Real Life

I’m still fighting my daughter’s killer

Hamilton’s Hayley Browne is rebuilding her life after losing her daughter Melanie to meningitis. Now she helps others who have been affected by this horrific disease.

It was the most powerless moment in Hayley Browne’s life. Strapped into the front seat of a rescue helicopter, the desperate mum could only watch in horror as doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate her dying daughter in the back.

“Don’t die. Please don’t die,” she whispered to herself, straining to see little Melanie’s face.

But this time even a mother’s prayers were not enough.

“I knew what the monitors meant,” says Hayley, still tearful at the memory of her loss. “I knew Melanie was dying and I couldn’t do anything. I was in the front of the helicopter, and I couldn’t get in the back where the doctor and nurses were trying to save her.

“When she slipped away, I could feel it. When we landed the helicopter at Auckland Airport, we never got out. The doctor called my husband Simon with the news. He was driving to meet us and had to turn around and go home. I was allowed to get into the back of the helicopter and I picked up Melanie and cuddled her lifeless body.”

Melanie was only two-and-a-half years old when she died from meningococcal septicaemia, a form of meningitis. Her fight with the deadly disease was devastatingly quick, as it is for so many children who battle it.

Even now, seven years after her daughter’s death, Hayley is shocked by the speed of what happened.

“I remember the weekend started with her calling out, `Melanie awake now, oum,’ says Hayley, who remembers her daughter being tired, but happy. But by Saturday evening, Melanie had a raging temperature and was vomiting. By morning, she was floppy, tired and blue at the mouth.

“I freaked out and told Simon we had to go to the doctor,” Hayley remembers. “When I changed Melanie’s clothes, I noticed two aggressive-looking red-purple spots on her stomach and arm.”

The Napier doctor gave the devastating news that Melanie had meningococcal septicaemia and would be admitted to hospital. Penicillin was pumped into the toddler and she was taken to Hawke’s Bay Hospital.

Melanie’s condition quickly worsened, and she was admitted to intensive care. There, the doctors told Hayley she was the most critical patient in the hospital. After a blood transfusion, which failed to help her kidneys work again, medics decided to race Melanie to Starship Children’s Health in Auckland by rescue helicopter.

Hayley says the hardest decision was choosing who flew in the helicopter with Melanie and who drove the car. Hayley is forever grateful she was there when Melanie passed away.

“She died on Sunday night at 10.30pm,” Hayley says tearfully. “It was less than 24 hours after she first showed symptoms.”

Struggling to cope with her grief, Hayley refused to let her little girl be taken on a gurney to the undertaker, and carried her instead.

“When we were allowed to take her home, we put her in her PJs and lay her on her bed and cuddled her until the morning,” Hayley says.

About 300 people farewelled Melanie at her funeral on 4 March 1999. The children released 300 blue and yellow balloons, and a monkey and a lion sit on Melanie’s headstone.

Looking back, Hayley says she always had a feeling Melanie was almost too good to be true.

“We tried for eight years before I finally fell pregnant. We had got to the stage where we took in foster children and were resigned to never having our own kids. I was so overjoyed when I found out I was pregnant, but I was sick with toxaemia and had to be induced,” says Hayley.

“I then started bleeding and haemorrhaging. I was white as a ghost and my hands puffed up. I kept fainting and had two blood transfusions. I thought I was going to die.

“once Melanie was born, my sister Kelly, Simon and I sang Happy Birthday to her. She was a very smart kid. She was an old soul – I don’t think she was meant to live long.”

Two years after Melanie’s death, Hayley and Simon split, after the stress and grief of their daughter’s death became too much to bear.

Hayley, a regional supervisor for a caregiver agency, has moved from their home in Napier to Hamilton and is trying to get her life back on track.

“I was a mother, a wife and owned a home – my life was planned out. All of a sudden, I have none of these things,” Hayley weeps.

“I often wonder what Melanie would be like now. I feel proud that I was chosen to be the mother of an angel.”

Amid her grief, Hayley is also trying to regain some power over meningitis – at least for other parents.

After Melanie’s death, Hayley and Simon organised a charity concert in Napier which raised $12,000 for a ventilation machine at Hawke’s Bay Hospital. Hayley has spent hours writing a children’s book about meningitis and has also become a oeningitis Trust support person to help others in similar situations.

She says, “I hope that by talking to other parents who have lost a child I can support them. I know what it’s like to live with an empty space in your heart.

“one thing I would say is that all parents should get their children vaccinated. That option wasn’t available when Melanie died, and maybe it wouldn’t have helped because it protects against another strain of meningitis, but who knows? I know if a vaccine had been available, she would have had it.

“oeningitis is such a scary, fast-acting disease and people need to be aware of the signs and symptoms. What parent would want to take the risk of what happened to Melanie happening to their child?” Story by Rebecca Milne Photograph by Frances oliver

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