'Mum put a brave face on things. She played her illness down for our sake... we just didn't realise how close the end was'
Belfast woman Sarah-Jane McCrory was gripped by depression when her late mum Jo-Ann was diagnosed with COPD. She tells Stephanie Bell how the family aim to raise £2,000 for the Northern Ireland Hospice which provided care for Jo-Ann
It is just 11 weeks since she lost her mum Jo-Ann to a chronic lung condition and Sarah-Jane McCrory and her family are already fund-raising in her memory. The grieving Belfast family is planning to take part in one of a series of walks in aid of the Northern Ireland Hospice whose care and support proved invaluable to them in Jo-Ann's final months.
Jo-Ann, who is survived by her husband Samuel (61), daughters Sarah-Jane (34), Louise (29), son Samuel (37) and grandchildren Chloe (17) and Parker (six-months), was only 60 years old when she passed away on January 5 from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
COPD is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. These include emphysema, which is damage to the air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis, long-term inflammation of the airways.
COPD is a common condition that mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke and many people don't realise they have it. And it can also affect people who have never smoked.
The likelihood of developing COPD increases the more you smoke and the longer you've done it.
Meanwhile, some cases are caused by long-term exposure to harmful fumes or dust or it can occur as a result of a rare genetic problem which means the lungs are more vulnerable to damage.
Breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time and can severely impact on quality of life.
Jo-Ann, who smoked since she was a teen and got through 40 cigarettes a day, was diagnosed in February 2015.
Although her family had been aware she wasn't feeling well for some time, Sarah-Jane, who works as a clerical officer for the Belfast Trust, says it was a huge blow when they discovered she had a chronic life threatening illness.
She recalls: "She had been unwell, but we thought it was nothing serious. Daddy got her to the doctor and he sent her straight to the Mater Hospital in Belfast.
"She was diagnosed there and while I had heard of emphysema and bronchitis I had never heard of COPD before.
"I took the diagnosis really badly," she adds. "I had a breakdown and was off work for six months being treated for depression.
"I'm really strong now, though for me, that was the start of my grieving.
"Mum put a brave face on it all. She played her illness down for our sake - that was the type of person she was.
"We think she had been living with COPD for years and it had gone undetected.
"When she came out of the hospital she was brilliant and, actually, the best we had seen her in ages.
"She had a really positive outlook," she says.
"She and dad were married 40 years and it was dad's 60th birthday and we had a big party in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast. All our family was there and mum loved it.
"She was up dancing the whole night - but shortly after that she started to go downhill."
Breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time with COPD and tragically for Jo-Ann her condition deteriorated very quickly. She spent most of the rest of 2015 and 2016 in and out of hospital and after April 2016 was dependent on oxygen 24 hours a day.
This left her virtually housebound and after a spell in hospital in October 2016 she was admitted to the Northern Ireland Hospice for management of her symptoms.
"The disease really seemed to suddenly get her in its grip," says Sarah-Jane. "Mum was always an anxious person by nature and when she was unable to get a breath she really panicked. It was awful. It is a very cruel disease.
"Her wee lungs were just destroyed. We knew the oxygen was keeping her alive but we didn't realise that she had such a short time left.
"She went into hospital on October 4 last year which was the day after her 60th birthday. And, at the end of October, she left the hospital and went into the hospice.
"Even when she went into the hospice we just thought it was another blip and she would pick up again.
"Deep down, though, we all knew she wasn't going to get better - but we didn't realise how close the end was. I think mum knew too, but she put a brave face on it."
The family spent Christmas at home when Sarah-Jane says it was hard for her mum to sit all day while her husband Samuel cooked the turkey.
Again, the realisation that this would be Jo-Ann's last Christmas donned on the family, so they all focused on making it as special as possible.
No-one was prepared for how quickly her condition deteriorated after Christmas and Jo-Ann passed away peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of January 5.
Sarah-Jane says: "Even when we saw her become more unwell after Christmas, in my head I still thought that it was just another dip and she would come back up again and we would still have months with her.
"We had been told that she would be bedridden at the end - but she was still getting up every day and sitting on the sofa. She had been house-bound since the previous April but her spirits were good.
"Even though she had oxygen cylinders that she could take out with her she was terrified of running out of oxygen so she didn't go out.
"That was hard for her because she loved shopping and going into town.
"I remember the night before she died, I went into her room to say goodnight and tell her I loved her. Her speech was a bit strange but I didn't think anything of it.
"The next morning I got up and was getting ready for work. The carer who got her up in the morning and washed her came at 7.30am as usual but dad sent her away because he wanted mum to sleep on as she'd had a bad night.
"As I was getting ready I heard dad's voice and it was getting louder and when I went into the room he had been trying to wake her and we both realised she had gone.
"She went in her sleep and that was something she had always said she wanted - to die in her sleep," she adds.
"It is only 11 weeks but it seems like 11 months. Mum was so full of life. She didn't drink but she loved to dance and was always the first one on the dance floor.
"She loved football and was a big Manchester United and Northern Ireland fan.
"She did smoke and she always smoked cheap cigarettes when she could. She did stop when she was diagnosed but it was too late, the damage was done."
Jo-Ann's husband, three children and grandchildren and her daughter-in-law are planning to take part in the Hospice Walk on June 10 in her memory.
The hospice is hoping to raise £100k from walks across Northern Ireland to help continue to provide people here with the highest quality palliative care at home and in the hospice when they need it most.
The 2017 Hospice Walks will take place in nine stunning locations across the province starting this week on April 1 and running in May and June.
Walking distances range from 1.5 miles to nine miles allowing people of all ages and abilities to take part.
Sarah-Jane and her family have set up a justgiving page and have already raised £950.
It is their hope that they will eventually raise up to £2,000 for the charity.
Sarah-Jane adds: "The hospice is fantastic. They do such great work. They don't just focus on the patient but on the whole family and the support they gave us was amazing.
"When mum wanted home the hospice staff made it as easy as possible by ensuring she had everything in the house that she needed, even a new recliner chair to make her more comfortable.
"They were absolutely fantastic and we are really pleased to be able to do the walk as a family in mum's memory and to show our gratitude to the hospice for the care they gave her and the support they gave us."
You can support the family in their fund raising by going to https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Louise-Mccrory?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=Louise-Mccrory&utm_campaign=pfp-share n To register for your local 2017 Hospice Walk, visit nihospice.org or tel: 028 9077 7123.
COPD symptoms and treatments
● Increasing breathlessness — this may just occur when exercising at first, and you may sometimes wake up at night feeling breathless
● A persistent chesty cough with phlegm that never seems to go away
● Frequent chest infections
● Persistent wheezing
● Stopping smoking — if you have COPD and you smoke, is the most important thing you can do
● Inhalers and medications — to help make breathing easier
● Pulmonary rehabilitation — a specialised programme of exercise and education
● Surgery or a lung transplant — although this is only an option for a very small number of people
● COPD is largely a preventable condition. You can significantly reduce your chances of developing it if you avoid smoking.
● If you already smoke, stopping can help prevent further damage to your lungs.