When my precious daughter suddenly collapsed and died I had no idea what was to blame…
By Maria Morgan, 43, from Llanelli, Wales
The eldest of my five children, Samantha, 19, was a bright and loving girl – she was always laughing and always keen to help others.
She was hardworking, a good student, and a little messy at times. But she had one bad habit in particular – chewing gum.
Sam always had a pack in her pocket and whether she was watching television or doing homework, she would be chewing away. But she never chewed gum at the dinner table or at school, so I reasoned there was worse habits to have.
In September 2009, Sam went to college to study retail. My husband Wayne and I were so proud of her. She was so busy, juggling shifts at the local high street store with her studies, but in typical Sam fashion, she always had a smile on her face.
But one night in May 2011, she came home complaining of a headache.
‘Take some painkillers and go to bed early,’ I advised her. The poor thing, she was probably working too hard. She always seemed to be exhausted.
The next day, she got up and got dressed for work.
‘Feeling better?’ I asked, and Sam nodded. As she threw on her jacket to leave the house, she slipped a piece of gum into her mouth. I knew she was back to her normal self.
But a month later, in June 2011, Sam walked into the living room looking pale, after a day of shopping with her sister Sophie, 16.
‘I’ve got another headache, Mum,’ she said weakly. ‘And I keep getting pins and needles in my hand.’
I wasn’t immediately worried, so I told Sam to go and have a lie down on her bed.
But as she trudged up the stairs, suddenly I heard a loud thud.
‘Sam? Are you OK?’ I yelled, racing up the stairs. I found Sam collapsed on the landing, shaking violently.
‘What’s the matter love?’ I asked frantically. ‘Where does it hurt?’
‘Is this what it feels like to die?’ she stammered, and her words sent a shiver down my spine. ‘I feel paralysed.’
Wayne called an ambulance while I stayed with her, trying to keep her calm and stroking her hair. When the paramedics arrived, Sam’s eyes were still open but she couldn’t speak.
I watched as they carried her limp body into the ambulance on a stretcher.
‘Has she taken any drugs?’ one medic asked me, and I shook my head.
‘No, she wouldn’t – she knows better than that,’ I replied, but my head was spinning. What was wrong with her?
Wayne looked after the other children as I went in the ambulance with Sam. As she was rushed into the emergency department, she suffered more convulsions. The sight of her on that day will stay with me for the rest of my life.
‘Don’t let her die,’ I cried as they started to tend to her. I felt so helpless, watching on the sidelines while they worked on my little girl. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to figure out what had happened to her on the landing.
She was taken away and I felt sick with worry. A nurse appeared a short while later and looked kindly at me.
‘Sam had to be sedated, she’s in an induced coma,’ she explained gently.
She explained that Sam’s salt levels had dropped to a dangerous level, which had brought on the convulsions.
Later, I was able to go and see her. It was heartbreaking to see her attached to so many wires. There were machines all around her, beeping constantly, keeping her alive.
‘Oh Sam,’ I sobbed, holding onto her hand tightly. ‘Come back to me sweetheart. I’m here when you want to wake up. I’m not going anywhere.’
The next day, a doctor came to see me and Wayne. He had a grave look on his face.
‘I’m afraid Sam has suffered irreparable brain damage,’ he said. ‘The only thing keeping Sam alive is the life-support machine.’
I sobbed in disbelief. How could my beautiful, smiling daughter be dying? Just hours previously she had been happy and healthy. My whole body heaved as I collapsed into Wayne’s arms with grief.
Three days later, Sam was dead. As her brothers and sister came to say goodbye, the devastating reality set in.
I held Sam in my arms as doctors switched off her life support machine. I kissed her repeatedly as she slipped away. I couldn’t stop telling her I loved her.
‘You will always be my beautiful girl,’ I sobbed. My vibrant and happy-go-lucky little girl was gone, and we were at a loss over what had killed her.
Back home, we were at a complete loss without her. The house felt empty without her infectious laughter and cheery attitude.
As I cried myself to sleep every night, hugging a photograph of her, I wanted to know what had killed my daughter.
Doctors did a post-mortem to determine what had caused her to collapse. They needed to know what had caused her salt levels to fall so drastically. They tested for drugs, laxatives, and even if she had inhaled nail polish remover. But the results came back clear, and the doctors seemed just as confused as we were over the whole situation.
A week later, Sophie had a thought.
‘Sam always chewed a lot of gum, didn’t she Mum?’ she asked me. ‘The packets do say it can have a laxative effect.’
It was an idea, but in the back of my mind I dismissed it. Lots of people chew gum, I thought to myself. Still, desperate for answers, I rang the doctor and told him about Sam’s habit.
I didn’t think anything would come of it, but when the doctors wanted to know how many pieces Sam chewed a day, and what particular brand she chewed, I was surprised.
I searched her room, looking for clues. I dug through her drawers and found hundreds of mint-flavoured sugar free chewing gum wrappers. Her handbag was also filled with receipts for several packets of gum.
I gave it all to the medics who were looking into her cause of death, and patiently waited for an inquest to be held. While we waited, I did my homework. I carried out my own research into the dangers of artificial sweeteners. I begged the coroner’s office to look into it.
Three weeks after her death, we were allowed to hold a funeral. At a church near our home in Llanelli, South Wales, hundreds of family and friends gathered to say goodbye.
Because her death was such a mystery, we were forced to wait an agonising four years for the inquest to be held. My whole life just stopped for that time – the world simply stopped turning. I called the coroner’s office every week, asking for an update. I never gave up on finding out what had claimed my daughter’s life.
The inquest was finally held at Swansea Coroner’s Court in May 2015. There, we heard Sam’s cause of death was cerebral hypoxia (brain swelling) caused by convulsions due to low salt, magnesium and calcium levels in her body.
But pathologist Dr Paul Griffiths, who carried out the post mortem examination, also suggested excessive consumption of chewing gum could have been contributed to her death.
When I heard that the evidence showed Sam was chewing at least 14 sticks of gum a day, I gasped. I knew she loved gum but it was only then I found out just how much.
Dr Griffiths said he would be filing a report to the UK’s Drug Monitoring Unit to flag up a possible harmful reaction from large amounts of everyday sweeteners such as aspartame and sorbitol, which are in chewing gum and fizzy drinks.
He had even discovered several pieces of the lime green chewing gum in her stomach. It was terrifying to think something as seemingly harmless as chewing gum could be so dangerous.
In a way, it was a relief that they pointed to chewing gum as a possible cause. Now I’m going to make sure something comes out of Samantha’s death, by raising as much awareness as possible – I don’t want any more young lives to be lost because of something as simple as chewing gum.