Making a difference
When Jo Yirrell’s healthylooking son returned from a four-month volunteering stint in Africa in 2005, she had no idea he would be dead from malaria within weeks. The mother of four, whose story was the inspiration for the movie Mary and Martha, has since
After losing her son to malaria, one woman has dedicated her life to eliminating the disease.
The telephone’s jarring ringtone cut through the nocturnal silence, and as it vibrated on the bedside table it cast an eerie light around the room. Jo Yirrell stirred from a light and troubled sleep, her first in almost a week. But as the insistent sound continued, she suddenly woke with a jolt. ‘Harry’ she thought, panic gripping her as images of her sedated son flooded back in uneasy torrents. Reaching for the phone, she heard the dreaded words: “I’m afraid your son has taken a turn for the worse. You had both better come to the hospital now.”
As her husband David, 54, drove them frantically through the night, the 50-year-old mother of four wondered how this could have happened to her healthy, handsome son. Malaria was a disease reserved for parts of the world where, unfortunately, people often didn’t have access to preventative nets or medicines, not for her eldest son from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, Britain; her child who just a few days ago had been playing rugby and socialising with his friends but now lay comatose in a hospital bed as his lungs, infected by the disease, would not bear the pressure of motion, his blood riddled with parasites. “Please let him be OK,” she whispered, “let him be OK.”
But Harry, who at just 20 years old still had so much life ahead of him, would not be OK. Fresh back from four months volunteering as a teacher in Africa, he would not, as the doctors had estimated earlier in the day, “be very, very ill for an awfully long time but eventually recover.”
Instead Jo’s eldest son wouldn’t make it through the night. “We were
met at the hospital doors,” says Jo. “They rushed us to his room saying ‘we’re really sorry but we don’t think Harry is going to survive the night.’ I just went into automatic pilot. The nurses told me that the last thing to go would be his hearing so I talked and talked and talked right through until the moment he died. Then that was it, they cut us a lock of his hair and he’d gone.”
Harry had fallen victim to one of the oldest diseases known to man, malaria. A preventable virus, which although eliminated in most of the world today, still kills a child every minute, mostly those younger than five and predominantly in subSaharan Africa. Harry had contracted the disease unknowingly while in the remote village of Brenu, Ghana, where he was a volunteer building a school and teaching the local children after giving up a job on a construction site back home.
Although his mother had packed prescribed anti-malaria tablets, Harry, with the naivety of youth, had believed he was strong enough not to need them. Instead, seeing the devastating effects of the disease on those around him, he had selflessly given them to the local children including to one little girl, nine-yearold Cynthia Ofori, who had previously contracted malaria three times.
It was a noble move but one that would sadly prove to be fatal. “When he came back from Ghana,” says his mother, “he looked the picture of health. He had shed some weight; he looked fit and healthy and it sounds clichéd but he had ‘found himself’. He knew what he wanted to do and that was to raise some funds and go back to Africa.”
But within a week of being home Harry complained of a headache. “We didn’t pay too much attention,” Jo says. “We thought it was just the change of climate and diet. When it started to get worse though we made an appointment for him at the doctor. It was a Friday afternoon and
Harry had selflessly given his tablets to local children after seeing the effects of malaria
I was at work doing my job as a school inclusion officer, when he rang me to say he hadn’t made it to the doctor because he had developed diarrhoea. During the chat, he admitted that he had not taken his anti-malarial tablets and I told him that he’d been stupid and that it was extremely risky.”
As maternal alarm bells began to ring, Jo spoke to their family doctor, telling him that her son had recently returned from Africa and had given away his malaria tablets. Advising that there may be an underlying issue but urging them not to worry, the doctor told Jo to take Harry to hospital should his condition deteriorate.
On the morning of Sunday, July 17, when Harry woke his mother to
say he “felt like death”, Jo sprang into action. “I took him straight to the hospital,” she remembers. “When we got there at around 7.30am he managed to walk into the accident and emergency section, then he went downhill really, really quickly. He was sweating; he had shivers and extreme flu-like symptoms. By 2pm the results came back saying he had malaria and it was severe.”
Harry had developed the fourth and most fatal type of malaria, the falciparum strain that nearly all malaria deaths are attributable to. It presents itself with severe flu-like symptoms including a fever, shivering, pain in the joints, headache, weakness and repeated vomiting. Causing red blood cells that are infected with the parasite to stick together, the body’s tissue begins to die through lack of oxygen and organs such as the lungs, kidneys and brain start to shut down. Harry was immediately started on a programme of intravenous drugs and he seemed to stabilise.
But two days after the deadly diagnosis, Harry began to develop breathing difficulties, and doctors transferred him from the family’s local Stoke Mandeville Hospital to the Centre for Tropical Medicine in Oxford. It was a move that would be unable to save him as the disease attacked his lungs, causing pulmonary oedema (fluid on the lungs) and restricting his ability to breathe. OnWednesday, July 27, 2005, Jo’s eldest son died.
“We were absolutely devastated,” Jo recalls. “We had to go home and tell his brothers (Bert, now 26, Berry, 23 and Buster, 22). In some ways walking through the front door was the hardest part because, although he was going up and down we had told them we would be staying at the hospital a few nights while he got through the worst. We all thought he would be OK but by us coming home [so soon] everyone knew something dreadful had happened.
“It was horrible seeing the grief of others, especially watching how it affected his brothers and how upset they were. He was the eldest brother in the true sense of the word, he was bigger than them and he was bossier than them,” she says with a slight smile. “But he looked after his younger brothers so it was really devastating for the family. The everyday things – like our dining table that seats six; suddenly it was so obvious that there was an empty space.”
In the days and weeks following her son’s death, Jo focused on caring for the three brothers Harry had left behind. “As a mum or parent losing your child is a loss that tears your heart out,” she says. “You can never fill the hole it leaves behind; you just learn to live and carry on and it’s the things around that keep you going, like my three other children. I lost one child but my other children were my reason to survive. There was nothing else in my life until 2009 when I found my ambassadorship with Malaria No More UK.”
Having been prominent members of society in Leighton Buzzard since the 1500s, the Yirrell family death caught the attention of local papers and was subsequently noticed by a PR company in London. They approached Jo to ask whether she would consider campaigning to raise awareness about malaria and to emphasise through her story how critical it is that travellers take their full course of anti-malarial tablets.
“It dawned on me that I could do something,” says Jo. “I was in a position to really make a difference; to make sure others didn’t needlessly die from this disease, so that other parents, other mothers wouldn’t have to go through what I did. No parent should have to lose a child from something like malaria, which in many African countries costs less than a cup of tea to prevent.”
Ambassador for change
Throwing herself into campaigning against the mosquito-borne disease, Jo soon began to learn the absurdities and inequalities that surround the avoidable yet often fatal illness. “Malaria is a huge problem particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, it kills hundreds of thousands of people a year and most of them are children,” she says.
“Children under the age of five have very little immunity and if they contract it they are likely to die. If they are over five, they have to be bitten every night for several days, which they usually are if they are not under a mosquito net, but they
build up some form of resistance, which means they get bouts of malaria a little like our flu. I’m not an economist but it means school days and working days for parents are lost, which directly affects the economy of these countries. That means there isn’t any money to buy the medical supplies, it’s just a vicious cycle.”
Jo’s knowledge of the disease and tireless campaigning caught the attention of charity Malaria No More UK, whose mission is simple – determined to end malaria deaths, its members engage leaders, rally the public, and deliver life-saving tools and education to African families.
It didn’t take a moment for Jo to accept their offer of a position as Special Ambassador for the global fight against malaria in 2009.
“I had never thought about it before,” she says, “but basically becoming an ambassador for Malaria No More UK helped me to manage my grief because it meant I was able to talk about Harry constantly.”
Jo says, “I think if I had not been in a position to do something for the greater good, his death would have been in vain and I don’t think I would actually have been able to cope. I’m not sure where I would be now if all I had was my loss.
It gave me back that feeling of wanting to be alive again because I want to be here to see a headline proclaiming that ‘Malaria has been eradicated’.”
Although that process is farreaching, one of the key strategies that Malaria No More employs is the distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which create a protective barrier against mosquitoes at night.
“What we’re trying to do is blanket the continent in bed nets as they
‘No parent should have to lose a child… malaria can cost less than a cup of tea to prevent’
are the first step,” explains Jo. “We also want to ensure people can get malaria diagnostic kits and get treated quickly. The quicker malaria is diagnosed, the quicker it’s treated. Malaria is both treatable and curable [if the right preventative measures and medicines are taken].”
So far, the charity has supported a major mosquito net campaign in Ghana where the entire population is at risk of malaria.
Lifesaving nets – which cost around Dh25 each – have been delivered to families across the country, helping to protect more than 10 million people.
In addition to the distribution of nets, the charity has worked tirelessly to inspire political, public and private sector support to keep the life-saving momentum going.
But it’s not just campaigning and raising awareness that Jo undertook when she accepted the role to be the special ambassador. In fact, she soon found herself lobbying for change in private discussions with the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, campaigning alongside sporting heroes such as footballer David Beckham and tennis ace Andy Murray, travelling to Brussels to urge EU governments to donate more to fighting malaria, and eventually sitting down with an acclaimed British film director in 2013.
Richard Curtis immortalised her story in the movie Mary and Martha, starring two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank.
It is a film that delivers a hard-hitting message about the devastation caused by malaria through the story of two women (aspects of both characters were based on Jo) who crusade to eliminate malaria after they both lose sons to the disease.
“Harry’s death changed my life,” she says frankly. “It changed beyond recognition, for the good and the bad. The bad part was obviously that I lost Harry but I have been able to do good for others in his name.”
Motivated by the capacity with which her son’s story could bring about change and her role as special ambassador to raise public awareness of the disease, Jo decided to make a small documentary with huge emotional significance. In April 2009, she – together with Malaria No More UK and the BBC – travelled
back to Ghana to retrace her son’s footsteps and tell his tale.
“I wanted to see where he had been but I wasn’t quite strong enough to do it myself,” she says. “The documentary was like a push in the small of my back telling me to go because it would do me good.
“After accepting I started questioning if I could do it. I was frightened to death about how I could manage my emotions.”
Stronger than she gave herself credit for, however, Jo made the trip alone, her husband David unable to undertake the emotional journey.
“I remember when we arrived where Harry had lived I was crying. I thought it was going to make things so much worse for me but when I got out of the minibus we were greeted by all the people who had known him and all of a sudden I was surrounded by all this love and hero worship of Harry and it just lifted my spirits.”
Immortalised on film
That particular scene is captured in the British-made film Mary and
Martha, directed by Curtis, who is also known for popular films Love Actually and FourWeddings and a Funeral.
The TV movie, which was released last year, is centred on and largely inspired by Jo and Harry’s story, with Jo’s character played by acclaimed British actress Brenda Blethyn, best known for her roles in Atonement and
Pride & Prejudice.
“At first it was all so unbelievable that you become a little blasé,” says Jo. “I thought ‘OK, I’m an inspiration, but is there going to be any of us or will it just be: white boy visits Africa and dies from malaria?’
“When I eventually watched the movie, which I did in tiny segments because I found it really heartrending, I realised that, in fact, he did use a lot of Harry’s story.
“Like the movie, Harry was a rugby player and I did run up and down the touchline like an idiot screeching. And when Harry went to Africa, I did pack his big green bag. Even some of the still photos of the character in the film are taken from photos that I have of Harry. I can’t really explain how I felt when the movie was made, all I can really say is it’s another [place] where Harry is immortalised and for that I am grateful.”
Since Jo lost her son in 2005, she has made it her mission to eliminate the disease that took him from her. With the fiercest will of a mother she has fought hard alongside Malaria No More UK and in her son’s name progress is being made. Child deaths from malaria have been halved since 2000, with over three million children’s lives now saved.
Her tireless efforts lobbying politicians and pushing for greater donations to African countries is bearing fruit and Jo emphasises that her motivation and work is always carried out in Harry’s name.
“I have met with global policymakers in Brussels to try to push up the donations from EU countries, I have been toWashington and spoken to people from the Administration and we are having an effect,” she says. “I don’t see it, but people tell me that I’m making a difference. And that’s all I want to do really for Harry’s sake.
“Harry’s death was unnecessary,” says Jo. “That’s the big issue. It didn’t need to happen, because if we had a grip on malaria in Africa like we do in Europe, America and South Africa, the disease wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t still be killing people.” So
‘I don’t see it, but people tell me that I am making a difference. And that’s all I want to do, for Harry’
she continues, as a mother, to carry Harry’s flame in her mission to rid the world of the deadly disease.
“That means Harry’s name will never die and that he didn’t die in vain,” she says.
“I’ve lost a son to a disease that I didn’t need to and it would be nice if before I die, I can make sure that other mothers don’t lose their sons to a disease that they too don’t need to die from.”
Harry contracted malaria while volunteering to build a school
Harry grew up comfortably in the UK, but later lost his life to a disease contracted in impoverished Ghana
Jo helped inspire the character of Martha played by Brenda Blethyn in MaryandMartha
Jo’s hard work is starting to pay off
Jo attended a private screening, but found she had to watch the film in segments as it was so heart-rending
Jo with Aba Djanode, mother of Ghanaian Chelsea footballer Michael Essien, who is engaged in the fight against malaria