Wednesday, 27 July 2011

We will always remember you, Harry Yirrell...with love from us.

Today, I am sending out big love to all my husband's side of the family. 6 years ago today, Harry Yirrell, aged 20, died, losing the battle to Malaria. Harry is so very, very missed, and it upsets me always that my kids will never know him. We talk about him, remind the kids of all their cousins, and always include Harry. His mum and dad, I admire enormously for the strength and courage they have shown dealing with their tragic loss...Please read his story, told by his mum Jo, and follow the link to make a donation to 'Malaria No More', thank you. Here's his story, my edited version, but you can read the full story here.

Walking into the classroom, filled with smiling children, Jo Yirrell was overwhelmed with emotion. Little hands tugged at her clothes as everyone wanted to talk about her son Harry.
But as the children broke into a song of welcome, Jo, 45, struggled to hold back the tears. The keyboard being used was Harry's. He had taken it to the school in Ghana, leaving it behind when he returned to Britain.
'I looked at it and my heart broke,' says Jo. 'Harry should still be playing his music.'

Six years ago Harry died of falciparum malaria, the deadliest form of the parasitical disease.

Since his death Jo has made malaria education her life's work - trying to help eradicate the disease and educate other youngsters setting off on gap year trips about the dangers of not taking their anti-malarial drugs. She has become an ambassador for Malaria No More.

'I needed to see the place Harry had fallen in love with,' says Jo. 'It was also the place that killed him and I needed to see that side, too. Until my visit I'd wake up every morning and still believe it was a dream.

'I'd pop my head around his bedroom door, hoping beyond hope he'd be there. Now I know he really isn't coming home.'

Young and super fit, Harry made the fatal mistake of believing he was immune to malaria. He gave his anti-malarial drugs to the villagers. 

*The Malaria facts bit*
Malaria is contracted after a bite from a female Anopheles mosquito carrying the malaria parasite. The parasite is released into the blood stream and makes its way to the liver where it rapidly multiplies before re-entering the blood stream to attack the red blood cells.
In most people, symptoms begin ten days to four weeks after infection, although a person may feel ill as early as seven days or as late as one year later.
Worryingly, the number of malaria cases among British people is on the rise as travellers fail to take the necessary precautions. Up to ten people a year are dying from malaria in Britain, with 1,500 cases diagnosed.

This is particularly alarming as it's a disease which can be prevented and cured.

Harry had been thrilled when a family friend suggested he join a volunteer team in Ghana for four months. Once he was out there, he fell in love with it, typically, he couldn't do enough to help. He even sold his mobile phone to buy some furniture for the school. 'I was cross' says Joanne - 'it meant I couldn't reach him but he argued that in an emergency I'd find him.' 

But Harry's selfless generosity would sadly cost him his life. One little girl, nine-year-old Cynthia Ofori, had suffered malaria three times and kind-hearted Harry couldn't bear to see her suffer again. Unbeknown to Jo, at some point he gave her and some of the other children his tablets.

Four months after he'd left, on July 6 2005 Harry returned home. 'He grabbed me in a bear hug,' laughs Jo. 'But the first thing he said wasn't "Hi, Mum" or "How's everyone?" It was "I'm going back. I love it and I want to spend a few more years in Ghana." I was pleased for him. It sounds a cliché, but he had found himself in Africa.

'He looked terrific - tanned and healthy. And he had so obviously fallen in love with the place and the people.'

Harry had been home a few days when he admitted he hadn't taken his tablets. 'I gave them away because I don't get malaria,' he laughed.

On Friday July 15, nine days after his return, Harry started running a temperature. Having dismissed a few other symptoms as 'post night out with the boys', now, Jo became worried, fearing something more serious, she calls the Dr...
'I rang the doctor and told him Harry had returned from Africa and hadn't taken his malaria tablets. The doctor said it was extremely unlikely that Harry was suffering from malaria but told me to take him to hospital if he got worse.'
The next day Harry appeared to rally. But then on Sunday he woke up, saying he felt like death. Jo took him to the accident and emergency department of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, close to the family home.
He was seen by a doctor two hours later and given strong pain killers. Five hours later blood tests confirmed Jo's suspicions that he had malaria and treatment began. Harry was started on a programme of intravenous drugs.
'I was relieved he was getting help. One of the doctors did mention that malaria could be deadly, but it was just hinted at,' says Jo. 'It still didn't set off any alarm bells and Harry wasn't frightened, thank heavens. 
'In fact when one of his friends popped round, Harry had a huge grin on his face. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine," he said. That's what we all believed, that the medication was already working.

'We never imagined that would be the last time we would hear his voice.'

Two days after being admitted, Harry developed breathing difficulties. The malaria had attacked his lungs. He was suffering from the most deadly type of the disease, falciparum malaria, which can kill within hours. Red blood cells infected with the parasite tend to cling together and tissue starts to die through lack of oxygen.
By the time Jo and David arrived at the hospital, after being called back urgently by nurses, Harry was attached to breathing equipment and heavily sedated for his own comfort.
The consultant explained that, although Harry was extremely ill, he was still expected to make a full recovery. 'He'd need nursing for a long time but he would live. It was an enormous relief,' says Jo.
Yet despite his body being pumped full of medication, the infection continued to overwhelm Harry's body. He was transferred to the Centre For Tropical Medicine in Oxford for specialist treatment.
At 3am on Wednesday, July 27, the hospital rang urging Jo and his father David to come quickly as Harry had taken a turn for the worse.
'It was one of the worst journeys of my life,' says Jo. 'Harry had chest drains, to try to clear the fluid but every breath was a battle. His body wasn't getting enough oxygen and his organs were shutting down.'
The couple were told he wouldn't last the night.
'We couldn't believe it,' says Jo. 'Barely three weeks earlier we'd welcomed Harry back safe and sound. Now he was dying. His dad held one hand and I held the other. We stroked his hair and kissed him. He looked so beautiful.
'Hearing is the last sense to go so I talked and talked. I mentioned his brothers, his family and all his friends, passing on messages of love I knew they'd have for him. I felt as if my heart was being ripped out.
'It was agony but I am so grateful to have had those last few minutes with him. If he'd died without me beside him, I couldn't have carried on. Harry died very peacefully. His lungs just stopped working.' 

Revisiting the place where Harry had been doing his volunteer work, Jo says 'I met the people who'd meant so much to him. When one little old lady told me how he used to help carry her shopping home, I fell apart. That simple gesture was my Harry.

'My life's work is now to raise awareness and to raise money. A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa. Just £5 will buy a mosquito net which will cover an entire family for five years.'

Dr Behrens echoes Jo's words: 'Protecting yourself against malaria costs between £5 and £20 a week, depending on the course of drugs you choose. Although a minority of patients can suffer side-effects such as disturbed sleep patterns, these drugs save lives. Take them.'

For more information on malaria or to donate go to

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