The parents of a teenager who died suddenly of a heart condition have spoken of their loss in the hope that screening will spare others from their agony.
Steve and Sheralyn Hammond, from High Halden, lost their eldest son Ben in July just over a week after he turned 15, and now they are fundraising for the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY).
With searing honesty, they have told the story of how Ben died to show how an undiagnosed heart condition can cruelly strike even the fittest of children, devastating those who are left behind.
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Country-loving Ben, a pupil at Tenterden’s Homewood School, was active and robust. He worked part-time at Plurenden Manor Farm and enjoyed taking Megan, the family’s labrador-collie cross, out for early-morning walks.
Sheralyn said: “Ben was very fit and he loved to ride around on his bike. He was rarely ill.”
The day before he died, the teenager and keen member of Woodchurch Scouts had spent a happy afternoon at a cycle park near Deal, tearing round the circuits.
VIDEO: Ben's parents plea to raise money for CRY.
“It was a birthday treat,” said Steve. “Ben was allowed to take two of his best friends out to Betteshanger Country Park and he had great fun and absolutely no problems.
“The next day he got up for an early shift at the farm and worked again in the afternoon.
“Everything was normal. He was home for dinner at 7pm, happily chatting as he usually did.
“It was when Sheralyn and I were going to bed around 10.30pm that he called out to say he’d been sick.
“We just treated it as a bug and made him comfortable and gave him a glass of water.”
But in a very short space of time he was wheezy, his breath was rattling and he was clammy and complaining of an ache in his leg.
Sheralyn said: “Ben was saying he didn’t want to go to hospital and he didn’t want any fuss.”
But Steve insisted and at around 11.30pm he drove Ben to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, while Sheralyn looked after Archie, 10, the couple’s youngest son.
While in the waiting room, Ben’s condition deteriorated and Steve alerted staff.
Steve said: “Within minutes he was whisked into a room and was surrounded by nurses, doctors and technicians. They ordered ultrasounds and echocardiograms and Ben was taken to an emergency ward. Although it was obvious Ben was ill, he was talking normally and even made a joke about his situation.”
Sheralyn, whose mum was now babysitting Archie, said: “Staff had just unlocked the wheels of Ben’s bed to take him down for a CT scan and he was sitting up, but all of a sudden he shot back.
“It all happened in a millisecond and I thought he must have been having some sort of fit.”
The couple were ushered into a waiting room while doctors made frantic attempts to revive Ben.
Steve and Sheralyn were told of the seriousness of the situation and advised to call family to say their goodbyes.
After two hours, medics said that they could do no more to revive Ben and he was pronounced dead.
The couple say staff at the William Harvey could not be faulted for their efforts and professionalism.
Following an inconclusive post-mortem examination at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, further tests showed that the teenager died from a coronary artery anomaly.
Sheralyn said: “His left artery went round a different way and it was described to me as being like a kink in a hosepipe affecting the blood flow. As Ben grew older, the pressure increased.”
Ben was cremated at Barham, near Canterbury, in a private family service on July 27, his body transported in a Land Rover.
Steve said: “I didn’t want a black hearse. Ben loved the country and he would have approved of the Land Rover.”
A service followed at St Mary the Virgin, High Halden, and afterwards a reception at the village primary school, which Ben went to and now Archie attends. Almost 200 people crammed through the doors to pay their respects.
Steve said: “It all happened so suddenly that it didn’t really hit me that Ben had died until I had to walk out of the hospital without him.”
In a matter of hours the son, who Steve and Sheralyn describe as “happy, helpful and outgoing” and who had chatted to them over dinner, was gone.
Steve and Sheralyn have slowly returned to work, he as a service delivery manager with Thames Water and she as an administrator at Westpoint Farm Vets in Ashford.
They are determined to carry on with positivity for their son Archie and in honour of Ben’s happy spirit. And it is to stop parents enduring the loss they have experienced that drives them to fundraise for CRY.
Steve said: “Every week, 12 young people die of undiagnosed heart conditions. If we can help to stop this happening to one more child, then it will be worth it.”
The community in High Halden rallied round Steve and Sheralyn when they learnt that Ben had died.
Sheralyn said: “We just want to thank everyone in the village who helped us. It was amazing and our house had an open door.
“People were coming in cleaning for us and cooking in rotas. I’d come home and find someone making the beds, or I’d be looking for the dog but someone had taken her out already.
“People were dropping off bags of food for us.”
Steve said: “I was blown away by all the support from our friends and people in the village.”
The couple have had a liquid amber tree planted at Hookstead Green, High Halden, in Ben’s name, which was unveiled in a short ceremony on Sunday, November 6.
It was donated by Edward Boult, owner of Tenterden Garden Centre. The tree is encircled by a bench and a plaque bears an inscription written by Ben himself.
Ben’s English teacher at Homewood School, Helena Headley-Read, asked pupils in Ben’s class to describe what a friend was and Ben wrote: “A good friend is someone who cares for you when you are hurt inside and out. They are funny and happy.”
For more information about fundraising for Ben, search Facebook for Team Ben Hammond.