'Feeling any better, love?’ I asked my daughter as she came down the stairs. Samantha, 19, was the eldest of my five kids. A bright and fun-loving girl, she was always laughing. But the night before she’d complained of a headache. ‘Take some painkillers and get some rest,’ I’d told her.
The poor thing seemed exhausted. And it was hardly surprising. Sam had been busy juggling work and studying at university. My husband Wayne, 34, and I were so proud of her. Fortunately, she soon said she was feeling better.
As she headed out to work and popped a piece of gum in her mouth, I knew she was back to her normal self. She always had a pack of chewy in her pocket and was constantly munching on it while she watched telly or did homework.
But a month later, in June 2011, Sam looked pale after a day of shopping with her sister Sophie, then 16. ‘I’ve got another headache, Mum,’ she said weakly. ‘And I keep getting pins and needles in my hand.’ I suggested she lie down so she trudged upstairs. Then suddenly I heard a loud thud. ‘Sam? Are you okay?’ I yelled, racing to her.
I found my daughter collapsed on the landing, shaking violently. ‘What’s the matter love?’ I asked frantically. What she said next made my blood run cold. ‘Is this what it feels like to die?’ she stammered. ‘I feel paralysed.’
Is this what it feels like to die?
As Wayne called for an ambulance, I tried to keep her calm. ‘Everything will be all right,’ I cried. When paramedics arrived minutes later, Sam’s eyes were still open but she couldn’t speak.
‘Has she taken any drugs?’ one medic asked.
‘No, she wouldn’t,’ I replied, but my head was spinning.
Wayne stayed with the kids as I went with Sam. But as she was rushed into emergency, she started having convulsions. ‘Don’t let her die,’ I cried as medics wheeled her away.
I felt so helpless. Soon after, a nurse came to see me. ‘Sam is in an induced coma,’ she said. She explained Sam’s salt levels had dropped to a dangerous level, which had brought on the convulsions.
Later, I was able to visit her. It was heartbreaking to see her attached to wires with machines surrounding her. ‘Come back to me sweetheart,’ I sobbed.
The next day, a doctor came to speak to me and Wayne. ‘I’m afraid Sam has suffered irreparable brain damage,’ he said. ‘The only thing keeping her alive is the life-support machine.’ I sobbed in disbelief. How could my daughter be dying?
As Sam’s brothers and sister came to say goodbye, the devastating reality set in. She wasn’t going to make it.
I held Sam in my arms as doctors switched off her life support. ‘You will always be my beautiful girl,’ I sobbed as she slipped away. Back home, I cried myself to sleep every night, hugging a photograph of Sam.
Doctors did a post-mortem to determine what had caused her salt levels to drop so drastically. They tested for drugs, laxatives, and even to determine if she’d inhaled nail polish remover, but the results came back clear. A week later, Sophie had a thought. ‘Sam chewed a lot of gum,’ she said. ‘The packs say it can have a laxative effect.’
In the back of my mind I dismissed it. Lots of people chew gum, I thought. But desperate for answers, I told the doctor about Sam’s habit. He wanted to know how many pieces she chewed each day and which brand she used. Searching her room, I found hundreds of mint sugar-free chewing gum wrappers in her drawers. Her handbag was also filled with receipts. I gave it all to the medics.
In the meantime, we were allowed to hold a funeral for Sam. Hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to our precious girl. But it was an agonising four years before an inquest could be held. It felt like the world had stopped turning. I called the coroner’s office every week for an update.
Haunted by Sam’s last words, I never gave up on finding out what claimed my daughter’s life.
In May 2015, an inquest into Sam’s death was held at Swansea Coroner’s Court. The court was told my daughter’s cause of death was cerebral hypoxia caused by convulsions due to low salt, magnesium and calcium levels in her body.
Pathologist Dr Paul Griffiths, who carried out the post-mortem examination, suggested excessive consumption of chewing gum could have contributed to her death. When I heard that the evidence showed Sam was chewing at least 14 sticks of gum a day, I gasped. I knew she loved gum but I didn’t know how much.
I found hundreds of mint sugar-free chewing gum wrappers in her drawers.
Dr Griffiths said he would be filing a report to the UK Drug Monitoring Unit to flag a possible harmful reaction from large amounts of everyday sweeteners such as sorbitol and aspartame, two ingredients in sugar-free gum, which are also found in diet soft drinks. He’d even found several pieces of bright green chewing gum in Sam’s stomach.
Now I’m going to make sure something good comes out of Sam’s death, by raising as much awareness of her story as possible.
I don’t want any more young lives to be lost.
Originally published in that's life! Issue 34, 2016.