My little girl loved birthdays, and would never let us forget how many days there were until her big day.
She dreamed of being an RAF pilot, and her present requests would always have an aviation theme – even her bedroom was painted like a summer’s sky, brimming with planes.
But instead I’ll be taking my 11-year-old twins to visit their big sister’s grave. Once a week, we go there, barely ever missing a Sunday with Ella.
Ella was a bright, bubbly child. She was healthy and happy, winning numerous gymnastics medals and learning to play 10 instruments.
But that all changed a few months before her 7th birthday when she developed a chest infection. Her cough sounded like a smoker’s, and doctors struggled to work out what was causing it.
She was diagnosed with asthma, and although inhalers helped, she was still frequently hit with appalling coughing fits – watching the terror in my daughter’s eyes as she struggled for breath struck fear in my heart.
By the December, she was in intensive care.
Over the next two years, she would be hospitalised 27 times.
My hair fell out from stress, and the impact on the twins, then aged five, was enormous. She was tested for allergies, and even things like epilepsy and cystic fibrosis.
Doctors at Great Ormond Street said it was among the worst cases of childhood asthma they’d ever seen.
One night, not long after she first became ill, I woke to find her stiff and blue, entirely unable to breathe. I’ll never forget that sight for as long as I live – my heart was in my mouth.
I scooped her up and ran into the street screaming for help, for someone to save my baby girl. A neighbour thankfully knew enough First Aid to bring her back.
That was the start of an awful, dark time for our family. Doctors taught me to resuscitate her, and I lost track of the number of times I did this, but I believe it was between 20-30.
There would be no time to call an ambulance – I had to get her breathing again first. Watching her come alive, to take that first breath, was indescribable.
She was in coma several times. I’d wait by her bedside, willing her to wake up, terrified to leave her.
Once I went to the canteen to get a sandwich and I heard over the radio, ‘Children’s Ward, code 9!’ and I ran flat out back to her.
There was always that moment, when she’d opened her eyes and we’d wonder if she had brain damage. ‘Blink once if you can hear Mummy,’ I’d say, and relief would flood through me when she did.
The funny thing is, in between her bouts of illness, she was often jolly and had energy.
She’d be back to laughing at ‘The Simpsons’ , and spending time with her friends. We saw specialists at five different hospitals, but doctors were puzzled by why she was losing consciousness through coughing.
We lost her the day after Valentine’s Day. She normally had a swimming lesson that night, but it’d been cancelled. Swimming is very good for the lungs, and I’m haunted by the thought that if she’d been for a swim, perhaps she wouldn’t have had that attack.
I’m a single mum, so the four of us shared two of those special M&S Dine In For Two meals, a silly thing to mark Valentine’s Day.
The receipt for that meal is still on the fridge, six years later – I can’t take it down. Ella was obsessed by Adele’s latest song, and was playing it on repeat until I told her to turn it off.
When she had an attack that night, I thought she’d be resuscitated just like normal. But something was different. She couldn’t be saved. She died right there in front of the twins.
I’d made a promise to Ella that I’d visit her every single day in hospital, no matter what. I kept my promise when she was in the hospital morgue.
Because she died just before the weekend, she was there for several days before her post-mortem, and I went every day to be with her. She just looked so small and alone, as if she was asleep.
Her paediatrician came with me – she’d loved Ella too, and we’d spent years battling to keep her alive.
Suddenly, all of our efforts felt as if they were for nothing and we just felt like we’d let her down.
Life fell apart, but I had to keep going for the twins. When the coroner concluded she’d died from a severe asthma attack, probably triggered by something in the air, I desperately searched for answers. I owed it to Ella to find out what had happened.
When someone suggested I look into a spike in air pollution the night before her death, I made a horrible discovery.
That night was one of our area’s highest ever recorded spikes in nitrogen dioxide (NO) and PM10s, the most noxious pollutants, according to a government air pollution monitoring station just a mile from our home.
It was staggering. We live 25 metres from the South Circular, a very busy road in South London.
Like every parent, I sometimes worried about pollution, but I concerned myself more with being a good mum and putting food on the table.
I was contacted by Professor Holgate, a leading expert in child asthma and air pollution, and together we made more horrifying discoveries.
Twenty-six out of 27 of the times Ella was hospitalised coincided with very high spikes in pollution.
His report concluded that Ella’s fatal asthma attack was caused by unlawful levels of air pollution, and I started a petition to reopen the inquest into her death.
We received 175,000 signatures, and it’s been confirmed a second inquest will take place. I want Ella to become the first person in Britain whose death is directly linked to air pollution, because that’s the only way to force politicians to take notice.
We still live in the same area, although I’ve moved the twins to a school away from the main road. My daughter loves going in Ella’s old room and wearing her clothes.
The other day I tripped over Ella’s trainers in the hall, and, for a moment, it was as if she were still here.
Nothing will bring my daughter back, and knowing her death could have been prevented is something I’ll have to live with until my dying day.
I left my job as a teacher, and now I campaign for changes in the law to protect other children, trying to push through regulations such as not building new schools in pollution hot spots.
But I still feel like Ella died in vain – nothing changes, no matter how much pressure we put on the government. This isn’t an iceberg somewhere far away that needs saving.
Our children are dying now. (Mirrow)
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