Big Saturday read: Matthew would be so cross if he thought my life was worse because of him...we'd planned a big family trip to the US and I went because he'd have wanted me to do so
When Lauren McCaughtry’s partner Matthew Thompson died from an undetected heart condition while he was out jogging, her world imploded. She tells Stephanie Bell how launching a defibrillator campaign, which will see the life-saving devices installed at all M&S stores in the UK and Ireland, has helped her with her grief.
As she took to the stage in London recently to pick up an award on behalf of her colleagues, Lauren McCaughtry's thoughts were for the man she knew would be looking down on her with pride.
Just over a year ago she was left bereft when her soulmate Matthew Thompson (39) died suddenly from an undetected heart condition while out jogging.
Soon after his death Lauren (29) launched a campaign to raise money to buy a defibrillator for the spot on the Lagan towpath where Matthew was running.
At the time she said she wanted to do something special to remember him: "It's so tragic and terrible and it's such a waste but I just need to try to do something to keep a piece of him alive.
"I want him to be remembered for something special because he was such a special person. I think he was just one of those great people who had to die young because he was just too good."
Little did Lauren know then just how far reaching her campaign would become. The couple met through their work in Marks & Spencer and colleagues and management of the firm right across Northern Ireland have thrown their weight behind Lauren's campaign.
Matthew worked as a food hall manager at the Forestside store, while Lauren works as a manager at the Sprucefield store.
The company embraced Lauren's idea and supported her in not only getting defibrillators for all 20 of its Northern Ireland stores but training staff in life-saving techniques.
And just this month their achievements were recognised at national level when the Northern Ireland team was awarded a Pride of M&S Award at the 18th annual awards event in London in recognition of their ongoing cardiac safety and defibrillator campaign.
Lauren, along with her colleague Killian Connolly, who are the project co-ordinators of the campaign, took to the stage with M&S head of region for Northern Ireland Ryan Lemon to receive the award.
Over 200 staff have been trained to use the defibrillators and over 200 M&S colleagues in Matthew's age category have had heart screening provided by leading heart charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) - with 4% discovering unknown heart conditions.
CRY aims to prevent young sudden cardiac deaths through awareness, screening and research, as well as offering specialist support to affected families and young people. More staff are due to be screened this month, and fundraising initiatives for CRY have also been launched.
The company hasn't stopped there. Staff have also completed training in life-saving CPR techniques using training kits purchased from the British Heart Foundation. More staff are due to be trained as the kits are reusable.
An overwhelmed Lauren said: "To me it is something positive that has come from something so negative and that's what has got me through.
"Matthew was so popular but he would never have thought that people would have thought this highly of him and he would have been absolutely gobsmacked by what everyone is doing in his memory.
"The reaction of people and the love people had for him would have really taken him aback.
"When I was at head office in London to get the award so many colleagues were talking about it and so many wanted to do something for Matthew."
Matthew, originally from Belfast, went for a run on Saturday, June 11, last year along the Lagan Towpath. Although he was used to running around 5k twice a week, he didn't know that he had an underlying heart condition. He was on his way back home when he collapsed.
A passer-by reportedly tried to perform CPR but it was too late and he died at the scene. Lauren was waiting for him at their Lisburn home when the police came to her door to tell her that he had died. Within hours of his death Lauren wanted to raise money to buy a defibrillator for the Lagan Towpath and launched a Just Giving appeal.
She was astonished by the response, with £1,500 raised within hours and a total of £5,500 donated.
Looking back now on those early days of the campaign when she oscillated between extreme grief and trying to bring something positive out of the tragedy, Lauren said: "I knew people wanted to help and I didn't want money going on flowers. I wanted to do something tangible and I thought even if I get £500 I could organise fundraisers to get the rest of the money.
"Within a couple of hours I had £1,500 and ended up with £5,500. I couldn't believe it. Putting the defibrillator on the Lagan towpath has been a long drawn out process. I have been working with Belfast City Council who have been fantastic.
"We've had to identify a spot where there is a 24-hour electricity supply and negotiate permission and get a special box for it, so I am hoping that it will finally be in place in about a month's time."
Lauren was delighted when Ryan Lemon approached her to ask how she would feel about M&S launching a campaign to get defibrillators in all of its Northern Ireland stores.
The campaign has gone much further than that and now all M&S stores throughout the UK and Ireland are to have the life-saving device.
Having the campaign, she said, has given her something to focus on as she moves forward with her life after losing her soulmate.
"I think definitely it is about moving forward and not moving on. I've been very lucky to have so much support from my employers, colleagues and friends," she said.
"Matthew always sits on my shoulder and he would have been so cross with me if he thought my life was worse because of him.
"We had spent months and months planning a big trip to the west coast of America with my family at the end of July and I went anyway because I knew he would have wanted me to.
"We had researched where we would eat and what we would do and I did all those things we had planned. It was very difficult for everyone but I knew there was no way he would forgive me if I hadn't gone."
Matthew's legacy is already saving lives and while so much has been achieved in a short space of time, Lauren said there is still so much more to do.
"It is not just about providing defibrillators but about building peoples' confidence to use them," she added.
"We are also focusing on prevention. We have done a lot of heart testing, with around 300 staff tested so far with the help of the charity CRY.
"CRY says that usually around 1% to 2% of people tested are referred on with a heart condition and we have had 4% referred.
"It is not a nice thing for people to discover but it is a good thing to know and if Matthew had been tested then he wouldn't have died.
"We want to test all staff and their families and then also roll it out to the public.
"Also our British Heart Foundation CPR training kits are reusable and every Marks & Spencer store has teamed up with a 'buddy' school to help get children trained as well.
"Our school is Lisnagarvey High and we have already presented the first British Heart Foundation packs to them.
"There was a child in the news recently who saved her mums life because she had been trained using one of the packs.
"I am delighted we are going to be working with children."
James Cant, director at the British Heart Foundation, explained just how significant a campaign like Lauren's is when it comes to saving lives.
"Approximately 1,400 people suffer a cardiac arrest outside of hospital every year in Northern Ireland but less than one in 10 survive," he said.
"More people could be saved if more defibrillators were available in public places and if more people felt confident using them and performing CPR.
"We are delighted M&S is leading the way by providing local communities with the skills to save a life using our Call Push Rescue training kits.
"We need everyone in Northern Ireland to learn this life-saving skill to give them the confidence to step in and give CPR when someone collapses after a cardiac arrest. It could really be the difference between life and death."
M&S now committed to saving lives of its staff
Ryan Lemon, head of region for Marks &Spencer in Northern Ireland said: "Last year, we lost a member of staff to an undiagnosed heart condition.
"Since then, we have been committed to playing our part in preventing that happening to anyone else - whether that be colleagues or customers.
"The statistics speak for themselves - every week in the UK, around 12 young people die suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition.
"Our colleagues Killian Connolly and Lauren McCaughtry have been at the forefront of this campaign and have worked tirelessly to ensure that all of our local stores have cardiac safety top of mind.
"And this is just the beginning - we look forward to growing this commitment in the years to come," he added.