I woke to my baby coughing – minutes later he was dead next to his twin brother
A MUM found her baby lying dead next to his twin brother after developing what appeared to be a cold.
Harley Cunningham, 39, has described the “stabbing pain” she still experiences from the grief of losing son James and seeing his twin Edwards who looks “exactly like him”.
In the early hours of a morning in February 2020, Surrey-based Harley screamed when she found baby James “lifeless and a little bit grey” in his cot after a night of coughing.
Harley called an ambulance while her husband Peter, 40, performed CPR on their 21 month old son.
Paramedics spent half an hour trying to resuscitate him, but could not, and he was taken into hospital and officially pronounced dead.
Harley said: “It felt like a dream, and I felt so numb, it was like walking on air but in such a bad way.”
In the postmortem, it was discovered that James’ symptoms were a sign of bronchopneumonia, a type of pneumonia.
The condition, which affects the lungs, is the leading cause of death in children under five.
James’ passing was only made more painful by the “unexpected flashbacks” the mum gets at times from the sight of James’ identical twin Edward.
“Edward and James were 99.9 per cent identical, and every so often, when Edward’s hair is all wet and across the other side of his face, he looks exactly like James, and I get unexpected flashbacks, which is hard – it’s like a stabbing pain in the heart,” she explained.
“The shock and trauma of my son passing away and having to still get up every day and function as a mum to his twin brother, Edward, was the toughest situation I’ve ever had to deal with.”
In September 2019, James contracted a viral infection which gave him cold symptoms and he was coughing and wheezing.
From then on, around every three months, James was taken to hospital or accident and emergency, and given steroids or an inhaler.
In February 2020, at 21 months old, James appeared to have another round of cold symptoms.
Harley explained: “I came home from work and James was on the sofa with my husband and he was very tired – he had been a lot worse in the past so it didn’t ring alarm bells.
“At around midnight, I checked on the twins, and again at 4am, and James was coughing so I gave him some water in a sippy cup.
“When I woke up to go to the toilet, I could hear James coughing, and I went back into the room, but two minutes later, I couldn’t hear James at all.
“I grabbed Edward and moved him into my bedroom because I didn’t want him to see anything.
“James was lifeless and a little bit grey, and I screamed – he was dead.”
In March, the family had James’ funeral, but because of Covid, they were not able to hug their loved ones, which Harley thinks “prolonged their grieving process”.
Just a few months later, Harley had a miscarriage, and this additional grief made James’ death, “really hit home” and she contacted Twins Trust Bereavement Service.
Harley said: “Twins Trust was amazing, I had a befriender in the early days who spoke to me as and when I needed support.
“Sometimes I couldn’t speak and I didn’t want to speak.
“I remember crying on the sofa for an hour with my befriender and she listened to me.”
Harley found her colleagues were not sure how to approach the subject and it made her realise that she wanted to help provide more support for the bereaved in the workplace.
So, Harley created a hug in a box, a gift box packed with food vouchers, a book about grief, seed packets, a mindfulness colouring book and her own personal story, for managers to send to their bereaved employees.
Her workplace has also improved its bereavement policy by launching a further five compassionate days of paid leave.
Since then, Harley has received two awards for her work – she was named Best Returner at the Women in Tech Excellence Awards in 2022, and in June 2023, she was presented with the It Can Happen Founders’ Choice Award for outstanding service to mental health.
“I have mixed feelings about (the awards),” Harley said.
“I felt sad I had to get the awards as James had died, but I was really happy that all the work I had done was helping other people in James’s honour.”
In January 2023, Harley welcomed another baby, John, into the family.
She said: “I had a second miscarriage the year before, so I was worried and had a bit of anxiety around sleeping.
“But now he is older, I feel a lot better, especially because he hasn’t had any of James’ cold symptoms.”
She is now doing bereavement counsellor training to set up workshops and drop-ins with her colleagues who have experienced bereavement, and has become a Twins Trust befriender.
Baby Loss Awareness Week runs from October 9 to 15, for support go to babyloss-awareness.org or contact twinstrust.org.
What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia?
The symptoms vary depending on the age of the child and also the precise cause of the infection.
In general, the key symptoms for children are a temperature over 38.5°C and rapid breathing, or difficulty in breathing.
Other common symptoms include:
- Laboured breathing that makes the muscles under a child’s rib cage draw inwards
- Chest pain
- Abdominal pain
- Decreased activity
- Loss of appetite (older children) or poor feeding (infants)
- In extreme cases, bluish or grey lips and fingernails
In young children, it’s most commonly caused by a viral infection, like the flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
In most cases, pneumonia can be treated with oral antibiotics given to the child at home.
Sometimes, if a child does not begin to get better after 48 hours of treatment at home, hospital treatment may be needed.
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