It was 20 years ago, but Ruth Christoffersen can remember every moment of that day when a 6am phone call shattered her world.
Her husband John had taken the early morning call that had woken them from their sleep. It was from a nurse at a hospital near Heathrow Airport to say that their daughter Emma had collapsed and her parents needed to get there as quickly as possible.
“There was no mobile phones in those days,” says Ruth, from Newport. “John had gone downstairs to take the call, and I could hear him speaking from upstairs. He called me down and I took the phone, the nurse said that Emma was not responding to treatment.
“I knew it was really bad when she said that we shouldn’t drive ourselves and that a police escort was coming to our house to help us get to the hospital as quickly and safely as possible.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Emma had collapsed after returning to the UK from a trip of a lifetime in Australia to go white-water rafting and see the Sydney Harbour Bridge in September 2000.
But during the 12,000-mile flight home, Emma developed deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which was believed to have been caused by sitting down for an extended period on the 20-hour trip home.
After collapsing at Heathrow Airport, she died in hospital later that day. Her story made headlines around the world, and has saved countless lives.
Each year, DVT affects around 1 person in every 1,000 in the UK, and it can affect anyone but before Emma’s death it was a condition people had very rarely heard of.
Emma’s family were among those who had never heard those three letters, but for two decades Ruth has dedicated her life to making people aware of just how dangerous it can be.
“At the hospital we had no idea what had caused Emma to collapse, but a nurse said it could be DVT,” she says. “The hospital was near the airport and she said they would have about 30 people a month coming with the condition.
“Very few died, but there were a lot of cases. Thinking back to things that had happened in our family, made us think that they too could have had DVT, it can be a condition that runs in families, but we had just never heard of it before. We never made the connection, but it made sense after we learnt more about DVT.
“We know now that Ruth had an aching leg on the flight, but some people have that and don’t think they will die. She was sat on her feet.
“When we said goodbye to her before she went on September 9, 2000. We never thought we wouldn’t see her again.”
Through the pain of her loss Ruth and husband John decided they were going to let the world know about the risk associated with DVT and air travel.
In the years that followed Emma’s death on September 30, 2000, the couple, with the help of others who had been affected, ran a campaign to raise the dangers of DVT and air travel around the world.
There was also a court case – ultimately unsuccessful – in which victims’ relatives and survivors of DVT accused airlines of ignoring medical advice that could have saved lives.
“The day I went back to work after Emma’s death, I hadn’t been seen any news or wanted to look at any newspapers,” remembers Ruth. “I got to work and my boss took me to the side and asked if I had seen the news.
“He showed me the newspapers in the office and Emma’s face was on all the front pages. I went back home and we had lots of the press outside and phoning us.
“One man who worked for Reuters said he had been flying all over the world for 10 years and no-one had ever mentioned DVT, and another said that Emma’s story had saved his brother’s life.
“Once the campaign started, we found out there were five people in Wales who had DVT in 10 months – one was a policeman, one was a nurse. But they had all been on a plane.
“We wanted to raise the issue and make people aware of the dangers and we were contacted by people from all over the world. There was one lady from Wales who had got DVT after arriving in Benidorm, and that flight was only a couple of hours.
“With the court case, we didn’t want their money. We just wanted the airlines to admit they had a problem (with DVT), but it would have cost them too much.
“But they knew in the 1950s that there was a DVT risk in air travel.
“Now this has gone out, people will talk about it. It’s a generation on now, and if I can help save another life it will have been worth it.
“I know the campaign has saved lives, and knowing that brings a measure of comfort.”
The 20-year anniversary of Emma’s death at the end of last month and the passage of time has not dulled Ruth’s need to highlight DVT. Her husband John died four years ago on the same day that Emma died – September 30 – but Ruth is determined to carry on.
“It feels like it happened yesterday,” says Ruth. “This time of year is very difficult. I keep wondering what we could have done differently. A friend of mind wrote a beautiful poem about Emma and John for me. I had spoken to him about how I felt, and he put it into a beautiful poem. I shared it on social media and I got a surprise in the post today.
“I don’t know who it is from, but some had printed out the poem and framed it in heart for me. The post mark was from Germany, and I am not sure who it is from, but it was a lovely surprise.
EMMA AND JOHN
It’s a date forever etched, it brings sadness and painful grief,
Not just the once, but twice, a date of disbelief.
The 30th of September, a day that makes me sad, not just losing Emma but John her loving Dad.
It’s three years since John has passed, we had 50 years of bliss,
A marriage made for life, all started with a kiss.
And blessed we certainly were, with a family to be proud,
To watch them all achieve, made us want to shout aloud.
We would have loved to see our Emma follow a similar path,
for she lived her life with a smile, a lady who loved to laugh.
But 2 decades have passed since that fateful day,
when our beautiful daughter had to go heavens way.
Life is certainly cruel yet a legacy you would leave, your passing was not in vain
In death you would still achieve.
Making the world aware, you would make it a safer place,
as health on aeroplanes is what we needed to chase.
And chase is what we’d do as your story would get unfurled,
your name forever remembered, educating the whole wide world.
I am sure you are up there watching with Dad sat by your side,
on a day that’s tinged with sadness I bet your filled with pride.
I can take great comfort with support that’s rallied round
the kindness and the love, so much compassion that does abound.
Yes it’s a date I wish had never dawned, a reminder of both of you,
a date you both left for heaven as angels you both flew
“I want still want to make sure that people still know the dangers. I know there are not as many people taking flights because of coronavirus at the moment, but people are still flying and they will continue to fly in the future.
“I am not a doctor, but if you have any concerns, I would implore people to go and see their GP, or speak to a doctor.”
In some cases, there may be no symptoms of DVT. If symptoms do occur they can include:
- pain, swelling and tenderness in one of your legs (usually your calf or thigh)
- a heavy ache in the affected area
- warm skin in the area of the clot
- red skin, particularly at the back of your leg below the knee
DVT usually (although not always) affects one leg. The pain may be worse when you bend your foot upward towards your knee.
“I know we have saved lives,” says Ruth. “One man was travelling from America and stopped at Heathrow to Amsterdam and on the plane he was reading Emma’s story.
“He had a pain in his leg and he ignored it until the following day. He went to hospital and he was told if he hadn’t had read that story, he wouldn’t be here today.
“For some people, it’s only three letters. But the knowledge of those three letters can save a life.”
“People say well done when I talk about it, and they mean well, but I wish I didn’t have to do it.
“It is great that Emma’s story has helped to save lives, but why did it have to be my Emma.”