Belfast Telegraph

'Santa' Martin aids fight against malaria in memory of tragic son

By Leona O'Neill

A father who lost his 23-year-old son to malaria will next week don a Santa suit and mount a month-long sit-out in Londonderry's Guildhall Square to raise money to fight the disease.

Retired nurse Martin Gallagher lost Christopher to the tropical disease in 2006.

After finishing university, the adventure-loving young man embarked on a year out in Asia.

He was due to return and begin charity work to help children impacted by poverty, but was struck down and died just two weeks before he was due home.

Next week Mr Gallagher will dust down his Santa suit, just as he has done for the last seven years, and sit out in Derry city centre to raise money in his son's name.

"Christopher was such a happy child," he explained.

"He loved life, loved adventures and loved the outdoors.

"When he got older he got the travelling bug.

"After he finished university he took off travelling on his own.

"On the day before he left we met him in Belfast and went for a day's shopping and lunch.

"We laughed and joked and said our goodbyes with big hugs and tears outside the Europa.

"Then he went on his journey of a lifetime, travelling round South Asia.

"He kept in constant touch with us via email.

"I remember him emailing us from India.

"He was totally overcome by all the little children begging on the street, by the poverty and by people asking him to take them back to Ireland. He felt so bad walking past.

"He had been away for a few months when he sent us a photo from Thailand to show us mosquito bites on his legs. They looked really severe, but he said he was OK.

"There were no immediate symptoms until he started to feel very rundown and got what he thought was a heavy cold. He mentioned in following emails he was going to the doctors.

"He got himself to the nearest hospital, a very rundown one, but when they realised he had health insurance, he was moved to a better one in Bangkok.

"We didn't know any of this. We were concerned that we hadn't heard from him in a while, but we put it down to him travelling and not having wi-fi.

"At 10 to six on the morning of his mother's birthday the phone rang out of the blue. It was our son Christopher phoning from his hospital bed in Bangkok to say his goodbyes.

"He sounded so weak and we knew he didn't have much time. He told us that he loved us very much and loved his wider family and friends. Then he couldn't talk any longer and had to hang up. We just hugged and cried, we were devastated.

"My first instinct was to try and get someone to help us, get a helicopter there, someone to do something, anything. I called the police, they were so helpful and put us in touch with the authorities in Bangkok, who told us Christopher had passed away not long after we spoke.

"He was gone, our boy so full of life and smiles. He had two rare strains of malaria."

Mr Gallagher and his wife Mary tried to navigate the weeks ahead with their grief. It took seven days for Christopher's body to come home. At the wake, as his friends gathered around the coffin, his mother decided that something good must come from her son's passing.

She vowed to raise money to help prevent children from ever getting malaria.

"Christopher saw a lot of poverty while he was on his journey and he was planning to join up with a charity to do some good," said his father.

"Sadly, he didn't get to fulfil that journey.

"But with the help of one of his friends, Diarmuid Bonner, who happened to be working for the local charity Children in Crossfire, our malaria fund was born.

"We started fundraising and in 2010 visited Tanzania with the charity.

"In 2010 Mary and I decided to do the Santa's Big Fundraising Appeal, where we dressed up as Santa and Mrs Claus and stood in the Guildhall to raise money.

"That year was one of the worst winters in history; we were freezing, but it felt good doing something in Christopher's memory. Embarking on a campaign to reduce the risk of malaria has helped us deal with our grief.

"We have raised £56,000 so far, and four years ago we were invited into the Guildhall itself, so it's a little warmer."

He said they feel Christopher's spirit with them always, particularly on cold December days while standing in Guildhall Square.

"I feel his presence constantly," he added. "I visit his grave every Saturday morning and talk to him. I ask him to watch over us and tell him of the progress we're making on fundraising.

"His mother had a lovely dream about him. She dreamt she walked into a church and saw a light shining down on a front pew. Under the beautiful light was our Christopher. She took that as him telling her he was in a happy place.

"We will keep raising money in Christopher's name. We hope that the Santa Standout will raise £10,000 this year so we can help build a better future for those children in need of healthcare - work that Christopher wanted to do himself, had he lived."

To donate to Martin's Santa's Big Fundraiser Appeal, visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/santasbigfundraiserappeal2017

Belfast Telegraph

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