Heather Teale’s daughter Bethany Walker tragically died of sepsis after flu turned to pneumonia in January 2018, aged just 18.
In the run up to Air Ambulance Week (4-10 September) and World Sepsis Day (13 September), her mum is sharing her sepsis story to raise awareness of the condition, and to highlight the importance of the emergency air ambulance in serving remote communities like Applecross.
Heather’s whole family came down with flu over Christmas in 2017. But it was Bethany’s first Hogmanay being 18, and so she dosed herself up so that she could still enjoy the festivities. She came home on New Year’s Day in the early hours. She put it down to having too much wine and having the flu, but her mum took her to the local doctor after she developed chest pains. Heather said: “I’d previously broken my ribs through too much coughing, and my son had been similarly unwell. She described the symptoms and the doctor saw it as the same as we’d all had, which is understandable. The whole peninsula had just about had this flu.”
But to Heather, Bethany’s illness seemed different somehow to her own, her mum and her son’s. She took Bethany back to the doctor the next day but was again told it was just the flu. Heather said: “Had I heard of sepsis and heard the symptoms, I know now that I would have said to my GP, this isn’t the flu that I’ve got because I knew it was different.” Heather said:
By the 5th January, Bethany was really poorly. Heather said: “She’d been unwell all night. She’d not been able to make it up the stairs to go to bed. She went to sleep on the sofa downstairs where I stayed with her. I was on the sofa in the sitting room with her. She kept coughing. She kept saying she was warm and throwing her fleece blanket off.”
Her mum gave her paracetamol, but by the next morning Bethany was pale and had blotchy skin. Her mum rang the GP, and took her to the surgery. Taking one look at her, the GP rang for an ambulance as she now suspected sepsis. But there were bad weather conditions, and of the three ambulances available to the Applecross community, the only one available was the furthest away. It would have taken hours for Bethany to reach the hospital in Inverness by road, and her mum would have likely had to follow behind by car – but thankfully the air ambulance team was able to be dispatched. A Helimed ambulance landed in a nearby pub carpark. Heather said: “If it had been a different time of year, that car park would have been full and it wouldn’t have been able to land. So we were very, very lucky to have that facility.”
Heather was able to travel with Bethany to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, a journey which took just 34 minutes. Shortly after their arrival, she was told that Bethany had pneumonia and that one lung was completely filled with fluid. Heather said: “They couldn’t get proper blood pressure readings. So in my head I’d got it really, really bad. And then when somebody turned around and told me it was pneumonia, there was a moment of almost relief. They know what it is. They know how to fix it. She’s in intensive care. She’s in the best place.”
Heather was put in a family room, while Bethany was rushed off to intensive care to drain her lungs. What happened next is still a blur, but the next thing Heather knew, she was being told that she was going to lose her daughter, after the hospital team had resuscitated her. She was taken up to see Bethany, where doctors were doing everything they could to try and save her. Heather said: “I was able to sit at the end of the bed and he actually put my hands on her left foot. I held her left leg and stroked it as they were doing all sorts.”
The team worked on Bethany for two hours, resuscitating her for a second time before eventually making the decision to stop their efforts to keep her alive. Although Bethany tragically didn’t make it, her mum is incredibly grateful for the air ambulance crew as they enabled her to be there with her daughter in her final moments. She said: “I actually wrote to the Helimed team and tried to get a message through to the pilot that took us just to thank him, because had he not let me go, I would never have seen her again when she was airlifted. But I was able to be with her in the ambulance.”
Heather added: “I’d like to be sitting here saying I owe her life to these people, obviously, and I don’t. But what I do owe to them is knowing that everybody worked so, so hard. Everybody tried their absolute utmost to save her. And the road there being narrow, single track and full of potholes, the highest mountain pass in Britain: to go by air ambulance instead of ambulance saved her so much pain. It really did. It’s incredible.”
Heather initially struggled with PTSD when she saw ambulances in the wake of Bethany’s death, but accessed psychological support to learn how to process it. One thing she has helped to do since then to create a legacy for Bethany is help fundraise for an emergency landing pad. A retired GP called Chris stopped her in the street to ask her for her support with the initiative, which involved sharing Bethany’s story as part of the fundraising for the project – which attracted a generous donation from the Helicopter Emergency Landing Pads (HELP) Appeal, as well as actor Hugh Grant. “It was hard. And it wasn’t an easy thing to do. But it’s necessary to get the story out there and to do these things. I’m glad I did it,” said Heather. “If we can save one other life, it’s been worth the effort and some good has to come out of this tragedy because it is a tragedy. It’s a horrendous, horrific tragedy that I live through every day, and it just brings me a bit of pleasure knowing that some good comes from it.”
While the helipad is a nice legacy for Bethany’s family to have, Heather ultimately wants her to be remembered for the incredible young woman she was: “As a person, she was just wonderful. She was beautiful. She was calm. She was caring, considerate. She was as daft as a brush, typically blonde and very good fun to be around.”
On her grief journey, Heather said: “We’re just over five and a half years on since we lost Bethany and it still hits like a steam train completely out of the blue. It can be something you see on telly, something somebody says, a smell, a song, a memory, absolutely anything; just as simple as walking through the shops at Christmas and seeing something in the window and thinking ‘Bethany would like that’.”
To anyone else experiencing the pain of losing a loved one, particularly a child, Heather said: “All I can say to anybody that’s going through it is do it your way. Don’t try and do it by anybody else’s guidelines. Just take the time that you need because there is only you that knows what you’re going through. Just take the time to allow yourself to do things as you need to do them. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to go to bed, go to bed. Don’t put a time on it because it doesn’t actually go away at all. But you do learn to live around it and life does still go on and you do get pleasure out of things.”
She added: “There are only other bereaved parents that can possibly even begin to understand because it’s off the scale. You cannot even believe how it feels compared to other grief; we’re all programmed to lose our parents, aunties, uncle, siblings but you’re just not programmed to lose your child. It’s the wrong order and your brain just doesn’t accept that.”
Heather encourages people around someone who may be grieving to avoid saying nothing. She said: “Ask how they are doing because it means everything. Maybe tell them you’re uncomfortable with speaking about it, but say you are there for them if they want to talk.”
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