When the cry went up — sudden, urgent — that our eldest son, Dominic, had been pulled unconscious from the swimming pool in our garden at a party on a balmy July night last year, I ran from the house thinking the panic would be unwarranted.
Nothing, surely, that dear old Dad couldn’t sort out. After all, as a consultant neurological and spinal surgeon I have spent much of my career dealing with medical emergencies.
But it was immediately apparent to me as I desperately gave our treasured boy CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) that he was desperately ill.
Blessed in our lives, our luck ran out that night. Fifteen hours later — despite my determined attempts, the rapid arrival of the paramedics and the highly skilled doctors from two hospitals who worked on him throughout the next day — our beloved son died.
Pictured: Father Peter Hamlyn (second from right) with sons Dominic (right), Gabriel (left), wife Geraldine (second from left) and son Benedict (centre)
At the inquest all the medical experts agreed that Dominic had died following a cardiac arrest from a previously unsuspected heart condition. He had been exercising hard, swimming underwater, when he was suddenly struck.
Unconnected with the swimming, all the experts agreed that it could have occurred at any time or place.
The inquest had been able to discount drowning, as he had been pulled from the water so rapidly, and besides, the question is then why a fit, sober young man would drown in a warm, quiet pool?
The experts similarly rejected the idea that he had simply run out of oxygen. So-called ‘shallow water blackout’ is incredibly rare and occurs in very different circumstances.
The loss for us is profound and life-changing. No words can describe the scope and scale of it.
Along with my wife and Dominic’s two brothers, we each feel a part of us died with him that day.
Dominic was 24, the eldest of our three boys, a Cambridge graduate with a life rich in promise ahead of him and so much to give to the world.
He had been helping me run his youngest brother’s 21st birthday party, and the gathering had been a convivial, well-behaved one: 40 guests of all ages, a meal, toasts and fireworks.
Cambridge graduate Dominic was 24, when he died of sudden heart failure in the pool at his family home on his brother’s 21st birthday party
He had given an entertaining and irreverent speech on a favourite subject — his little brother.
Our three boys, ‘the Blondies’ as we called them, were each their greatest friends.
As the evening was coming to a close, Dominic went for a swim with friends as he had so often.
There, in the company of those he loved, our young and generous sportsman had a cardiac arrest. There had been no warning signs, no intimation of the tragedy that lay ahead.
In fact, Dominic was a superbly fit athlete: a rugby player, rower, batsman and furious bowler.
But this is the paradox: the condition that killed him is known as sudden athlete death (SAD) because its victims are often extremely fit, just as Dominic was.
And like him, they are frequently exercising hard when the fatal attack happens.
Such cardiac arrests in young people are not rare, and tragically they are usually lethal.
Dominic was the eldest of three boys with a life rich in promise ahead of him and so much to give to the world
The miracle of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba — whose heart stopped beating for 78 minutes during an FA Cup match in 2012 after such an attack — was that he survived.
As an expert in sports injury — I served on the 2012 Olympic committee advisory panel and saved the life of boxer Michael Watson when he was injured during a world title fight with Chris Eubank in 1991 — I am among the small group of experts who know about the condition that killed my son.
SAD is a well-established diagnosis, and of great concern to those of us who work in sports medicine.
It is why the Football Association, one of whose expert medical panels I chair, ran a trial of heart screening in academy players.
However, outside a small group of specialists there is widespread ignorance of the condition.
Why does all this matter? It matters because the lack of awareness and medical imprecision is killing young people every day in Britain.
As a family, our only solace is to try to make sure others do not die needlessly, and the only hope for potential victims is to pick up the underlying condition before it strikes.
Heart problems in young people are not rare. Data from coroners’ death certificates shows that at least 12 young people die of cardiac arrest each week in the UK, but this is likely to be a gross underestimate.
Many of the causes run in families, and some of the victims, unlike Dominic, may have had warning symptoms before the fatal episode. When the diagnosis is missed — as it may well have been had Dominic been alone — bereaved families are at risk.
Families such as ours, who have lost a loved one to a young cardiac death, must undergo specialist screening to see if they have one of the inherited risk factors.
An apparent drowning or road accident may mask the cardiac arrest that is the true cause of death.
More specifically, pathologists need to look for cardiac abnormalities when investigating young deaths. Crucial tests that can turn up otherwise unsuspected cardiac problems are not part of a routine inquest but must be carried out.
Likewise, readily treatable warning signs must not be missed. Any young, fit person experiencing faints or blackouts should be screened by a specialist unit.
The screening involves an ECG (electrical recordings of the heart’s rhythm), echocardiograms (ultrasound examination of the heart), and often complex genetic testing. It is a specialist area and we are short of experts in this field.
That must change if the needless loss of young lives is not to continue to blight families like mine.
However, this is not a call on the endless money tree for more spending or research.
We simply need to educate and orientate our existing services around these potentially life-saving opportunities. Awareness really can save lives here.
It is my fervent hope that lives will be saved in Dominic’s name. It is our only comfort now.
In life, Dominic gave so much to others, cutting his charitable teeth as a child raising money with Michael Watson for the Brain and Spine Foundation.
Dominic later ran the London Marathon in 2014 and subsequently drove the 10,000-mile Mongol Rally in aid of the Foundation. Over the years, he raised around £50,000. Now the charity he strove for, on the basis that they help others less fortunate than himself, have lost a fund- raising machine.
His mother, Geraldine, and I have lost our precious rock. His brothers, Gabriel and Benedict, have lost their best friend and hero. The 180 youngsters who crammed into our village church in Kent for his funeral have lost a loyal inspiration.
Dominic had so much more to give. He was a scholar and polymath who loved to learn: he achieved a first in his Bachelor of Arts and Science at University College London — majoring in astrophysics, his studies covered politics, philosophy and Spanish.
He also had just completed a Masters of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge; he had taught himself history A-level and was as content reading poetry as he was a sporting biography.
And, of course, there was the sport. An endlessly energetic and gifted athlete, he had just started to row competitively.
So we owe it to Dominic — our talented, altruistic son — to make sure his death brings that awareness and change.
It was not possible to save his life. But we can, armed with the knowledge we have today, save other young lives.