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Co Armagh mum uses running to help cope with losing her husband

A widow at 27, Co Armagh mum Lorraine Cartmill tells Una Brankin how running helped her cope with losing husband Don to a brain tumour

Published 06/11/2015

Medal glory: Lorraine Cartmill with her son Ryan
Medal glory: Lorraine Cartmill with her son Ryan
Witch way: Lorraine and her sister Wendy take part in the inaugural Run Forest Run event at Minnowburn last Saturday
Lorraine competing in another race

Lorraine Cartmill ran her first ever race with not one soul cheering her on - by her own choice. The civil servant's family and friends first heard of her venture when she arrived home from the Newry run in 2012 with a medal in her handbag. It was the last thing they expected from the young widow from Glenanne, Co Armagh.

Lorraine had been grieving for husband, Don, who died of a brain tumour in 2009, three years after he was diagnosed. He was 30 years old, Lorraine was 27.

"We were together as a couple at the time, we were building a house and planning to get engaged," she recalls. "The diagnosis didn't change my feelings for Don. I stayed with him and we got married in 2006."

A joiner by trade, Don had been in good health and was training for a marathon when his symptoms started to emerge, in July 2005. The couple was on holiday at the time.

"He became very sick one day - we'd both eaten a pork dish the night before but I wasn't sick, so I knew it couldn't be that," Lorraine explains. "He started complaining about a strange metallic taste and smell he was having, and he was very weak when we got home. He'd no energy, so he went to see his GP."

An ECG pointed to an abnormality and a further tests revealed a leakage in one of Don's heart valves, but his symptoms didn't fit the findings. An MRI scan was then recommended. The results came in December 2005.

"Don had been going into a sort of trance when he got the metallic taste and smell - it turned out that was a form of epileptic seizure from a brain tumour. I was with him when he got the diagnosis. It knocked us for six.

"It was a very daunting thing to face but the oncologist and surgeon gave us lots of hope. They explained the tumour could have been lying dormant for years on the left side of his brain. They said they couldn't operate at that time because they wouldn't be able to remove it all but they were upbeat."

Don and Lorraine got engaged the following February, six months after the shocking diagnosis, and Don continued to work on the couple's new house, near Markethill. They married in October 2006, and honeymooned in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Monaghan, as Don was unable to travel abroad.

"Don had surgery five months after our wedding," says Lorraine, no hint of self-pity in her voice. "He came through it fine, but they weren't able to remove the whole tumour.

"He had to go for chemo five days a week for six weeks. I took time off work to go with him. After that, his scans were fine but he wasn't able to go back to work."

The couple had talked about starting a family and Dan's doctors assured them there was no reason why they shouldn't. Lorraine became pregnant in 2008. By Christmas, Don's symptoms were worsening.

"He became very forgetful and clumsy, and he wasn't a good colour," Lorraine remembers. "He said he just wasn't right. He was on a lot of anti-epilepsy medicine at the time to keep him seizure-free and it took a lot of trial and error to stabilise the dosage and type."

A further scan in January 2009 delivered heart-breaking news for the Cartmills. Lorraine was 36 weeks pregnant at the time.

Lorraine says: "I knew something was wrong when they asked us to come in for the results straight away. The tumour was growing and there were more of them in his brain. They confirmed it was a stage four glioma tumour; very nasty, and they couldn't do any more surgery.

"They put him on a tablet form of chemo and he ended up in hospital a few weeks later - he couldn't get his feet out of bed and his speech was affected. He was able to come home after they put him on steroids."

Baby Ryan was born the following month, on March 19. Don was present for the birth.

"We were happy - but it was bittersweet," says Lorraine. "Don was there but he wasn't well, he hadn't enough white blood cells. I was very lucky to have great support from both sides of the family. My dad even took time off work to help. Don had lost his own father and really looked up to mine.

"The problem was I couldn't leave Don alone with Ryan - he'd go into the kitchen and forget what for; he'd try to change Ryan's nappy but do it back-to-front. Then, one night in June, he said 'I can't see'.

"We got him to hospital and the oncologist said the tumour was putting pressure on part of the brain that controls sight and that Don would need 24-hour care from then on. His sight came back on and off after that. It was like having two children in the house, and it was so sad to see Don deteriorating while Ryan was developing very day."

Don was admitted to hospital in August 2011 and Lorraine was given the terrible news that he had six months to live. She decided against telling him the prognosis.

"I was totally devastated, I didn't know how I was going to cope. I asked the oncologist if I should tell Don. He said, 'it will either haunt him or go in one ear and out the other'. So, I didn't tell him. I think it was the right thing to do at the time.

"It was strange," Lorraine adds. "When people called, he could play the game well but he did need assistance the rest of the time. With the steroids, he became too heavy for one person to lift and couldn't walk very far, so Macmillan and Marie Cure nurses came. He could feed himself but he was like a child."

Severe headaches then further weakened Don.

"He woke up one Friday rolling in pain in the bed," Lorraine continues.

"The GP sent for the ambulance and I took Ryan with me in it.

"Dad came in with my sister-in-law but on the Saturday, they were advised to go home, as Don could stay like that for a few days. But Don died that day, when the nurses were preparing him for the night. They hadn't expected it so quickly."

As Don hadn't regained consciousness since his admittance, Lorraine didn't get the chance to say goodbye.

But she doesn't regret her decision not to tell her husband he was dying.

"We had talked about death in the past and Don said he was scared of it, but I told him not to be silly and to try to be brave. He was oblivious to what was happening and I'm glad about that. We got to live for a while in the house he helped build for us and he lived to see Ryan born.

"And I wanted to stay in our marital home after Don died with Ryan - he's the double of his father; he's my wee blessing in disguise - but I was afraid to come home at night in the dark when I went back to work. I was a wee girl in a big girl's body, if you know what I mean.

"My poor mother would have to follow me in the car, I'd have her tortured. Then, one night she had to go somewhere and couldn't do it. I did it on my own after that."

Focusing on her work helped Lorraine through the grieving process but she admits she ended up in a rut, sitting in every evening.

Eventually, she began to get out for a quick walk, when her mother, Ivy Dougan, offered to mind baby Ryan. That small step led to running, which Lorraine's elder sister Wendy had taken up with enthusiasm.

"I thought, if Wendy can - I can," Lorraine laughs. "I wouldn't go too far at the start but one time, a tractor and a load of cars were coming up the hill behind me and I didn't want them to see me stopping, so I ran the whole way up and back home. I was very pleased with myself and I knew Don would have been proud of me.

"I began to build up the distance and my mood changed. I felt good and I slept better. My parents noticed a difference in me. I was happier and more upbeat, and I gradually built up the confidence to enter that first 10k race in Newry, for a suicide charity.

"I was scared out of my wits but I got a great buzz from running over the chalk at the end and picking up a medal. Wendy couldn't believe it when I told her."

Now 33, Lorraine's a regular participant in marathons and the Born2Run races. She will be running race in the upcoming RunForestRun challenges, sponsored by the Belfast Telegraph.

"Getting out running has been a good example to give to Ryan - he wants to take part, too, although it's mostly to get the medals.

"Running gives me time to clear my head and it has made me fitter and happier. I feel refreshed every time I come back from a run, and I would encourage anyone interested to take it up. It helped me through a very difficult time in my life, and if I can do it, anyone can."

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