Mothers share their heartbreak

Three mothers who lost their grown up sons to drug abuse have broken their silence to share their stories in an emotional bid to help others.

Collette Quigley, from Londonderry, Theresa Burke from Dungiven and Karen Vandersypen, from Letterkenny, were the guest speakers at Thursday night’s meeting in St Columb’s park House of the Policing and Community Partnership. Those who attended were deeply touched by their personal accounts of how they lost their sons to substance abuse.

Guest speakers Karen Vandersypen, Theresa Burke and Collette Quigley at Thursday's Derry Policing and Community Partnership public meeting, with DPCP vice-chairman, Una McCartney, right. Photo: Stephen Latimer

Guest speakers Karen Vandersypen, Theresa Burke and Collette Quigley at Thursday's Derry Policing and Community Partnership public meeting, with DPCP vice-chairman, Una McCartney, right. Photo: Stephen Latimer

The first to speak was Karen Vandersypen, whose son, Jimmy, died after he had a massive heart attack after trying synthetic cannabis.

“Jimmy had gone to Gravesend in Kent where he took the legal high known as synthetic cannabis. he had a massive heart attack and was taken to hospital. I received a telephone call to tell me he had suffered brain swelling which had crushed his brain stem and he was brain dead. I had to travel with my daughter from Letterkenny to the hospital to switch off his life support,” said Karen.

“It is something no person should have to do. Jimmy was a healthy, lovable young lad. He loved life, loved sport, he was really into his family. He was the youngest, he was my baby boy. It is something I would not wish on anyone, to watch their child’s life just slip away,” she said.

Spurred by the tragedy, she told delegates that her family had decided to launch a campaign about legal highs in a bid to get information out into the public domain about the dangers so that parents and children could learn more.

“I don’t think many parents did know much from the Facebook messages I was getting. That’s why we decided to highlight this issue and make people aware of what was happening,” she said.

Londonderry mother Collette Quigley, whose son, Andrew, died earlier this year, spoke of her heartbreak at having to take part in organised searches for his remains for four weeks after her son went into the Foyle River. In an emotional address she revealed that her son had pleaded with her for help, but in the absence of crisis support there was little she could do as he tried on a number of occasions to take his own life.

“He had tried a few attempts at suicide because he as that messed up. He came from a really loving family. We worshiped him,” she said, going on to speak about how, initially, she had shouted at Andrew.

“The fact that this is happening, you think to yourself ‘this does not happen to ‘normal’ people,” she said, continuing: “When I was in crisis with Andrew it was like banging my head off a brick wall. I did not want to believe he was addicted. I was so angry that he had got himself into this trouble. When we tried to get help it was terrible; nobody should be in that position.”

Approaching a doctor did not help Andrew’s position, and a suicide attempt followed: “Then I realised this is serious, he is going to do something really bad, but even for the GP to access services at Gransha meant they spent 40 minutes on the telephone. There was a waiting room full of people and patients only get a 15 minute slot. There was nothing out there.

“A psychologist came out to our own house but that was not what Andrew wanted. Andrew wanted to be locked up for his own health. That is why we are fighting for services.”

Reflecting on the impact Andrew’s death had on her family, she said after Andrew entered the River Foyle, by going off Foyle Bridge, it had taken four weeks of searching for him and now she was determined to make sure she was going to highlight the availability and destructive effect of drugs.

“It is too easy to get them,” she said.

Theresa Burk’s powerpoint presentation, charting the decline of her son Kealan’s life, had a profound impact on the meeting.

“I think Kealan was born addicted,” she said, as she flashed up images of her late son’s untidy bedroom and guitar collection: “I believe once he took his first drugs that he was addicted. He was the most fantastic guitarist; he was lazy. On a school report one teacher wrote ‘Kealan does everything he is asked and no more’. He loved his bed. Kealan could have slept all day. He was loved; he was wanted.”

Images of Kealan happily interacting with his siblings and relatives are flashed up. Theresa continued: “We were an ordinary family. They were born and brought up in the middle of the countryside, three miles from the nearest shop. Drugs were not part of our psyche/ Kealan had been going with a girl since he was 15.”

She related how Kealan was in university at Coleraine and had a part-time job. He had a car.

Than, one day he came home crying. He had been caught buying ecstasy. The case went to court and he was given an unconditional discharge because it was his first time offence. He was sent home.

“I did not realise until I read through his mobile telephone after his overdose how bad it was. He and his girlfriend went to Portugal for a holiday. He was content. He had everything to live for.

“He came in on the Saturday night and he looked tired. I said to him ‘You look ill’. He said ‘I’m alright mummy, I’m just tired’. That night was when he took his overdose,” she said, revealing that she later found out that someone had contacted him to say they had a bottle of methadone and asked him if he knew anyone that wanted to buy it.

“He went and bought it. He was depressed. His girlfriend said ‘either give drugs up or give me up’. He could not give the drugs up. I think the drugs overtook him. He was low, but I really don’t think he took the methadone that night to commit suicide. I believe he did not understand the strength of it,” she said.

She said she looked in on Kealan but he was in bed sleeping. On Sunday leaving the house she looked in the bedroom window and Kealan was still lying in bed, sleeping. Or so she thought.

Later Kealan’s girlfriend asked where he was because he was not in university. That was when they checked him.

“We found him in terrible shape. He was two week sin intensive care. He should have died then. They got him together but they could not do anything with him in Causeway Hospital. They said his brain was completely frazzled, his brain was completely damaged. He could not see, could not hear, could not swallow. He could not move his arms of legs, he was doubly incontinent,” she said.

Images on the screen have changed from a happy smiling young man, replaced by those of a vacant face, open-mouthed, inert being unable to make contact.

“He spent six months in Musgrave. It was unbearable to watch. He was just like a wet rug. If I could I would have smothered him because this was no way for anybody to live. We held his birthday in hospital. We put on a wee party for him. He knew nothing about what was going on. It was for our sake that we did it,” she said.

Video footage showed Kealan moaning when touched, but the staff at the brain injury unit said they had done everything they could for him. Theresa related that, as time went on, Kealan began screaming when touched anywhere except on the head.

They pumped him full of morphine and diazepam and paracetamol to keep him as calm as possible. Every time he was moved he would have screamed. He was catheterised and he got very bad infections. He was fed and got medication through a drip.

He was in a care home for a year when he contracted MRSA from a catheter and hte decision as taken not to treat the infection. At that stage the family was told Kealan had about three weeks left to live.

“He died within 10 days on February 25, 2009,” said Theresa, adding: “I sold his car to pay for his funeral. It was a week after his 22nd birthday, a year and a half after his overdose. So please, stay away from drugs. Just don’t touch them. This is the reality of drugs and the pain that drugs bring,” Theresa said, looking up at the image of her dead son on a video screen.

To view a video of Karen Vandersypen log on to and look under the news tab.