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Sarah Travers: 'It's so hard to face dad's empty seat this Christmas'

Behind TV presenter Sarah Travers' warm smile is a deep sadness, as she and her family prepare to spend their first Christmas without her beloved father

By Stephanie Bell

The festive season has been tinged with sadness for popular TV presenter Sarah Travers as she faces her first Christmas without her dad Ian. As for many families, there will be no escaping the empty chair at the Christmas table for Sarah and her loved ones who are still trying to come to terms with their huge loss.

Sarah's dad Ian (67) died in October after a long battle with what the family believed was Alzheimer's but which they have just discovered was, in fact, a very aggressive form of dementia.

Early post mortem results have stunned the family with the findings that her dad did not have the disease they believed he had, but in fact had a condition known as dementia with Lewy bodies.

The pathologist who conducted the post mortem said it was the worst case of Lewy body dementia he had ever seen.

The family is still waiting on the full post mortem report when they will be attempting to discover just what it might have meant for Ian if he had been given the correct diagnosis.

Sarah says: "We have been really surprised to find that dad did not have Alzheimer's. We have a lot of questions but we understand that it is difficult to diagnose Lewy body although apparently it is the second most common form of dementia.

"On a positive note, now that we know that, having donated dad's brain we hope that it can be used to help find out more about this dementia which affects so many people."

This time last year Sarah (39) and her family were celebrating the festive season in the knowledge that her dad's condition was deteriorating and that it might be his last ever Christmas at home.

They all were trying to come to terms with the fact that Ian needed special care in a nursing home but not for one minute did any of them think that they were going to lose him this year.

Sarah says: "We were all aware of dad's deteriorating health and last Christmas we all thought it would be our last with him at home. Although none of us really said it, we were all thinking it.

"We never ever thought it would be our last Christmas with him, however. We thought he still had years ahead of him.

"He was becoming more difficult to look after and last Christmas his communication had gone and he was unsteady on his feet.

"At the same time we have nice memories of last Christmas. We all went to mum's. She hadn't done Christmas in her house for a few years because she was looking after dad but for some reason it was important to her to do it last year."

This year facing her first Christmas ever without her dad will be tough and to help make it easier to bear Sarah, husband Stephen Price and their children Jack (16), and Evie (10), plus her mum Mary, have decided to spend it in Scotland with her sister Jennifer and her family. Sarah's father was English. His father came to Coleraine to set up a textiles factory and the family settled in the north coast.

Her mum was originally from Cork but also moved north after meeting her future husband.

"I've spent the past 39 Christmases with my parents and just to try and avoid that empty seat at the table being too difficult we thought we would spend Christmas in Glasgow with my sister.

"It will get us away from the norm. I'm sure Christmas Day will be hard but hopefully being away from home might help make it easier to deal with.

"The children keep us going. My sister's girls are very small and they are a real tonic and Evie will be looking forward to Santa coming.

"Losing their papa has been very hard on both of my children and especially Jack who was very close to my dad.

"Dad was delighted to have a boy in the family after having two daughters and they did a lot together. Jack is finding it hard but he has coped well and been very brave."

Certainly, 2013 has been an eventful year of major change for Sarah with highs and lows in both her professional and personal life.

This time last year she was wrestling with the huge decision of whether or not to give up her career as a news journalist with BBC NI, where she had worked for 17 years.

She wanted to free up some time to spend with her dad as his condition worsened and also with her own children.

The daily commute from her home in Portstewart and the long hours in the newsroom were beginning to take their toll.

Consequently, she started 2013 with the shock announcement that she was leaving BBC for the unpredictable life as a freelance.

Yet within days of her departure from the station she was surprised to get a call from UTV asking her to front a new series called The Magazine, of which she went on to record 20 episodes.

She says: "It has been an interesting year for sure and in some ways the start of a whole new life for me.

"I started 2013 feeling a sense of anticipation and trepidation because of my decision to leave the BBC after 17 years.

"It was a huge decision and a scary one, and a real personal challenge. Going freelance I worried about paying the bills and was really quite nervous about what lay ahead.

"Looking back, I now know that being in the newsroom at the BBC was taking its toll on me and I really felt that I needed to step back.

"Thankfully I have no regrets and I still keep in touch with all my friends at the BBC and see them regularly.

"It was just a time in my life when everything was coming to a head and I had no idea that dad wasn't going to be here this year so it was good that I had the freedom to spend extra quality time with him."

Sarah describes The Magazine – which has seen her travel to different towns across Northern Ireland interviewing local people as well as many celebrities – as her dream job.

It has been a bittersweet year as she was given such a fresh new challenge in her professional life yet at home she had the sadness of watching her dad's condition steadily worsen.

She says: "It was like I had a dual personality. On TV I was the warm and happy Sarah, but there were dark times as well.

"At the same time work allowed me to take my mind off things."

The show was launched on April 7 with six programmes filmed on location around Northern Ireland, starting in Sarah's home town of Portstewart.

It then changed format and became more studio-based in the summer with a new Friday night primetime slot which lent itself more to a showbiz format with celebrity guests.

Sarah has enjoyed every minute and is looking forward to the year ahead when another 30 programmes are planned.

She says: "What was lovely about the show when it launched was that there was a real sense of Northern Ireland people wanting to feel proud of where they live and celebrate what we have and the great people who live here.

"Everywhere we went we got a warm welcome, and it was such a change for me to be doing things like learning how to churn butter with farmers Will and Alison Abernethy, to doing optical illusions with David Meade as well as a zip wire in Newcastle. Talk about a change from the seriousness of news!"

When the format changed in the summer Sarah was just as excited to find herself in a new studio on the rooftop garden of UTV where she got to interview many celebrities.

Even the summer weather was kind, allowing for outdoor filming, and one of many highlights for Sarah was interviewing local actor Jamie Dornan, who played a serial killer in BBC drama The Fall and has just secured the leading role of Christian Gray in the movie version of Fifty Shades.

"Jamie had just come back from honeymoon and came to the studio with his wife who was absolutely lovely, too," says Sarah.

"There was a real buzz in the studio that night and of course he has now got such a big break which is great.

"Another highlight was interviewing Dolly Parton on a link-up to Nashville a couple of weeks ago.

"That was a real career high for me even though she wasn't sitting beside me. Just hearing her say my name was so lovely and she was really funny and did the interview so graciously because she was thinking of her fans in Northern Ireland. She is an inspiration."

Sarah's children are used to seeing mum on TV and she is glad that her change of career has allowed them to see what she regards as "a bit more of the real mum".

She soared in their esteem when she very bravely ate bugs as part of a slot on the show with Zimbabwean chef Rozanne Stevens.

Sarah laughs at the memory: "Rozanne made a stew with mopane worms and it was not pretty. She actually couldn't eat her own stew and I managed it somehow. My kids couldn't believe that I'd done it.

"They do enjoy watching the show and I think that's the great thing about it. It's not offensive in any shape or form and the family can all sit down together and watch it.

"The children have told me I have to get Kian Egan and Ant and Dec on next year. If I manage that then I will be the best mum in the world."

Sarah says she is excited about what lies ahead in 2014.

But, even as she talks about how much she is enjoying her new job, her thoughts still go to her dad and the obvious sadness she feels at his loss.

"I don't think I still have fully accepted that dad has gone, it's very early days," she admits.

Sarah has worked hard to raise awareness of Alzheimer's and dementia, and she welcomed the recent news that David Cameron is to pledge more money into research in the hope of finding a cure by 2025.

She says: "Research is where it is at. I would hope that other people will consider donating their loved ones' brains for research and maybe think about it, although I know it is a difficult decision and a difficult time for people.

"It is a time bomb and the statistics for how many people are expected to get it down the line are frightening. Every family in Northern Ireland could be touched by it.

"For me it's important to raise awareness and to tell people not to be frightened by it or brush it under the carpet.

"The world needs to be a more welcoming and friendlier place for people with dementia.

"Early diagnosis is also so important as they can treat the symptoms. The results of my dad's post mortem mean that if any of us display symptoms then the doctors will know what to look for."

Sarah adds: "Dad had very vivid nightmares and night terrors for a few years before he was diagnosed and we now know that they are one of the symptoms of the type of dementia he had.

"Research and awareness are so important."

The stars who fell victim to cruel Alzheimer's disease

* Tough-guy actor Charles Bronson (top left) , star of the Death Wish series of movies, The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape, died in 2003 at the age of 81. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's in his final years

* Charlton Heston (above), best remembered for his roles in Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in his later years. He died in 2008 aged 84

* Rita Hayworth (top), one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the 40s and who was married and divorced five times, lapsed into a semicoma in February 1987 and died from Alzheimer's a few months later at the age of 69

* Ronald Reagan (above), the film star who became 40th President of the United States, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's five years after leaving office and died in 2004 aged 93

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