Most of the people who got honoured in the Queens New Year honours list are celebrating. But my British Empire Medal is bitter sweet as I would swap it in a heart-beat to get my daughter Hester back.
Whilst I’m proud to accept the honour for the achievement of keeping young people safer, preventing harm and even death, it has made me pensive. When I reflect on the Angelus journey, and why I undertook it in the first place, I remember the passion and determination I had burning inside me to not let my daughter’s death be in vain.
My youngest daughter Hester was a 21-year-old medical student at Sussex University, which is the other side of the Downs from my house in Brighton. She was a student mentor as well as a very enthusiastic cheer leader. She sometimes called to say “Mummy, come and watch us practice tonight and by the way what are you making for dinner?”. She was a wonderful daughter who was much loved by all those whose lives she touched. Very sadly, she was given a legal high after an awards dinner by a ‘friend’ on 25th April 2009, and, coupled with the few drinks she had consumed during the evening, it shut down her respiratory system and she stopped breathing forever. Two policewomen appeared on my doorstep the following morning to relay the devastating news that broke my heart and the hearts of her family and close friends.
Probably because of my profile in the media as a wellness expert, author and broadcaster and the fact that Hester was such a star student and not a drug taker, the story became irresistible to the media. We got tipped off by the Telegraph that we were about to be ‘door stepped’ by the press and indeed they camped out on our doorstep for the following four days and nights whilst we were hidden in a hotel nearby.
I felt like I was living a nightmare, ripped out of real life and plummeted into a dark place filled with agony, pain and unfamiliar surroundings. I prayed I would wake up and real life would resume, but alas, that was not to be. Richard Edwards, the then Crime Correspondent from the Telegraph accompanied us to the hotel for those few days. It was during that time that we discovered that Hester had been given a substance called GBL, which I found out from Google was paint stripper. I also discovered that it had been banned for human consumption in many other countries around the world four years before and that several European countries had run awareness campaigns 18 months before, in conjunction with night clubs, charities and the police highlighting the fact that GBL + Alcohol = Death.
Jackie Smith, the Home Secretary in the UK at the time, had been urged by the European Committee on Drug Dependency Monitoring as well as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to raise awareness about the dangers of GBL in a similar way to our European counterparts, but she chose to take no action. I felt angry and aggrieved when I discovered her inertia as I felt certain that Hester, who absolutely adored life and helping others, would still be alive if she and her friend had known about the dangers. It was my anger and devastating loss that fuelled my passion to campaign to raise awareness so that other families wouldn’t have to experience a similar life sentence.
So instead of curling up in a ball, really choosing to swap places with Hester, I made myself get out of bed each day with the determination I would somehow save lives in her memory as she would have done if she had lived to qualify as a doctor.
I was completely clueless about how I was going to achieve my objective, except to say that my first stop was to meet with the Home Secretary, and ask her to account for her lack of action. I also knew I needed to do more research and talk to medical experts to expand my understanding. I felt utterly shocked as a knowledgeable health care professional that I had no clue what legal highs were until Hester’s death. Even her father who is a medical doctor had no knowledge that chemicals and drugs were being used for recreational purposes purporting to be safe as they were ‘legal’.
During my lifetime, I often found myself challenged with many weird and wonderful tasks I hadn’t planned to do. I used to joke that I felt like I was in training for something. I came to realise that all of that had actually been the dress rehearsal for the next chapter in my life. I needed all the skills I could muster for this next journey; one that would truly save lives and preserve wellbeing.
With significant help and resources I managed to attract, I founded the Angelus…