A father's letter to his dying daughter: Co Down man Richard Buchanan tells of heartbreak after daughter's death from leukaemia
In a heartbreakingly moving message to his daughter who died from leukaemia, a Co Down dad has summed up his terrible loss in an emotional "love letter" to the 17-year-old. Richard Buchanan penned the poignant message capturing his deep feelings of love for his beautiful daughter Catherine as part of a special campaign this month to raise funds for leukaemia research.
The eldest of two girls, Catherine was a tall and strikingly beautiful teen who was also a brilliant student looking forward to a career as a scientist.
Just as she was filling in forms for university in the final year of her A-levels at Strathearn grammar school in Belfast, her young life suddenly ended when, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with leukaemia.
She didn't even get a fighting chance, passing away in intensive care exactly one week after her diagnosis.
The shock of Catherine's loss shattered her loving family - civil servant dad Richard (54), mum Julie (55) and younger sister Emily, now 19 years old, who live in north Down.
As all three struggled to make sense of their loss, Richard found a way of coping by joining the local charity which is dedicated to funding research to find better treatments and a cure for leukaemia.
Now chairman of Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI, his dedication to the organisation is a fitting tribute to his daughter's memory as he himself sums up in his letter to her: "In your memory, and with you in my heart, I am fighting blood cancer with the science that you so loved."
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Richard is one of a number of people who have opened their hearts to share a personal letter to a lost loved one as part of a special campaign to mark the 55th anniversary of Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI.
The charity relies on donations to fund globally recognised research based in Belfast City Hospital where breakthroughs in the battle against leukaemia are ongoing.
Richard recalls his vibrant daughter and how her life was so suddenly and cruelly cut short: "Catherine was in upper sixth studying all the sciences and she was a very able student who was doing really well. I remember it was a Wednesday night and I was out for a work meal when my wife rang to say Catherine was not too well; she was vomiting and seemed to have a bug.
"She seemed a bit better the next day so we didn't get the doctor. By the Saturday it was apparent that it was not going away and we took her to the out-of-hours doctor in Newtownards."
The doctor advised the family to go straight to the Ulster Hospital, where medical staff immediately transferred Catherine by ambulance to Belfast City Hospital. There, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia and admitted immediately into intensive care.
Her bewildered family still had no idea just how acutely ill Catherine was.
Richard recalls: "We were told that she had a very rare form of leukaemia which only affects about 200 people a year in the UK.
"Over the course of the next week there were various points when we had some hope that she might get through it. She had 70 blood packs that week, which was a large amount.
"By midweek I was slightly hopeful but then there was a further complication with blood clots and she had to be transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital to try and relieve them.
"That just about worked and then she got another blood clot and exactly a week after she was diagnosed on the Saturday, Julie and I sat with her as she died.
"It just came out of nowhere, she had no prior symptoms and it was just so random. We were completely devastated.
"Now working with the charity, knowing what I do about the cancer research centre, I know there is nothing that could have been done for her."
Catherine's death triggered a huge outpouring of support for the family from friends and their local community, which helped carry them through those first dark days without her. Staff at Strathearn stepped in to ensure Catherine's distraught younger sister Emily, who was just 14 at the time, and her many friends got all the support they needed in school.
In an hour-by-hour diary which Richard kept during that frantic week in hospital, his final entry on the day Catherine died makes for emotional reading.
Of her final moments he writes: "We were left alone to be with Catherine. She looked so beautiful. I kissed her forehead, and hand, and held her hand, stroking her arm.
"J (mum Julie) was on the other side. J read Saddle Club to her and we chatted for quite a while, going over happy memories of our lives together.
"We hope she at least was aware of us, but maybe she wasn't.
"It was an intensely sad time, but felt like a peaceful goodbye. I saw her blood pressure fall, then her heartbeat fell and then she died, very peacefully, with the colour leaving her lips and face.
"We kissed her, cried and said goodbye to our beautiful, clever, talented, wonderful child. And that was it. A piece of each of our hearts has gone. Catherine died of acute promyelocytic leukaemia at 4pm on September 21, 2013, aged 17."
Today Richard's work with the charity keeps him focused as he does what he can to find a cure for the disease which robbed him of his daughter, but he says that his profound sense of loss never leaves him.
"Catherine was an independent young woman," he says. "I would describe her as like a sunflower which was near blooming. She had been quiet in her early teens but in the last year or so she was coming out of herself. She loved a good debate and had forthright opinions and she was very academic and was looking forward to going to university.
"She loved astronomy and planned to study physics or astronomy. She was very tall, 6ft 2in, which is the same height as me, and she was really striking. She had dyed her hair purple towards the end. Horse riding was her big love and she had been doing it since she was seven or eight years old.
"It is the thought of what might have been that is hard as you could see she was going to do well in life.
"That got me thinking about how I could help make a difference. Four years ago I raised some money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI doing a marathon and then asked if I could join the charity."
At the time Richard also spoke to the scientist in charge of the Centre for Cancer Research at the City Hospital, Ken Mills, to find out how the money raised is spent.
From that moment on he has been dedicated to raising as much money as possible to fund Mr Mills and his team's ongoing research to find better treatments and eventually a cure for blood cancer.
And it is why he opened his heart about Catherine in a love letter along with other members of the charity to help raise as much funds as possible during their 55th anniversary month, which has been running throughout September.
"We all deal with these things in life in different ways and I felt the need to get out there and be busy and do something. We are the only charity in Northern Ireland raising money solely for blood cancer research.
"Blood cancer is still a major killer and there are around 100 new cases every month in the UK. Three out of four people survive and that's changing every year as we get better survival rates thanks to the work of the team of scientists in Belfast.
"They have been coming up with the goods in terms of scientific research working on a global scale. We felt the love letters would help to show the emotional impact on peoples' lives of these cancers and how important it is to fund science to make them go away.
"We found that telling our personal stories helps people understand and the love letters which have been written are now on our website and social media."
To view the other love letters and for tickets to the upcoming ball or to support the charity. log on to www.leukaemiaandlymphomani.org
Love letter to Catherine
I miss you as my precious first child.
I think of you as a tall, beautiful sunflower.
A bit tricky to grow, needing plenty of care and protection, but just coming into bloom as the most amazing young woman when leukaemia struck.
The pain is no less than the day you died six years ago with us by your side.
I feel too the loss of your potential to make a difference to the world, as the talented scientist that you already were.
Your confident adult self was just emerging like a butterfly.
Strong, opinionated and individual with a striking presence, not scared of doing life differently.
I miss taking you to the horse riding that you so loved.
I miss watching the stars together.
I miss the beach walks.
And I remember with happiness our camping trip to Scotland just before you died. Maybe one day we will be able to just think of the happy times, but everything is still just too sad.
In your memory, and with you in my heart, I am fighting blood cancer with the science that you so loved.
Together, by supporting the amazing people doing the research, we can and will beat blood cancer. With love, from us all on Earth to your Star HD204736 in the Pegasus constellation, the flying horses no less, and now named after you.
Richard's heart-rending hospital diary during his daughter Catherine's final week
Sept 14, 2013, City Hospital. Heard about 7pm that Catherine has leukaemia. Rushed to hospital with Emily to join Julie and Catherine. C not looking well. Confused and blood in mouth and pipes and tubes everywhere. Doctors very concerned.
Got told by Dr Benson it was very serious. She may not make it. The next few hours critical and the next few days. She needs everything they've got thrown at the blood cancer to try to prevent any further internal bleeding. She already has some on the brain. It is aggressive. All in shock. Totally stressed out. Nothing we can do. Held her hand and kissed her forehead, before we were asked to leave intensive care at about 10pm, whilst they did the first chemo. All sorts of horrible thoughts, but have to be positive.
C is strong and determined. She'll pull through; we know she can. Blackie [her favourite bedtime animal] by her side. This will change her life, but she'll fight it off and be stronger. She must. She was fighting the drugs and the pipes when we left her. Good for her. We're sat outside intensive care, waiting. Helpless. Hoping. Numb. Have to be positive. Come on Catherine. You can do it.
11pm. 11.15pm: Just me and C. I just stroked her arm. Hardly dare do more. Sat by her bed with J and E getting some sleep. Poor Catherine. Blackie at the end of the bed. C with pipes and tubes gurgling away.
She's asleep, of a sort, under sedation. Heart beat 142 on the chart. She's shaking gently and looks under stress. Come on. Fight it off. You've too much to live for, to much to see, do and experience. This would be too cruel to lose the fight just as all those opportunities open up. You can do it. I know you will.
11.30pm: You can almost see the battle inside her body. Breathing looks rough and erratic. Cells and drugs battling each other. Let's hope the drugs tilt the balance. I can't bear the alternative. A clothes peg thing is on her finger. A drip into her wrist. Two monitors on her upper chest. Oxygen on her mouth and another pipe up her nose. Poor Catherine. It's awful to see and nothing I can do. Except just be here. There's the odd little cough and rearrangement of her legs a bit. Just stroked her arm after a cough. Hope it helped.
Sept 21, 6.55am: Nurse called at about 11pm last night. C's pupils not dilating and suggestion there is a further clot. Going for scan. At about midnight a doctor called. There is a clot. Not a lot can be done. Further surgery is impossible.
She's on all the right drugs/liquids. She is not in any pain. HB/BP will not decline immediately but probably will. This is really bad and he thinks she will not make it. He will stabilise as best he can overnight and will call if it worsens. I will call at 8am or so to decide where we are. Doctor thinks we should stay with family, etc.
I think when we go in it may be a discussion about how long we go on. Will she get through today? It doesn't look like it. Ziggy [cat] on my lap. J exhausted and sleeping, sort of. Numb.
The last entry - written one week on: Later during the morning of Sept 21: We were left alone to be with Catherine. She looked so beautiful. I kissed her forehead, and hand, and held her hand, stroking her arm. J was on the other side.
J read Saddle Club to her and we chatted for quite a while, going over happy memories of our lives together. We hope she at least was aware of us, but maybe she wasn't. It was an intensely sad time, but felt like a peaceful goodbye.
I saw her blood pressure fall, then her heartbeat fell and then she died, very peacefully, with the colour leaving her lips and face. We kissed her, cried and said goodbye to our beautiful, clever, talented, wonderful child. And that was it.
A piece of each of our hearts has gone. Catherine died of acute promyelocytic leukaemia at 4pm on September 21, 2013, aged 17.