She was our princess with a golden smile

A family picture of Bradley Matthews and his aunt Nicola and, inset, Bradley today.
A family picture of Bradley Matthews and his aunt Nicola and, inset, Bradley today.
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For Bradley Matthews, Christmas always evokes strong memories of his aunt Nicola, and it always makes him smile and shake his head.

For Bradley Matthews, Christmas always evokes strong memories of his aunt Nicola, and it always makes him smile and shake his head.

Bradley and Nicola grew up together and would huddle excitedly, whispering about what Santa might bring on Christmas Eve.

And Bradley remembers one year when he couldn’t get her to move from the top of the stairs as she waited to catch a glimpse of the man in red.

Although Nicola was 11 years older than Bradley, she had Down syndrome and so the two youngsters were closer together in learning age.

They got along brilliantly, enjoying days out together, getting up to mischief and playing with Nicola’s Rugrats dolls, admits Brad, grinning.

And there was always something going on. ‘She used to wait on the stairs for Father Christmas. I remember waking up and she was out there, and I couldn’t get her to go back to bed,’ he laughs.

Sadly Bradley has to cling to those memories of his aunt because Nicola Bates died in 2007 at just 21.

It was the second tragedy to hit the family in a decade. Nicola’s brother and Bradley’s uncle Ashley had died of a brain haemorrhage after suffering an epileptic fit in 2003.

Struggling to cope with the grief, Nicola stopped eating, would be sick if food passed her mouth and was taken to the GP and hospital on many occasions.

But the grief and physical problems kept returning, she was never fully able to grasp that her brother had gone and eventually she had a heart attack after suffering a perforated bowel and septicaemia.

Carrie Turner, Bradley’s mum and Nicola’s sister, says: ‘She never full accepted that he had died.

‘It was like you or I being affected by grief but while we would come out the other side, it was like she was going through it all over again.

‘Nicola was so innocent. Even when Bradley no longer believed in Father Christmas, we’d all keep the magic alive for her. She was our princess with a golden smile.

‘Now when I’m in the street and I see a child with Down syndrome, I can’t help but smile at them.’

Bradley was just 10 when Nicola died and had to cope with the loss of his best friend and aunt.

Now the Waterlooville 15-year-old loves to talk about his memories of growing up with Nicola.

Like most teenage lads, he is full of adventure and is looking forward to marking his 16th birthday this year with a skydive.

He’s excited about the chance to soar to the heights and then leap into thin air in tandem with an instructor.

But he’s also thrilled about the opportunity to raise money in Nicola’s memory.

Bradley is taking donations for the Portsmouth Down Syndrome Association (Footprints), which provides support, specialist educational services and training for children with Down syndrome, their families and professionals.

He’s also asked people to donate to the charity rather than give him birthday gifts.

He says: ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for ages. And I wanted to do something to help other people, especially children like Nicola.’

A friendly lad, Bradley and his family have had a lot to cope with.

Although he didn’t live with Nicola, who was with her parents in Leigh Park, Bradley and Carrie visited every day and nephew and aunt went everywhere together.

He was away with his dad Mark when Nicola died and they returned straight away. He remembers breaking down when his mum told him.

But the family have supported each other through some very tough times.

Ashley died in 2003 after suffering from epileptic fits for several years.

He had been in a hit-and-run accident at the age of eight, which had caused a lesion on the brain and resulted in fits several years later.

Nicola was very close to him and her grief never seemed to go away.

‘She’d be okay for a while and then it would be like she’d just been told he died,’ says Carrie

‘She understood, we’d all talked to her, and she’d lost her grandad too. She used to say he was an angel.

‘But she never really grasped Ashley’s death. She’d see characters on soaps who had died in the programme and then the actor would be on something else. That confused her.’

Nicola received some counselling but never seemed to work through the grief.

People with Down syndrome have learning disabilities and physical conditions, which can include heart disorders and digestive problems. Carrie says until her grief, Nicola was in good physical health.

But people with the condition take a long time to come to terms with losing someone. This is partly because their memory is slightly different. They have a very strong visual memory that can have a huge impact on someone who is grieving.

Carrie, who now works with adults with learning disabilities, says she is impressed with the work that the Footprints charity does, not just with families but the wider community.

She and Bradley will be visiting the organisation once he has done his skydive. ‘We looked online for a charity, saw this and fell in love with it. The work they do is fantastic,’ says Carrie.

Charities help families

There are several charities and organis-ations helping families affected by Down syndrome and supporting research and education.

This week is Down Syndrome Awareness Week, which focuses on issues affecting people with the condition.

One of the main support organisations in the country is the Down’s Syndrome Association.

It has been offering bereavement leaflets for several years. The organisation looks at all kinds of issues affecting people with the condition. But educators and support groups are always finding out more about Down syndrome.

The Portsmouth Down Syndrome 
Association (Footprints) works with children, running early development groups.It also offers a schools outreach service, working with 26 schools in the area.

It says many parents struggle to get access to support services and the charity was established to address issues of lack of funding, resources and services.

The charity is usually based at Portsmouth’s Sarah Duffen Centre, until recently the home of Down Syndrome Education International.

The building is closed for refurbishment but the charity hopes to return in September.

For information visit footprintsds.org. For the Down’s Syndrome Association visit downs-syndrome.org.uk.

To help Bradley’s fundraising drive and find out more, go to http://www.virgin moneygiving.com/BradleyMatthews