Saturday 24 June 2017

'I shouted for him to wake up and there was nothing' - Mum who lost husband (43) on tragic family holiday in Cork

Kate Devlin from Derry with her children, Edie (7), Maile (2) and Poppy (4).Picture Martin McKeown.
Kate Devlin from Derry with her children, Edie (7), Maile (2) and Poppy (4).Picture Martin McKeown.

Claire McNeilly

That morning, Kate Devlin must have thought life couldn't get any better.

She was on holiday with her husband Paul, their two young girls and baby daughter. All five were enjoying themselves as they spent quality time together.

But 10 days in to their holiday in Oysterhaven, on the outskirts of Cork, her world was turned upside down just moments after she had finished feeding infant Maille.

She remembers that Poppy, then aged two, was asleep in the bed beside them when Paul suddenly started making strange, loud gasping noises, as if he was fighting for breath.

Dr. Paul Devlin with his children, Poppy. Maile and Edie
Dr. Paul Devlin with his children, Poppy. Maile and Edie

And then, just as abruptly, there was silence. Kate began shaking him, gently at first, but there was no response.

"Maille was lying there and Poppy was in the bed as well. I ran round to his side and I quickly realised I needed to get an ambulance."

The mother-of-three was frantic by this point, but her worst nightmare was only just beginning. Paul, the love of her life, the doting father of Edie, Poppy and Maille, the best husband and friend she could ever have wished for, and the man she wanted to grow old with, was dead.

He was only 43 and, until that dreadful moment, had not shown any signs of ill health. "Paul passed away in his sleep at around 6.30am on August 12, 2015," Kate said.

"I was actually half awake because I had just finished breastfeeding Maille and I heard him taking these very loud, very desperate breaths and then, just as quickly, he stopped.

"I thought he must have sleep apnea (a common disorder characterised by pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep).

Kate Devlin from Derry sadly lost her husband Paul while on a family holiday. Picture Martin McKeown.
Kate Devlin from Derry sadly lost her husband Paul while on a family holiday. Picture Martin McKeown.

"I shouted for him to wake up and there was nothing, so I jumped out of bed.

In the midst of her unimaginable shock, Kate managed to move Paul from the bed onto the floor where she performed CPR until the paramedics arrived.

By this stage Edie, who had been sleeping in another bedroom, had been woken up by her mother's desperate cries.

After hearing her mum make a 999 call the then five-year-old immediately went to the cottage next door to get help.

"When I phoned the emergency services, the lady asked me if he was breathing and that's when I realised that he definitely wasn't," the 44-year-old clinical psychologist said.

"Because we were so rural I couldn't give directions. Thankfully, they were able to link up with my phone but it took half an hour to get there.

Dr Paul Devlin died of a heat condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
Dr Paul Devlin died of a heat condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

"While we were waiting for them to come, Poppy just asked me if daddy was dead because I had to roll Paul out of the bed to perform CPR."

The couple, who were living in Derry, had been together for 21 years and Kate was on maternity leave when her husband, a popular drama lecturer, was so cruelly taken from her.

Although she attempted to return to work when "the dust had settled", she resigned from her position at the Southern Trust in Dungannon last July.

The former social worker said her recollection of trying to resuscitate Paul, who taught at Magee College, while their daughters tried their best to help will never leave her.

"Poppy was fine, she wasn't distressed," Kate said.

"She ran around and got a toothbrush and a cushion for Paul's head and things for the hospital. I told her that the ambulance was coming to take him to hospital.

Kate Devlin from Derry with her children, Edie (7), Maile (2) and Poppy (4).Picture Martin McKeown.
Kate Devlin from Derry with her children, Edie (7), Maile (2) and Poppy (4).Picture Martin McKeown.

"It was all quite calm in a sense, apart from the terrible fear. I just felt that he was dead. There was no breathing and no spluttering. But I was desperate that maybe they could bring him back."

Kate said that when the paramedics arrived they sent her out of the bedroom while they tried to revive him. By then the girls were at a neighbour's house.

"Edie had climbed through a hole in a hedge and jumped down off an oil tank to get to the cottage next door. She knocked at the door until she woke the owner, Judy, who came and took the girls over to her house just as the ambulance was pulling up," she explained.

"They tried to resuscitate Paul for about half-an-hour but they could not get a heartbeat. He was pronounced dead in the cottage at 7.20am."

Kate said the worst part of the ordeal was the feeling of utter helplessness.

"I didn't know what to do or who to phone, but thankfully Judy was amazing, she organised a priest," Kate added.

The undertakers arrived at the same time as the priest and they took Paul's body to the hospital for a post-mortem. The gardai also came because it was a sudden and unexplained death.

With Judy looking after the girls, and Paul's body removed, Kate was completely on her own in the rural holiday residence just a few hours after the incident had occurred.

Practicalities kicked in. She contacted Paul's brother and only sibling Terry in Birmingham, who arrived that evening. She then phoned friends in Belfast, France and Liverpool. They all got to Cork and helped her pack up the cottage.

"We all drove back to Derry together and, really strangely, we ended up in convoy with the hearse," she said.

"We hadn't co-ordinated it. Terry was in a car with Edie and Poppy and the hearse was in front of him when they got to the toll booth.

"The undertaker didn't have the correct change. He got out of his vehicle and went to Terry's car and asked him for 10 cents and Terry told him it was his brother he had in the back. The undertaker was so shocked."

Paul's funeral took place on August 15, 2015, and he was buried in the graveyard beside his family home in Cookstown.

"There was no will because we had never properly discussed it," Kate said.

"Paul's family house is just next door to the graveyard. He kissed his first girlfriend in the graveyard and he walked his dogs there when he was a boy.

"He had said to me once or twice that when he died he thought he'd like it to be his final resting place because it was so beautiful."

The post-mortem revealed that Paul had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy - a condition in which a portion of the heart muscle is enlarged without any obvious cause, creating functional impairment.

"It is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes and a significant cause of sudden cardiac death in any age group. There are very few symptoms," she said.

"There was nothing to suggest that Paul was unwell. The day before he died he was sitting in the sun, reading. He told me that he would go and see the doctor because he must have asthma as he was breathless."

Kate, who is originally from Sailsbury in England, first crossed paths with Co Tyrone native Paul in 1992 when they were second year students at Queen's University in Belfast, and she never returned home.

"We were both in the drama society doing a play together and that's how we met," she recalled.

"We became friends before ending up together for the rest of our studies and we both graduated in 1995."

By that time the happy couple were living together in Belfast, where they both pursued further studies.

Paul embarked upon a Masters in creative writing at Queen's followed by a PhD at Magee in drama and, when he finished it in 2007, he got a job at Magee and the couple moved to Derry.

Kate had done a Masters in social work and by then was working full-time as a social worker for a couple of years before undertaking a doctorate in clinical psychology at Queen's, finishing in 2005. She then got a job in the CAMS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health) team in Belfast.

Kate and Paul got married on June 20, 2008, in Derry's Guildhall, followed by a meal for 50 friends and family in Brown's restaurant in the city.

"It was small. We had been together for so long by then. It was 14 years before we even tied the knot," she said.

"Paul's mum Mary was sick and that's why we decided to get married. She died in 2013, aged 71. She had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after years of working in a bar, and she had smoked.

"She spent her life as a bar manager in Cookstown. It was terrible. It was an awful quality of life in the end for Mary."

They spent a week in Kinsale in Cork on their honeymoon, followed by a week in Bundoran.

Edie, who's now seven, came along the following year, on December 23, 2009.

Four-year-old Poppy was born in 2012, and two-year-old Maille, arrived in 2015 - five months before her father died.

Shortly after losing Paul, Kate joined the charity WAY (Widowed and Young), which offers a peer-to-peer support network for anyone aged 50 or under who is dealing with the loss of a partner. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of WAY she has organised a picnic at Ormeau Park in Belfast this Saturday, May 20, for young widows and widowers and their families and friends.

"They put out a call to see if anyone would do it locally and I volunteered," Kate said.

"These events happen all over England but this is the first in Northern Ireland for some time."

Next month, on June 20, Kate and Paul would have been married nine years, but instead the young widow is preparing to mark the anniversary of his tragic death.

Time hasn't healed anything, nor does she expect it to. But she has learned to deal with her grief for the sake of their three beautiful daughters.

"I feel like I'm much more able to cope with everything in the sense that I can manage life," she said.

"I've got into the routine of being a lone parent much better, although I still find some aspects really tough, like bedtime, when they all need you.

"I struggle with trying to be there for all three of them without letting anybody feel not cared about or left out."

She added: "I know my grief is long. It's maybe been elongated because I had to just keep getting up and going on and being mummy, trying to take them to the park, trying to organise a family holiday and stuff like that.

"It meant I didn't get any time to actually sit and think about what had happened. Sometimes it used to hit me when I was driving the car, that's when I would break down in tears.

"The girls would be in the back sleeping and that was the only quiet time I would have to think and process what had happened.

"I didn't get that when I was making breakfast, or taking them to school or picking the toys up.

"It's a long-drawn out process of all the losses and living memories. But worst of all will be the milestones the children reach when he's not there to see them."

WAY (Widowed and Young) supports anyone aged 50 or under who is overcoming the loss of a partner - whether they were married or not, with or without children, whatever their sexual orientation.

For further information about WAY picnic contact big.picnic@widowedandyoung.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life