Belfast dad Graham dies days after discovering small cut on hand
Lisa Hewitt tells Judith Cole about the devastation caused by the sudden death of her husband two years ago - and how a special project run by bereavement charity Cruse is helping her and their two children to cope
Losing a beloved husband and father is devastating - but when it comes as a result of a rare and deadly superbug commonly known as flesh eating disease, it is even harder to bear. Those were the tragic circumstances that Belfast mum Lisa Hewitt found herself in nearly three years ago when husband Graham died of the horrific disease.
It was just a normal Sunday in June 2015 when family man Graham cut his finger doing an odd job in the house. The tiny cut would lead to his death less than a week later.
Lisa, a 38-year-old civil servant, found herself struggling to cope with her own grief and that of her children, Sophie (13) and Kyle (9) who were aged just 10 and six at the time. But now with the help of Cruse Bereavement Care's Get Together - Bereaved Families Discovering project, which received over £670,000 from the Big Lottery Fund thanks to National Lottery players, she's rebuilding her family and inspiring others.
As Lisa tells the story of what happened, it's hard to believe how the simple injury caused such catastrophic results.
Lisa says: "Graham thought nothing of it. It was only a tiny cut where his wedding ring had dug in while he was fixing a bed. By the Wednesday we assumed he'd taken a really bad stomach bug as he was being sick. Then that evening he passed out in the bathroom."
A keen cyclist and motorbike enthusiast who worked at a tile company near Lisburn, the 38-year-old had hardly had a day off sick in his life. But Lisa was so worried she called an ambulance and Graham was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast at around 11pm with his wife by his side. From there, events began to spiral out of control.
"The doctors told me his kidneys were failing, which they put down to dehydration from the bug. They moved him to the renal unit for treatment but they just could not understand why he wasn't responding to fluids," Lisa says.
"He'd had a pain under his arm the whole time and then on the Thursday we started to see blackness and swelling.
"They started to think it was an infection and at 6.30am on Friday they phoned me at home and told me to come in because he wasn't very well."
With her aunt at home trying to make things as normal as possible for Sophie and Kyle, Lisa and Graham's family were met with awful news at the hospital.
"When I got there the intensive care team were working with him and they brought him down to theatre," she says. "When they came out, I just knew something had gone wrong because they took us into a separate room.
"They told us that Graham had necrotising fasciitis, which is a flesh eating superbug.
"They had tried to remove the infection but it wasn't working. It was very widespread."
The condition is a rare and serious bacterial infection that affects the tissue beneath the skin, and surrounding muscles and organs. It's sometimes called the 'flesh-eating disease', although the bacteria that cause it in fact release toxins that damage the tissue.
It's thought to affect an estimated 500 people a year in the UK.
Lisa says: "Most doctors will only see it once in their careers, if at all. The consultant who treated Graham told me that he'd only seen it once before and he'd been a doctor for 35 years."
Lisa tried to prepare herself for the shocking reality of Graham's condition.
She says: "I asked the surgeon how bad it was and he said, 'Well he's the sickest person in the Royal at the minute'. I asked them was he going to die and the surgeon said, 'There's a good possibility that he's going to die. I don't want to give you any false hope'."
The medical staff did everything they could to save Graham while Lisa and other family members maintained a vigil at his bedside.
"They were fighting and fighting and fighting to save him but everything was going wrong and they couldn't do anything. It was too far gone," she says.
"He died at 4.15am on Saturday after the machines keeping him alive were turned off.
"All our family were there when he passed away. I got to be there with him at the end, I held his hand, I talked to him.
"I just told him how much me and the kids loved him, and how loved we felt by him. Everyone was with him and that's the best we could do for him."
Lisa had kept the children away from the hospital in a bid to protect them and now she was faced with the dreadful prospect of telling them their beloved dad had passed away.
"I had to come back on Saturday morning and tell them he was gone. That's the worst part of it. That's the bit that gets to you the most," she said.
Stunned by grief, Lisa, who had been with Graham since she was 15, muddled through the next few days with the support of family and her and Graham's wide circle of friends.
"I was 36 when Graham died. I just thought, 'What's happening? I'm too young for this - 36 and having to arrange your husband's funeral'. I had never even arranged a funeral before. It's very surreal."
Lisa stayed strong for her children but she needed to work through her own grief too.
"You just go into survival mode after something so shocking and traumatic happens and all I wanted to do was protect the kids," she says.
"I went into about four months of operating on autopilot. I put my grief to the side because I just had to focus on my kids. I just kept thinking, 'Pull yourself together, your children have lost their dad, they can't lose you too'.
"My mum got very worried and said, 'You're not grieving, you are coping too well'. I just thought, 'If I don't do something, I'm never going to leave this house'."
Encouraged by her mum and other family members, Lisa got in touch with Cruse Bereavement Care in August that year. The group work with Corrymeela Community in Ballycastle to offer individual and whole family support as part of their National Lottery funded project that's helping families like Lisa's come to terms with losing a loved one. The project gives families the opportunity to meet others facing similar issues, and Lisa and the kids went to a family activity day at Oxford Island in December 2015.
"It was the first time I'd really been anywhere on my own since Graham died - even the first time I'd been out driving in the car on my own," she says.
"I was petrified coming in. But we were immediately teamed up with Keith, who had lost his wife to cancer, and his sons Leon and Seth, along with a Corrymeela worker and a Cruse volunteer. The first activity we did was a treasure hunt - it was raining but we didn't care! It was lovely. The kids just got on so well. It was the first time since Graham died that I'd seen my children being children."
This easy-going format of the activities, and families being able to connect with each other around shared grief, is the key to the project's success, according to Get Together co-ordinator Elaine Roub.
"There's no pressure. It's all based on creative activities like glass painting, laughter yoga or a cookery class, and the subject of their loved one naturally comes up. People don't have to explain themselves," Elaine says.
The support from the project and other families going through their own grief means the world to Lisa and her children. Since then they have continued to be involved with the project and they have been on more weekend residentials at Corrymeela Community.
"Friends and family do their best but they are tip-toeing around you and they don't really know what to say. But when you walk into Corrymeela and meet other people in the same position as you, the conversation starts off so many steps ahead, because you understand each other," Lisa says.
Although things will never be the same without their husband and father, life is starting to look a little brighter.
Lisa says: "Everything we do now, I'm always aware that Graham's not with us. But I know we are doing what he would have loved us to do as a family.
"I bought a caravan because he always wanted one. Now the kids love it. We got a dog called Ted who we just love. I just thought, 'My children will never miss out on anything because Graham isn't here'. We have all the wonderful memories of him, and the amazing, kind-hearted, loyal, funny person he was."
For further information on Cruse Bereavement Care, visit cruse.org.uk, telephone the UK helpline on 0808 808 1677 or the Northern Ireland office on 9079 2419