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My story: Jo Yirell – “Losing a child rips out a part of you”

Following the death by malaria of her 20-year-old son, British mother Jo Yirrell became an ambassador for Malaria No More and campaigns tirelessly for awareness of the disease. Her story caught the attention of writer Richard Curtis and has now been immortalised on screen.

My story: Jo Yirell – “Losing a child rips out a part of you”

Earlier this year I found myself speaking at the White House. It was a rather unbelievable experience, but it was bittersweet. I wouldn’t have ended up there if my son, Harry, was still alive.

In 2005 I watched as Harry packed up his green rucksack and prepared for the trip of a lifetime – four months volunteering in Ghana, West Africa. I had bought him all the essentials: a stash of condoms, headache tables and antimalarial drugs – everything I could think of. We were all very excited for him.

Harry travelled to the remote village of Brenu, where he helped with building work and taught in the local school. He loved Africa and told me that he’d “found himself”. I remember laughing because it was such a cliché.

Rapid decline

Malaria is rife in Ghana but Harry naively thought that he was too fit and healthy to get sick. He gave his antimalarial tablets away to children in the village, believing they needed them more than he did. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life.

When we collected him from the airport he looked the picture of health – tanned and happy. The green rucksack we’d packed together was practically empty. He had sold all his possessions so that he could buy supplies for the school. All he brought back was a wooden drum.

The whole family sat around the table and Harry told us about Africa. He wanted to raise some funds and go back; he had found his calling. A week later he was fighting for his life.

It started with a headache. When it subsided with regular painkillers we didn’t think anything of it. Over the next few days Harry’s symptoms came and went: shivering one moment, drenched in sweat the next; a cycle that is typical of malaria. He said he felt like death. We phoned our doctor and told him that Harry had been in Africa and hadn’t taken his antimalarial drugs. He told us that if he got worse we should take him straight to hospital, which we did the following morning.

At the hospital Harry’s condition started to deteriorate and he collapsed in the waiting room. The results came back – it was falciparum malaria, the most deadly strain, and he was riddled with it. He went straight into intensive care. He was still conscious, but he was very ill.

Harry was treated with intravenous quinine and the doctors were confident that he would make a full recovery. But after a few days, he developed breathing difficulties. The malaria had caused pulmonary oedema, fluid in the lungs, making it hard for him to breathe. He was transferred to the Centre for Tropical Medicine in Oxford.

Harry’s condition stabilised for a little while and his doctors were still positive that he would recover. We decided to pop home to visit our other sons. But when we arrived back at the hospital we were told that Harry wasn’t going to survive the night. It was a horrific scene. He had chest [tubes] in to clear the fluid from his lungs and looked so ill. His nurse told me that his hearing would be the last thing to go so I just talked and talked and talked. I gave him best wishes from everybody he knew – he died 45 minutes later.

A few months after Harry’s death, I received a phone call from a PR company asking if I would like to get involved in a campaign sponsored by the Foreign Office. They wanted young people who were taking gap years or going travelling to be more aware of the risk posed by malaria. I didn’t hesitate – I wanted something good to come from Harry’s death.

Telling Harry’s story

The Malaria Awareness Campaign gave me the opportunity to tell Harry’s story over and over again, which made it easier for me to come to terms with his death. Being allowed to talk about him all the time really helped me get through it. When the pressure starts building up I can release it by talking about Harry.

In 2009, a charity called Malaria No More got in touch with me and asked me to become an ambassador for the global fight against malaria.

The first step was to make a documentary with the BBC and travel to Ghana to visit Harry’s village. I was very nervous about it; I thought that seeing where Harry caught malaria would be devastating, but the local people were so cheerful – they’re used to death. It’s just part of the circle of life.

We visited the place where Harry had stayed and met the people he’d worked with and children he’d taught. It was very cathartic. The documentary caught the attention of filmmaker Richard Curtis, the writer and director of Love Actually. Malaria No More kept telling me that Richard wanted to talk to me about my experience for a screenplay he was writing. I received a letter from him telling me my story had been the inspiration for his new film, Martha and Mary.

It felt totally incredible. There isn’t a strong enough word to convey what it means to me, but by using Harry as his inspiration, he has immortalised him around the world. As a parent I couldn’t ask for more.

The film

Martha and Mary, starring Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn, tells the story of two very different women, Martha and Mary, who both lose their sons to malaria. The film delivers a powerful message that helps people understand the issues around malaria. I hope that it will help audiences understand malaria is a preventable disease and that it can be eradicated in our lifetime.

I am committed to working with Malaria No More for as long as I’m needed.

If on the back of Harry’s death I can do some good then that’s a really positive thing. If we manage to rid the world of malaria, or halve the number of deaths, then it’s a huge monument to Harry.

Being part of the fight against malaria has been such a whirlwind; it’s been life changing. However, at the same time it breaks my heart because it always comes back to the fact that I’ve lost Harry. Losing a child rips out a part of you that you can never fill in. You just learn to work around it and tape up the edges.

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