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Grieving mum faced whispering campaign

‘I can’t believe they said I killed my son’

By Gráinne Brinkley

A WEST Belfast mother has spoken of her heartbreak at losing her baby son to cot death – just a year after her daughter narrowly escaped death from meningitis.

Maria McKee, 23, spoke to the Andersonstown News three weeks after her baby son, Michael James McKee-McHugh, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at the Springfield Road home she shares with her partner and her three-year-old daughter Chloe.

The tragedy came just 14 months after we reported how little Chloe and her cousin Sean, son of Maria’s sister Christine, were both hospitalised with meningitis after contracting the potentially deadly infection within three months of each other.

Tragic Michael James was born with the heart defect supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), a condition diagnosed three weeks after his birth in January this year.

“He became sick with bronchitis so we brought him to the Royal and it was there that they found he had this heart condition,” explained Maria.

“He was treated and given medication to take four times a day and sent home.  When he was 10 weeks I took him back for a review and they said he was brilliant, doing well and that his heart problem was manageable as long as he took his medication.”

On April 22 – the night before little Michael James died – Maria had taken him to visit his grandmother.

“He was eating well and doing well, there were no worries with him,” she said.

“Then when I went home, I put him to bed as normal and he slept well through the night, like he always did. I woke at 8.20am the following morning and knew by looking at him that he was dead. His head was absolutely freezing but his body was still warm.”

Maria and her partner tried to revive their son with CPR until an ambulance arrived.

“The police were notified too as it was a sudden death, so they cordoned off the road for the ambulance,” explained Maria. “He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital but he died about 40 minutes later.”

However, as it was a sudden death, police protocol meant Maria and her partner had to be questioned by PSNI detectives about the circumstances of Michael James’ death.

“Literally 10 minutes after Michael died they had us in two separate rooms to question us,” she said.

“We were tested for drugs and alcohol, which came back negative. We felt like two criminals, but they [the police officers] were apologetic throughout and explained they were just following procedure. They were really respectful to us.”

The post mortem could not pinpoint the exact cause of Michael James’ death, which left a diagnosis of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

“Apart from his heart defect he was a healthy and happy baby,” said Maria.

“But a week after his death my doctor called to say that bacteria found at the entrance to Michael James’ nose tuned out to be meningitis, so my partner, Chloe and I had to take a course of medication.  However, we were told that it wasn’t the cause of his death.”

Because police were sent to Maria’s home on the day of his death, the young mother then had to deal with a whispering campaign that began locally about the circumstances of little Michael James’ death.

“I was trying to grieve for my son and there were people on Facebook claiming I had suffocated my son and got him cremated,” said Maria.

“We heard of people saying our house was a party house and a drugs den, all totally untrue and all  heartbreaking for us. I shouldn’t have to explain my son’s death to people, but that’s what I’ve had to do.  We’ve had to move out because of it and we’re living with friends and family until we get relocated elsewhere.  I can’t understand how people can be so cruel after what happened to us.”

In February 2011 the Andersonstown News reported how Maria’s daughter Chloe and her nephew Sean were struck down by meningitis within three months of each other. Although Chloe made a full recovery, two-year-old Sean has been left with permanent brain damage after his brain was starved of oxygen while he was ill.

“It just seems to be one thing after another for our family,” said a distraught Maria.

“I am devastated, just totally devastated at losing my son so suddenly and without any explanation, and all this happening just a year after Chloe and little Sean fell ill. Our luck has to change soon.”

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