get my head around it and understand it. My faith has helped me – I go to Mass in the Claddagh most mornings. It gives you hope when you don’t have any and the capacity to believe there is meaning in something when you cannot understand.”He says he is indebted to the many people who helped him through the dark times after Orlaith’s death. “My family, friends and colleagues were extremely good. I wouldn’t have pulled through without them. My staff in the surgery (Salthill Medical Centre) were wonderful”.“After her death I had to take a few weeks off, my concentration was shot. I have to say the people of Salthill and my patients were extremely good and understanding. You try to cope but you never got over it. You do get to a point where you live with it. There is also an obligation on a person (the bereaved) because life is a gift. For reasons we don’t understand it can be taken from those we love.“As long as we have this gift there is an onus on us to do the best we can and we must accept certain things in life we cannot understand. I feel you honour the memory of those you love by doing your best. You can’t sit around looking at the ground. That’s honouring nobody. This kind of inconsolable loss forces you to face the mystery of life and death and hopefully to appreciate more the precious moments in life. To this day, I wake up at night and check my children.“I believe every life has a meaning. I would see her influence through her short life as being huge on our family, friends and those who hung out with her. The memory of her life remains our gift”.
Dr. Murphy was put in touch with CRY, the organisation which helps to raise awareness of cardiac risk in the young, after Orlaith’s death. Its Irish office is based in Tallaght Hospital in Dublin and offers a free heart screening service on referral from a GP for those at risk as well as contributing to medical research. His son and daughter were both screened for the condition.
“Was there anything we could have done about Orlaith? Probably not. But there are others who could benefit in the future because of the increasingly effective and sophisticated treatment available. This is a rare condition but be aware if a child complains of chest pain, dizziness or breathlessness on activity or if there is a family history of sudden death in a young person. In our case it was remote, my father’s sister died in childhood.“I don’t want people to be neurotic about it but to have an awareness, if they have any concerns to bring the child to a doctor”.He hopes by talking about Orlaith’s death he will increase awareness about undetected heart conditions and spare others the heartbreak he and his family are experiencing. “If we can even save one life and raise the profile of CRY. It doesn’t’ receive Government funding, it’s all voluntary contributions”.When Dr. Murphy meets Orlaith’s friends on the street, hears Damien Rice on the radio or watches Galway Gaelic football team take home the honours the memories rush back of his daughter who wanted to be a doctor when she grew up and would have been 21 on February 15.
• Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) can be contacted at (01) 4525482 or www.cry.ie. Its helpline number is (01 8395438).