I lost my dad, now I could lose uni place, says Rachel Dean
Why is an exam board refusing to acknowledge teenager's tragedy, asks Una Brankin
Rachel Dean was doing some last-minute revision for her sociology exam when her mother Anna (45) ran into her room asking her to help clear the hallway for the paramedics that were on the way.
It was just before midnight on June 14 and Anna thought her husband Graham (48) was having a heart attack.
Rachel (18) and her brother Michael (21), an IT student at Queen's University, Belfast, sprang into action.
"Mum was panicking - dad was lying on the bed in pain," the Belfast Model schoolgirl recalls.
"The paramedics had to put him into a wheelchair to get him down the stairs. Mum was talking to him and he asked her to bring his phone charger to the hospital, thinking he'd be okay."
Tragically, that was the last time the family, from Belfast's Ballygomartin Road, would see Graham alive. "He collapsed outside on the path before getting into the ambulance," says Rachel, remarkably stoic for someone in the early stages of grief.
"He was in pain. It was obviously hurting him, and seeing him collapse was hard for us, especially my brother - he had to help lift him into the chair.
"We didn't realise it but he actually died right there and then, but the doctors worked on him for two hours at the hospital."
Rachel took to the airwaves yesterday on Radio Ulster's Nolan Show to highlight the injustice of the schools exam board's refusal to accept her as a student of English, given her inability to complete exams. To her father's delight, she had been accepted by Queen's University, grades pending.
"Mum, Michael and I followed the ambulance and waited in a side room. Dad had been in good health - he went to the gym. He had a lung infection recently but that was nothing to do with this.
"We thought he'd be all right, but once the doctor came out to us with a nurse and sat down, I just knew. I could see the sweat on his back from having worked on dad for two hours. He said he was sorry, that it would have been very quick, that dad wouldn't have suffered and wouldn't have known he was going to die."
The surgeon explained Graham had suffered an acute aortic dissection - a tearing of the aorta that causes massive internal bleeding and is rarely survivable. Princess Diana died from the same condition, caused by the impact of her car crash in 1997. Graham had not been injured, however.
Rachel says: "It was completely out of the blue. We're still waiting for reports back to see what caused it. When the doctor told us he had died I went into shock and couldn't speak, literally. We just sat there for a while and cried. I couldn't go to see him. They offered but I said no. Mum and Michael did. They said he looked like he was sleeping.
"I was scared and still in shock when they brought him home from the undertaker. It took me a while to gather up the courage to look at him. I didn't deal with it very well. When I did, eventually, it didn't look like him, but gradually I saw he was at peace."
Describing herself as a "daddy's girl", Rachel said her father was always keen she attended university.
"He was light-hearted, easy-going and funny, but honest and sincere, too," she adds."I wanted to go to university in Scotland originally and we argued about it - he wanted me to go to Queen's. He pointed out the expense of flights and so on, and that changed my mind. He was delighted then when Queen's confirmed the offer of a place for me. He was glad I wasn't going too far away."
Last year Rachel achieved a grade A, obtaining the highest grade in her year, in the first exam in her sociology course. Having missed her next exam at 1.30pm on the day of her father's death, she was unable to sit her second sociology exam and third exam, which was three days later on the June 18, the day after her dad's body was brought home and the day before his funeral.
She said: "I couldn't attend. I wasn't able to eat or sleep and I was in complete shock and devastation. In my AS exams last year, I got a grade D in History, which I re-sat this year and was determined to improve my grade. I also achieved a grade A in English literature and another A grade in sociology.
"This year, I was achieving steady A-A* grades in my sociology assignments. I also sat mock exams in which I achieved two A*s in sociology. In my GCSE I achieved one A*, eight As, one B and one C. My record speaks for itself."
Rachel's mum, a care assistant, contacted her school on the morning of June 15 to tell the exam officer, Mrs Johnson, of Graham's death. She and the principal, Mr Wright, applied for special consideration and explained the details of Rachel's situation.
"Despite this, the exam board, AQA, rejected me on the basis that I had not been present for the exams and had not sat at least one of the Sociology A2 exams," Rachel explains.
"Mr Wright then appealed this decision and was rejected once again. The Joint Council for Qualifications had the final say in this decision. They said that their rule book was 'black and white' and they couldn't deviate from it. My brother also rang and they also told him there was 'nothing they could do about it'.
"Dad would have been absolutely fuming. Education was really important to him; he fought to give us a good one."
After the school's appeal was rejected, Mr Wright contacted Queen's, which was sympathetic to Rachel's situation. The selection board responsible for accepting applicants to the university, after they have achieved their final results, told Mr Wright that they may be able to accommodate Rachel with just two A2 grades.
"They emphasised this is not guaranteed, though," says Rachel. "It will severely affect my future education if I am penalised in this way, especially as someone so dedicated to school and further education. I have always been determined to eventually go to university and have prioritised my education.
"Since the Nolan Show asked for a statement from the exams board, they've offered me an honorary award, which is still not a pass into Queen's, but it's my only hope at this stage.
"In the meantime, mum, Michael and I are just taking dad's loss day-by-day. It's not normal in the house without him, but we're sticking together. I'm not religious but I think I'll see my dad again.
"My aunt - his sister - says he's still around. I just hope we'll get this sorted, for him as much as me."