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Eamon Friel's son says if he’d spotted sepsis symptoms earlier his dad might've made it to 70th birthday

Just 16 days after Radio Ulster broadcaster Eamon Friel was diagnosed with lung cancer, he died from a different condition. His son Colum tells Lisa Smyth how he wants to warn others

The late Eamon Friel.
The late Eamon Friel.

By Lisa Smyth

In his life, Eamon Friel was known as a talented singer and songwriter who brought his passion for music to the airwaves. Now the tragic circumstances leading up to his passing are being revealed in the hope that it will help to save lives.

Few people even knew popular BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster and Sony award winner Eamon was sick when news of his death at the age of 69 on June 21 this year was announced.

Eamon had been diagnosed with lung cancer that was so advanced that it had already spread to his leg and spine by the time the disease was discovered.

The outlook was bleak, but he had started treatment to keep the cancer at bay for as long as possible.

However, within 16 days of his diagnosis, Eamon, a former English, music and history teacher who lived in Londonderry, passed away in the emergency department of Altnagelvin Hospital.

In a further cruel twist, it wasn't the cancer that claimed Eamon's life - he died as a result of sepsis and his family have been left reeling as a result.

In the months since Eamon's sudden death, his wife of 43 years, Caitlin, and son, Colum, have been left trying to make sense of the tragedy.

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Eamon's son Colum
Eamon's son Colum

For while they were coming to terms with the prospect of losing Eamon to cancer, they were completely unprepared for what lay ahead.

"It would have been my dad's 70th birthday on July 14," said his son, 33-year-old Colum, a personal trainer who owns Transition Training Studio in Derry.

"We had been looking forward to celebrating it with him, I would have loved for him to have made his birthday, but sepsis prevented him from doing that.

"It took him in a very cruel way, it happened so fast, he died in resus in A&E - it isn't where it should have happened.

"It's been very hard for all of us."

The first sign that Eamon was unwell came in March this year.

"Basically, he had a bit of what we thought was a flu that ran on to the beginning of May," continued Colum.

"Dad was actually a really keen cyclist, he would have cycled 20 or 30 miles a day, unless it was snowing.

"His dog died in 2008 and we decided not to get another dog because it was too heartbreaking, but he still wanted to get a bit of exercise.

"He wasn't a gym person, so he decided to get a bike instead and he would have cycled to Buncrana and back, or he would have gone to Letterkenny and then my mum would have gone and collected him.

"He would have made up a different route every day and I noticed in March that he didn't want to go out on the bike.

"Then around April time, he developed a lump in his leg.

"We had gone to Manchester, just me and him, to see the football and I remember us walking along and him asking me to slow down because his leg was sore."

Over the next couple of weeks, Eamon also became bothered by a pain in his shoulder.

"We just thought it was something to do with him having the flu," said Colum.

Cherished memories: Eamon Friel with his wife Caitlin and granddaughter Milla
Cherished memories: Eamon Friel with his wife Caitlin and granddaughter Milla

"Then it turned into a shooting pain down his arm and he thought he was having a heart attack.

"He got a taxi to the hospital and they told him his heart was fine but they found a shadow on his lung.

"Now that could have been anything from pneumonia to cancer, but they seemed fairly confident it wasn't anything sinister.

"They sent him home and told him to come back in eight weeks and they would check the shadow again."

However, his condition deteriorated further before he was able to return for his appointment.

On June 5, while out for lunch with his family, the pain became so intense he was unable to breathe. "He was lying across the table and it was at that point that we started to think it was maybe something more than flu," said Colum.

"We got him a doctor's appointment and the GP took one look at him and knew he wasn't well. He had lost a lot of weight unintentionally, he'd lost 11kg from the last time he'd seen the doctor.

"Now, I'm very thin but my dad would have been a bit chunkier, so you wouldn't have seen the weight loss as easily on him, but the GP knew from the weight loss and the other symptoms that something wasn't right.

"He sent dad straight down to ambulatory care at Altnagelvin.

Eamon's son Colum
Eamon's son Colum

"They did a CT scan and were able to tell him then that he had cancer in the top three vertebrae.

"Mum was with him at the time and they rang me to come over and when I arrived they told me he had cancer.

"It turned out that dad had lung cancer, that was the primary, and it had spread to his leg and his neck.

"It was terrifying because we knew he would never be free of it.

"He did ask two doctors in ambulatory care if he was a goner and the first doctor told him he would be fine and the second doctor didn't answer, so he had a fair idea he was in a lot of trouble, that it wasn't going to be good, no matter what."

Just a few days later, Eamon started a course of radiotherapy to target the tumour in his neck.

"It was sore on him," said Colum.

"Not the actual radiotherapy but because of the position he had to be in for it to be done.

"He had to lie flat and because of the tumour it was very painful, so they had to pump him full of morphine to get him comfortable."

Once the treatment was finished, Eamon was allowed to return home on June 14 but appeared to be struggling with the effects of the radiotherapy.

Colum, however, is convinced that his dad was already suffering from an infection which would ultimately lead to his death.

"We knew he would be run down from the radiotherapy, but I think that distracted us from the sepsis," he explained.

"I didn't know much about it, we had no idea it was a possibility so we weren't looking out for it and we didn't know the symptoms of sepsis anyway.

"It was terrible though, dad walked into hospital and by the time he was let out he found it difficult to walk.

"He went downhill so rapidly, I remember walking up the ward with him and linking arms with him and thinking that the week before he was able to walk just fine. He was so grey as well but none of us ever thought for one minute it was sepsis.

"Dad was just happy to get out of hospital, it was Father's Day two days later and he spent it with his best musician friend working on some songs.

"They were planning on recording them before dad lost his voice completely and had booked the studio for nine days later but he never made it.

"After they had finished, I took dad for a walk and then we had a takeaway together.

"I never thought that we would lose him five days later," says Colum.

"The following day he started to go downhill but he was so determined to keep going and he actually did his show on the Thursday night.

"I was at the house before and I got up and kissed him on the head - it's not something I normally would have done but I just knew he wasn't well, and I told him 'good luck with the show'.

"I listened to the show that night because I knew it was the last time he would do it and he sounded terrible, like he was dying.

"The security guard, Mum and the producer had to carry him out of the studio afterwards.

"Mum wanted to ring an ambulance but dad wouldn't let her so they went home and he perked up a bit."

Eamon decided to sleep on the sofa and Caitlin was awoken in the middle of the night by a loud thud.

When she came downstairs, she found Eamon on the floor and he was rushed to hospital by ambulance.

"At 6am they told us they didn't know what it was but it wasn't the cancer," continued Colum.

"They said it was some mystery infection and then at 8.30am they said it wasn't going to resolve itself.

"They were planning on moving him to ICU but he never got there.

"They switched the machine off at 9am and something very strange happened - I was beside him playing his music and his heart rate started to go back up again."

Eamon passed away with Caitlin and Colum at his bedside.

Colum continued: "It was very sudden, it's been very hard to take.

"We heard sepsis mentioned for the first time 90 minutes before he died.

"We had no idea, we had no idea he was at risk or what to look out for, that's why I'm speaking out.

"Dad was a family man, he was generous, intelligent and witty - that pretty much sums him up.

"I'm an only child and my daughter Milla was the only grandchild, so dad doted on her and she doted on him.

"Dad wouldn't have wanted us to be miserable or down, but it's hard. I keep thinking if I had spotted the symptoms of sepsis earlier, he might have made his 70th birthday, and that's why I'm concentrating on raising awareness," says Colum.

As well as speaking out to raise awareness, Colum has also held a fundraising event at his gym to coincide with World Sepsis Day earlier this month.

He has already raised £2,300 of his £3,000 target for the UK Sepsis Trust, which carries out research and supports people affected by sepsis.

Colum continued: "Sepsis is the second largest killing disease on these islands behind heart disease, yet not many non-medical people know too much about it.

"Like a lot of conditions, the earlier it's detected the better chance the person has of survival. If we can raise a few quid and make people more aware of this silent killer it will be a job well done.

"If only I had of been more aware of the symptoms of sepsis a few months ago, I would have got my dad to hospital much, much sooner."

If you would like to support Colum by making a donation, log on to https://www.facebook.com/donate/504565293644742/

An illness that can affect any of us

Sepsis is a life-threatening reaction to an infection.

It happens when the immune system overreacts to an infection and starts to damage the body's own tissues and organs.

Anyone with an infection can get sepsis, although some people are more at risk than others.

They include babies under one, particularly if they were premature, people over 75, people with diabetes, people with a weakened immune system, anyone who has recently had surgery or a serious illness, or women who have just given birth, or had a miscarriage or abortion.

Sepsis needs treatment in hospital straight away.

If not treated early, it can turn into septic shock and cause the organs to fail.

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