Mark O’Connell Shares Story of Losing His Son Ben and Urges Others to Have Their Children Screened for Heart Conditions

Surrey Live, 28th August 2020

Ben O’Connell was only 14 years old when he passed away last year. He had been completing an obstacle course on a school trip when he collapsed. His father, Mark, tells the story of the tragic day when he received a call at work informing him that his son had been taken to hospital:

“It was from Ben’s headmaster saying Ben’s, he might have used the word collapsed, but Ben… something had happened and Ben won’t be on the coach coming back,” Mark recalls. “That’s all he said. I asked where he was and he said East Surrey Hospital. He said he tried getting hold of my wife, she works as a dog groomer in Cheam, and she wasn’t picking up the phone. And so I said ‘okay, thanks for letting me know’. I just got my stuff together and went to leave work.”

Managing to get hold of his wife, Cathy, and tell her to get to the hospital, Mark says he rushed there “absolutely screaming”. Arriving at the hospital, Mark was led to a room where he saw doctors crouched beside his crying wife.

“No one actually said ‘your son is no longer with us, he’s died’. No one said those words to me, but they didn’t need to,” Mark stated.”It wasn’t until I got to the hospital that it was… and I just collapsed really. I just collapsed and thought this is it.”

In the aftermath of the devastating loss of their son, Ben’s parents along with his younger sister, Scarlett, sought to make sense of why the healthy and sporty youth had died so suddenly. The answer was discovered in the official postmortem report which found that he had been born with a heart condition that had gone undiagnosed his whole life. He had died of acute haemopericardium, an aortic dissection, and bicuspid aortic valve and coarctation of the aorta as a result of this condition.

“We spent some time with a congenital surgeon as we all had to be tested afterwards and she said that he had two defects working against each other and it was building since the day he was born,” Mark relates. “It didn’t matter what he was doing on that day, this was going to be the day when everything went catastrophically wrong.”

In the year since his death, Ben’s name and legacy lives on as his family seeks to prevent others from experiencing their grief through their work fundraising for Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) in Ben’s Memory to spread awareness and allow for young people to be screened for heart conditions. A charity football tournament made up of current and past teams Ben had played for was organised. With 400 people attending, they were able to raise around £10,000, providing funds for CRY and paying for a defibrillator at Raynes Park.

The one thing Mark hopes will come of Ben’s passing is that it will urge other parents to have their children screened for heart conditions.

“Just have a private scan on your child just to make sure,” Mark urges. “CRY will, if you get in on time, CRY have a certain amount of spaces each month, I think, where they will fund people to get their children scanned. And a lot of Ben’s friends have used that since. I think CRY was planning to go into the schools to speak to them as well.”

He continues: “You can argue, I’ve kind of argued, statistically-wise Ben’s taken hits for people. It’s like if someone next door to you wins the lottery you think, ‘well I’m not going to win it now as they’ve just won it’. So in the absolute opposite way, if something crap happens to one of your friends, or your neighbours, you think, ‘well what’s the chance of that happening again to me?’ And I don’t want people thinking that. I would hate for another family to be going through this.”

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