Rachel Dean: 'Dad died hours before my A-Levels and I feared I'd never get into Queen's... he'd be so proud I'm graduating next week'
In a moving account recalling the loss of her beloved father, Rachel Dean, from Belfast, remembers the agony of not knowing if she would fulfil his wish that she'd go to university - and her struggle to come to terms with life without him
Three years ago, I would never have believed I would be accepted by any university, never mind graduating with a 2:1 from Queen's University Belfast. Instead, I was engulfed by grief and turmoil, reeling from the sudden death of the dad I adored and confronted with the very real possibility that although I had been on course to get the grades for the university course I wanted, I might not now get accepted for my course because I'd missed two exams that fell hours after dad had died.
However, as I'll explain, despite having to confront my worst nightmare, I'm proof that you can come through the most awful circumstances and still hold on to your dreams...
In the early hours of June 15, 2015, my family and I received the devastating news that my dad Graham had died suddenly at the age of just 48.
That night, I had been revising for my A2 Sociology exam, which I was to take the next day at 1.30pm, when my mum rushed in to ask me to help her clear the hall. My dad had been complaining to her about chest pains. Thinking he was having a heart attack, mum had rung for an ambulance and when the paramedics arrived and examined my dad, they believed it was a heart attack, too. While we were worried, we all thought that he would be fine. Dad even told my mum to bring his phone charger to the hospital.
Within moments, everything drastically declined as the paramedics tried to move dad downstairs in a wheelchair. I will never forget how quickly his face changed from a flushed pink to a pale grey. As they pushed him past me in the hall, he attempted to give me a reassuring look, as he must have recognised the fear in my eyes. I was always a real 'daddy's girl' and saw my dad as a strong, safe presence in my life, so it was terrifying to see how weak he looked in what would turn out to be his final moments.
I remember him groaning in pain as the wheelchair went over bumps in our garden path. My mum, my brother Michael and I watched in shock as my dad collapsed in the wheelchair outside the ambulance doors. Michael quickly helped the paramedics lift him into the ambulance. Sadly my dad had already passed away at that moment, though we didn't find out until a few hours later. We still believed he was going to be okay, because nowadays doctors have so much more knowledge on how to treat heart attacks.
The paramedics worked on my dad in the ambulance for about 20 minutes before taking him to the Royal Victoria Hospital. My mum, brother, grandparents, auntie and uncle and I waited in a family room for a little while before a doctor came in to speak to us.
He sat down and told us that he didn't have good news - my dad's heart had stopped in front of my mum, Michael and I outside our home and the doctors had worked on trying to start it for two hours with no luck. My mum remembers the amount of sweat on the back of the doctor's top; he looked so apologetic, so sad.
And as soon as those words left his mouth, it was like the world had stopped moving and time stood still. I had never experienced the loss of a loved one before and would never have expected to lose my dad, just days after my 18th birthday. The shock hit us all - my dad was the cornerstone of our family. My heart didn't just break for myself but for my family - my brother lost his dad; my mum, her soulmate; my grandparents, their son; my aunt and uncle, their brother. It didn't register as real for weeks, even months, after that night. Sometimes it doesn't even feel real today, three years on.
The doctor explained that my dad hadn't died from a heart attack but an acute aortic dissection, which is a tearing of the aorta that stops blood getting to the heart and is almost always fatal. Some 25% of patients die before reaching a hospital and 50% die within 48 hours. Around 90% die within a month due to the condition's complications.
The past three years have been extremely tough for all of us, but the first year was particularly painful. Just two days after my dad's funeral, my brother and I experienced our first Father's Day without our dad and we didn't even have a grave to visit yet. There are no words to explain how those 'firsts' feel after losing a parent. I remember seeing friends on Facebook posting about their dads and feeling so angry that I wouldn't ever be able to gift my dad the usual Father's Day mug and socks. My dad was a big fan of Marvel movies and Star Wars and still to this day, when I see these themed gifts, I get a little pang in my heart knowing I can't point them out to him or buy them for his birthday or for Christmas.
These were other 'firsts' that brought us out of shock and into reality. Our usual Christmas would have been quite a small affair, with just the four of us and two guests, my mum's brother and aunt. But that first Christmas after losing dad, six months after his death, we had a joint family Christmas. It was one of the most overwhelming days for me - for months I had been taking myself off to my bedroom whenever anyone visited. I didn't want to talk about my dad and cry, because I didn't ever want to believe it was real. Looking back, maybe it was a little selfish of me, as I even told my mum I didn't want anyone there, but she did. And she was right. The truth was we needed family and friends around us for support and frankly we would have been much more miserable had they not been there. That said, I did manage to hide in my room a few times regardless.
For me, the second Christmas felt like the first, because we were back to our normal Christmas, however, normal it could be without my dad. When I say dad loved Christmas, it's not an exaggeration. I used to go with him in his car to deliver presents to family and friends and we'd both wear Santa hats. He loved to decorate our house too, which is one thing about Christmas I always moaned about - dad would always motivate us to get it done, like he did with everything. My dad's first birthday away from home came one month (May 18) before the first anniversary of his death. On days like these, every year, we get loads of texts and messages from family, friends and my dad's friends and workmates, all supportive and sometimes to tell us they miss my dad, too.
One 'first' that could never be compared to the others was when we finally saw my dad's grave. We got his grave plot and number and had a small ceremony in November. In January, my mum got a headstone set up and we went to see it for the first time. Nothing prepares you for the feeling that comes with seeing your dad's name on a headstone. I was so anxious, I felt I was going to throw up. Three years on, when we go to the graveyard, I'll stay in the car unless it's a special occasion.
Just one month after my dad passed, I found out there were issues surrounding my Sociology A-level results. Mum had rung my school the morning before my exam, the day of dad's death, to tell the examination officer what had happened and how I wouldn't be able to sit my final exams, both in Sociology. The school were more than understanding and reassured my mum that I would get special consideration. However, in July 2015, my school headmaster at the time told me the exam board AQA had rejected the application for special consideration. This put me at risk of losing a place at university as the entry requirements were ABB and with no special consideration, my A in Sociology would drop to an E grade.
I was so afraid. My dad had always advised my brother and I to further our education and spoke to my mum just hours before he passed about how delighted he was that I was going to join my brother at Queen's.
Family friends suggested that I take the situation to the press, to help push AQA to change its mind. I spoke on the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster and to the Belfast Telegraph, and the publicity undoubtedly helped. I rang AQA myself - I hoped that would help them see me as a person and not just another student exam number, but I remember the girl's tone was quite cold. She simply told me that if I had shown up for at least one exam they could have considered me for special circumstances. They were willing to offer me an honorary certificate which would show that had I sat my exams; I would have likely achieved an A grade. However, this wouldn't have ensured my admission to Queen's.
It looked more promising once my headmaster got in contact with the admissions team at Queen's; they would decide if they could grant me a place or not, depending on my A-level results. On results day, I had to go up to the school before the rest of sixth year. I was so nervous sitting in the headmaster's office, awaiting the news. First, he showed me how I had achieved an A in English, a C in History and a disappointing E in Sociology. However, to my surprise, he told me that Queen's University had sympathy and had offered me a place, agreeing to take my A in AS Sociology as my overall grade, therefore, they viewed me as having AAC in my A-levels. This was amazing news after so much stress and worry on top of all the grieving for my dad. It was one less thing to carry on my shoulders. I started studying at Queen's in September 2015, just three months after dad passed.
I was so nervous starting university, as none of my friends from secondary school were going to study at Queen's. My mum convinced me to go to the first induction day, despite my brother saying I didn't need to.
I got a taxi, because I wasn't sure of the two bus routes I would have to take across the city. I arrived at the Whitla Hall at Queen's and it was buzzing with students. It turned out that the first induction day wasn't just for my course but all courses under the School of Arts, English and Languages. I felt so lost. Two girls sat beside me and we talked, but they weren't part of my course.
I left the induction meeting feeling a little overwhelmed, though now I understand I wouldn't have been the only person feeling that way. It wasn't until classes started the following week that I met the friends I still have today. We gelled quite well and I felt a lot more settled than the previous week. It's become a running joke that I'm mocked for my Belfast accent despite going to a university in Belfast, because my friends are from all over Northern Ireland.
Despite the workload, I have loved my time at Queen's University. Granted, in my first year of study, I missed quite a few days because I was still processing my dad's death, but somehow I powered through and passed all of my six modules. I have met friends for life at university and even got the chance through Queen's, to travel to Africa and climb Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. Our group raised an amazing £60,000 for children in Tanzania who needed support in areas such as health, education and security. The climb was tough but completely worth it and the overall experience was humbling. It has made me consider charity volunteering in the future.
My three years of study have finished and I will be graduating from Queen's University with a 2:1 at the beginning of July. I got my results two days before the third anniversary of my dad's death, which let me focus on that day without the stress of awaiting my final grade.
While studying at Queen's, I have also been responsible for the Belfast Telegraph's weekly Fashionspy column. After covering the initial story about my difficulties getting into Queen's, the newspaper - aware I wanted to be a journalist - invited me in for a chat and offered me a trial on the column. I'm told I passed with flying colours.
Doing Fashionspy has improved my confidence by leaps and bounds. I get to speak to a lot of people about one of my favourite things: clothes. A nice part about the job is when people say I have made their day by style-spotting them. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do Fashionspy - it is a great way of gaining experience in journalism and has allowed me to 'get my foot in the door'.
I plan on furthering my career in journalism and hope to be an example to people that things can get better. I also hope to improve my ability to talk to others about my dad, as writing this piece has been my first real experience of doing so. I made university my focus and I know I haven't properly grieved for my dad yet, but some day I will.
There are so many things to come in my life and my family's lives that are already bittersweet because my dad won't be present - he won't be there to walk me down the aisle if I ever get married, but I know I will honour his memory at all future special occasions in my life.
And next week, when I graduate, I know he is going to be very proud of me.