Fundraising mum recalls the day her son died of sudden cardiac arrest

Patients undergo heart screenings to look for anything of concern
Patients undergo heart screenings to look for anything of concern

When Elaine Ward lost her son Neil aged just 17, her whole world turned upside down.

Sunday, December 20, 1992 had started like an ordinary day for the teacher, her husband, Ian, and sons Neil and Alistair, aged 15.

Neil Ward, from Dronfield, died of a undiagnosed heart condition in 1992, aged 17

Neil Ward, from Dronfield, died of a undiagnosed heart condition in 1992, aged 17

They had been doing some Christmas baking and the boys had been decorating the tree.

But just a few hours later the Dronfield family was left devastated when Neil, a sixth-former at Dronfield Henry Fanshawe School, suddenly collapsed and died at a Scout meeting. His heart had stopped.

Elaine said: “Neil was leader of the local Venture Scout unit. In fact he had set it up and got the group involved in conservation work in the Peak District, one of his passions.

“His applications to university to study geography had all been sent.

“He was also involved in the local Scout post for Christmas, as was Alistair.

“Neil went off at about 7pm to the local Scout hut for a meeting. ‘See you later, mum,’ he said.

“I wouldn’t see him alive again.

“The lads phoned us at about 8pm and said Neil had collapsed.

“This was in the days before mobile phones. There wasn’t even a phone in the building – the lads had run up to the nearest phone box.

“When we went down, there was an ambulance outside and seeing that was a shock, but there was a bigger shock waiting for us when we walked in.

“The youngsters were stunned. Neil was lying on the floor, lifeless, being attended to by paramedics. They worked on him for a while, called for back-up and then took him to hospital.”

The doctors did not know what caused Neil’s death, only that his heart stopped.

His inquest recorded an open verdict.

Fast-forward 23 years and Elaine, now 66 and retired, raises money for CRY, the Cardiac Risk in the Young charity, to hold heart screenings for hundreds of young people aged between 14 and 35.

She said: “CRY didn’t exist in 1992. I didn’t even find out about it until 2012 when, after retiring and joining the Inner Wheel Club of Dronfield, the ladies asked me to be their president and I needed a charity to support.

“There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do.

“I Googled ‘Sudden Adult Death’ and CRY came up. It was just what I wanted. It was for young people and I could do something local.

“How I wish I had known about it before. I’m sure they would have helped us through those bleak years when we struggled on without any professional help.”

Although CRY is a national charity, money can be raised for local screenings and Elaine decided to do just that.

She opened a memorial fund in Neil’s memory and all the money raised goes 
directly there.

She has since raised thousands of pounds with the help of the Inner Wheel Club of Dronfield and other local groups and organisations to hold screenings in Chesterfield, Dronfield and Sheffield.

One of the most recent screenings was at Sheffield United Football Club, where 100 young people underwent an ECG and further tests to look for any abnormalities.

Elaine said: “The response has been incredible. All the screenings have been full.

“At the screening in Dronfield we found a 15-year-old rugby player who has a serious heart problem.

“He and his family had no idea. He has played rugby at county level and wanted to turn professional.

“Most of the time the screenings are about offering reassurance to families.

“We also screened the brother of a 14-year-old girl from Clowne who died suddenly. He is fine, and the family were so relieved. My husband and I always talk to the families who attend.”

Neil’s brother Alistair went on to study at Cambridge University, did a PhD, and now works at the Centre for Genetical Discovery in Salt Lake City.

Elaine said: “We will never know if Neil had had an ECG whether something would have been found.

“I’m pleased I’m involved with CRY and trying to screen as many young people as possible is my aim.

“I know from Alistair how collecting data is so beneficial to research and if any young lives can be saved, CRY are there at the forefront.”