Theirs is a deep wound that the passage of time has not completely healed. December 11, 2014, remains indelible in the household of Des and Ajoke Braithwaite when they lost their daughter, Temi, in the United Kingdom to meningitis. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the couple has put up a united front through a foundation floated in memory of their daughter to create awareness about the disease and encourage government policies that will ensure the availability of vaccines for Nigerians, writes Funke Olaode
Her youthful smiles and boisterous nature are apparent in the portraits delicately hung on the walls of the expansive and exquisite living room of the Braithwaites. Her endless gaze in the photos like not a few people enchanted. Oluwagbotemi Oreoluwa Oluwafunmilola, fondly called Temi, was the first daughter of Des and Ajoke Braithwaite. In her lifetime, she was her parents’ delight. She was intelligent, meticulous and a great organizer often described as a ‘mini mum’ because of her gentle and mature nature.
Temi, who was completing her first semester at Swansea University, complained of having flu-like symptoms a few days before her demise on December 11, 2014. A report from a post-mortem revealed she died of meningitis.
“She was so good a daughter and nobody wants a good thing to end,” said her mother Ajoke Braithwaite as she recalls the fond memories.
The mother added, “My daughter Temi as a daughter was a lovely girl. Her relationship with me was different from the one she had with her father. She was a little mummy. She knew everything I wanted and did everything I wanted. She was a child that never wanted me to be upset. She was a child that wanted to please you. Everything about her was ordered by God. She was too good. She doesn’t get into a fight. She was my little right-hand man. She looked after the house, doing various chores.”
According to Des, Temi’s father, their late daughter was determined and purposeful. Receiving the news of his daughter’s death was quite numbing.
“My wife and our youngest daughter were in England when the news broke. It was quite a rude shock when a police officer knocked at the door around 7 pm at night to inform my wife about the sad news. And thereafter, my youngest daughter, Funke, called me in Nigeria and was screaming on the phone. I couldn’t get what she was saying but out of the screaming I heard ‘Temi is dead’. I just put the phone down. It was a shock. It was unbelievable. My mind refused to process the reality of the situation. That was how I reacted,” Des recalled.
Mrs. Braithwaite also remembered her last moment with Temi who had earlier called, one week before her eventual death, that she was not feeling well.
“She called me a week earlier that she fell and broke her wrist but it wasn’t anything serious. Again, she said she had been having flu-like symptoms and we didn’t think that it was serious. On Sunday, I went to England and didn’t want my children to know that I was in England. On Tuesday, I called her but she didn’t pick her phone and on Wednesday I kept calling but she didn’t pick I was saying within me that ‘If I catch this girl’ but nothing happened. I thought she may be in the library so I shrugged it off.
“It was on Thursday evening that I got a call from her flatmates who sent a text that I should call this number it is about Temi. And because I hadn’t got hold of her I thought maybe as young students they had run into troubled waters. I just ignored it until the police came and because I had worked within the system I know that when you see a male and female police officer there is a problem,” the mother narrated.
She continued, “They asked me: ‘Do you have a daughter called Temi?’ They now gave me the date of birth of my son and I said I spoke to him and he is fine. They went back to get confirmation and that was when they passed the message that ‘Temi has passed’. I was just saying let me go and see her. They said no they had moved her to the morgue. My husband took the next available flight and rushed down to the UK.
“In life when they say time stood still, it does because the time we were waiting for my husband was the longest time ever. That was how we faced it. We now travelled to Swansea the following day to see her and of course, doing that was the hardest thing. Identifying her was difficult because it was the first opportunity to see her. I remember on the train so many thoughts were running through my mind. I was like if only she had had a child. Her death was shocking you know when you don’t want a beautiful thing to finish.”
“We eventually saw her looking beautiful just as if she was sleeping. That moment was helpful. It was very difficult but necessary and which is why I advocate for any bereaved person or who has lost a child to see the remains though in our culture they say we shouldn’t see the child. But it helps (to see the remains). It is part of the grieving process.”
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Temi’s parents subdued the storm of grief by floating a non-governmental organization in her memory.
“We established an NGO in her memory on the first anniversary of her death,” the couple explained. “The postmortem revealed that she died of meningitis. Actually, our first son had meningitis the year before but he was lucky to have been taken to the hospital and got the right antibiotics on time. We didn’t know what it was even though we had been a victim through our son and it is not something people pay much attention to.
“After my daughter’s demise we just said is this a calling from God to do something or to make up (for) something. We now established an NGO to create awareness about the virus. We tried to do it in the UK but it didn’t work and we said we should bring the campaign to Nigeria because Nigeria is on the middle belt of meningitis and it is quite prevalent in the North. In fact, two years ago, about 700 lives were lost to meningitis. Meningitis is a silent killer and very little is known about it.”
Boot out Meningitis for Good Foundation, BoOm4Good, was launched on December 12, 2015, which coincided with the one year anniversary of Temi’s death, with a 5km walk from the Lagos Motor Boat Club (LMBC), followed by a breakfast talk.
According to the couple, the not-for-profit organization’s mission is to create awareness about the disease, educate the public, identify those vulnerable to the disease and work with local health organizations towards reducing the number of deaths in Nigeria and aligning with the international campaign against meningitis worldwide to reduce meningitis through awareness, information, communication and research.
In addition, the NGO’s vision is to ensure there is a world without meningitis and protect the general populace against it, by making vaccines available and affordable.
Throwing more light on the foundation’s activities over the last four years, the Braithwaites said, “Over the last four years what we focus on is awareness, educating people about meningitis and what can be done to prevent it and most importantly who is most at risk? And identifying them. We have done various events to highlight in a fun way especially to the youth who are vulnerable between the age of 18 and 24 years. We try to focus on teenagers in Nigeria because babies would get the vaccine early. We are trying to encourage parents to allow their children to take the vaccine before going into the university because it is very common in the first year because they are coming in contact with lots of students from all over the world.
“Apparently, it is called a lover’s disease because everybody is a carrier of the disease at the back of their throat and the most affected are people with a low immune system. Also, we try to get various tiers of government involved but it hasn’t worked. Our main focus is to work with UNICEF and not only that to assist those who cannot afford the vaccine. To try and target areas such as IDP camps or poorer areas. We encourage people to take one for themselves and donate one to another family that can’t afford it. Again, we know that there is an outbreak of meningitis every 10 years. The last one happened two years ago with 700 people (killed). So we want the government to put a policy in place for the vaccines to be available.”
What are the symptoms of meningitis? Or what did they notice in their daughter’s case?
The Braithwaites explained, “Meningitis kills within 48 hours and if it is not treated on time it is deadly. In my late daughter’s case, we didn’t even see her. The last time we saw her was October. So we didn’t even know and her friend didn’t know. My son that had it a year before was throwing up violently. It is one of the symptoms; high temperature. It was his friend that called the ambulance and by the time he got into the ambulance, he was already unconscious because it affects the back of the brain and spreads to the spinal cord. What happens is that meningitis strikes in the sleep. For instance, my daughter was found in her bed sleeping though she was dead. If there was no legal requirement that coroner had to take an autopsy, we wouldn’t have known. Also, there are certain diseases and genotype or races that are vulnerable. We have had cases of families who lost their loved ones and it is the same problem.
“But we have to be careful about this stigma because it is an unfortunate event of losing a child and what follows that one should let go. That she is young and all that. I think it is important to know the root cause of the matter to prevent future occurrences and take preventive measures. Part of the awareness is to make the symptoms known and the first reaction, every temperature or fever is not malaria.”
The meningitis vaccine is restricted to a certain level, the Braithwaites believe that taking comprehensive dose counts.
“We are all used to taking meningitis dose C. But the thing about meningitis is ACWY and if you had one before you can still have another one. You have to take a comprehensive one. America was trying to have ACWY at a time but was not rolled out in England then because if she had taken the comprehensive one she would have been alive today. A year after she died, the UK government rolled it out. Our focus right now is to get teenagers and young adults between the age of 18 and 24 and their parents enlightened on the importance of taking a comprehensive vaccine,” the couple added.
On December 11, the Braithwaites and other family members will meet for the fifth memorial of Temi.
“We will have a simple memorial service which will be followed by a breakfast talk because at any opportunity one can gather together you have to pass a message across and of course, social media is a carrier of the message. We are going to make it very simple because we have a target that is 18-24; we call them young adults. We will leave the infant to the professionals and since we have been victims of these lapses we will talk about it. We’ll talk to them about important matters relating to health and meningitis.”
Over the last four years, they have been giving succour to those plagued by the disease and providing direction where people can get help. Now, they want corporate organizations to get involved in the campaign through direct charity acts.
“I remember at the inaugural meeting four years ago, Dr. Pamela Ajayi who is the chairperson of the foundation brought an expert form LUTH who gave a presentation and talked to parents about what to look out for. We are limited in medical knowledge but we get professionals to lecture people about health-related diseases. In Nigeria, the emphasis is meningitis A for the infant. After the outbreak two years ago, they gave them meningitis C.
“In the world, there is a shortage of meningitis vaccines because it is not of pharmaceutical interest to focus on meningitis. We need to ante up to ACWY. It is important because if you get one you can get another and that is why taking (the) comprehensive dose is important. From UNICEF, a dose is N7000. By the time it gets outside, the price goes up to N18000 and sometimes N22000. The Nigerian government has not keyed into it and you can’t bring it in as individuals. It is only one body. And that is why we are advocating for people to be their brother’s keeper through donation. A helpline is available on our website for those who need help,” said of the Braithwaites.
Grief has always been considered a woman thing, how did Des Braithwaite overcome hers?
“You never overcome grief,” he pointed out, “as a man you only manage it. The management of grief is difficult in the sense that I had to go to London and started preparing for my daughter’s burial. It is difficult for me to do that. Basically, you have to start preparing for the emotional trauma and as a man in the family, you can’t really show it and being Christians you have to carry all your burden upon the Lord who cares for us. That is the only grief management. We took professional bereavement management which helps. But the grieving never leaves. I, for example, go to my daughter’s resting place with flowers. I don’t tell my wife it is just a private thing.”
Yet, Des thinks there is more parents can do to keep their children alive.
“We want youths or young adults in the university to have a body system that will keep a tab on them. Again, we have to educate these children that there must be a body system in place. There is also an ICE (in case of an emergency) which you can put in the phone and in case of a problem, once the phone is dialled your next of kin would come up.”
For Des and Ajoke, their daughter may be dead but she is not forgotten as they keep pushing for government policies, and campaigns that will take meningitis awareness to every doorstep to be at alert and act before it strikes and leaves unforgettable memories.
That is their mission as parents and advocates.