How the Tsunami, grief, and having our daughter with Down Syndrome changed the course of our lives...

I left school in 1982 with an art “O" level and worked as a machinist in a knitwear factory. I was 16 years old. At the age of 20 I went back to college to study fashion and graduated from University with a first-class honour’s degree in Textile design. I was from a typical middle class, conservative, Telegraph, Daily Mail reading family. I was one of four children and even though I was the most rebellious and had a disdain for injustice and unfairness, I was a fully-fledged “Thatcherite”. I believed that life was what you made it; that you could do anything or be anything you wanted to be. I had shares. I had a Filofax. 

I was ambitious and my career and material wealth were everything to me. Until a chain of events which took place within 19 months of each other changed me forever. I experienced what it was like to be truly vulnerable. To face death. And to depend on others for support in this world.

It started while I was living and working as a clothing designer in Sri Lanka. My husband Dave and I were staying at a beach guest house in Arugam Bay in December 2004, on the 26th we were hit by the catastrophic Asian Tsunami. We had gone to Arugam Bay for Christmas to finalise our wedding plans, we had booked the entire guest house for February to be married on the beach with all our family and friends. It was boxing day morning, Dave and I were having breakfast in the restaurant, at the time Dave was reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A short history of nearly everything’ and was telling me about tsunamis in Japan, a subject in which I had no interest! 

Then within seconds of him telling me this, we heard screams and shouts as sea water came rushing into the grounds. Everyone got up and started running away from the water, but the guest house was walled off, so it was impossible to escape. 

Dave climbed onto a small out building and tried to haul me up, but I was struggling to gain a foot hold, so I stood on the lip of a ground well to give myself extra height. Dave was pulling me up when I suddenly fell backwards into the well at the same time the sea was pushing in hard and fast. I was sucked down into the depths of the well, it was pitch black. I was swallowing water and could feel tree roots as I tried to claw at the sides to stop myself descending further, but to no avail, the sea water was pouring in top of me. I knew I was going to drown. I heard my own voice outside of my head telling me “Helen, this is how your life ends, it was meant to happen this way and no one should be sad”. I accepted my fate and continued swallowing sea water, I felt this overwhelming feeling of peace, I just didn’t want to feel any pain. I was going to drown, and my biggest concern was that none of my family, friends or Dave should be sad, because I was OK with it.

Then suddenly I saw shimmering light and the next second, I was out of the well and being shunted across open, raging sea water. I was screaming, shouting and swearing. I was exhausted, the sea kept dragging me under and spitting me out, as if I was in some huge washing machine and travelling at 90mph. I quickly realised I needed to keep my legs up as I was being carried across buildings and treetops, I managed to grab hold of a small log and debris which helped keep me on top of the water. I tried to grab hold of a couple of tree tops but the force of the water just ripped me away. Eventually the sea started to slow, and I managed to hold onto a tree branch. 

The sea slowed right down and then started to recede, leaving me at the base of the tree 2 kilometres in land. I sat there in pure shock, I looked at my leg which had been smashed open at the back of my right knee, it was a mess and I just ignored the open wound and never looked at it again. I had no idea what had happened, I looked around and saw an injured mugger crocodile thrashing about just yards away, this made me want to get off the ground quickly. People were now walking around crying, calling out for their loved ones, these were people who had either been in the water like me or had managed to climb onto a roof or up a tree. Some were naked, some injured and others like me just dazed and confused.

A local man came to help me and said we must get off the ground, so we climbed onto the roof of a house, along with a family of five and another man. It was a scorching hot day and I was so thirsty, I vomited out sand and sea water. I had lost a lot of blood and was in deep shock, I just wanted to sleep. I kept shouting for Dave, I had no idea what had happened to him, had he even survived? I have no recollection of time, as I sat on the roof trying not to lose consciousness, but it was definitely hours. 

I could not see the beach, I was too far in land. I just sat feeling numb, I just wanted Dave, and then came the rumbling, thunderous sounds of the sea crashing through the palm tree horizon and eating up the land. The wall of white water was coming straight for us, it was terrifying. I mapped out an escape plan in case the building collapsed, but it stood firm, even with all the debris being pumped in land, a jeep, a fridge, bikes along with so much debris.

This scenario happened at least five times, the fifth wall of water seemed to be less powerful and I felt the need to get down from the roof and head in land to safety. The others with me did not want to move, but I knew the brickwork of this building was now soaked and weak. I climbed up to the ridge of the roof and the entire back side of the house had gone, so that was it, we all climbed down, walked barefoot through debris, swam over a small ravine and climbed onto a huge rock where it was safe and dry. As soon as I felt more relaxed my leg became excruciatingly painful. After some time, local villagers came with a tractor and trailer to collect people and take them to higher ground. I could not walk; the pain was unbearable and yet it only hurt once I felt safer, while I was on the roof it never bothered me, adrenaline must have dulled the pain.

I arrived on a hill top with hundreds of other people and just sat on the ground. I had no idea what had become of Dave. I had no idea what was going to happen, I was completely exhausted. Then I saw one of the waiters from the guest house and he told me Dave was alive, but that Dave thought I was dead, I had slipped through his hand into the well but he never saw me come out. After a while I saw Dave walking up the lane with the guest house owner who had lost her husband. We held each other so tight and just sobbed for a long, long time. But Dave being Dave, was not going to let this beat us, he went off on the search for drinks, cigarettes, food and medical supplies. 

Due to the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, there was a military base nearby with a helicopter that kept flying overhead assessing the damage. By evening time, I was airlifted out on the military helicopter, with other injured survivors and a government minister. But there was no room for Dave so once again we were separated and neither of us knew where I was being taken. The chopper ride was terrifying - it was like something from Apocalypse Now with open sides housing machine guns. It was old, rickety and noisy. I looked out at all the devastation caused by the tsunami as we headed further north to Ampara, and landed at the hospital. It was nighttime now and I was still in shock and felt spaced out, frightened and just wanted my mum!

I was immediately given a large dose of morphine and antibiotics, then left on a metal trolley awaiting assessment. I was feeling happy and drunk on the morphine, but I also felt very vulnerable, not understanding the language or what was happening or where I was. I just kept asking the Dr to sew up my leg. I went into a very basic surgery room and was put to sleep by gas. I remember feeling very nervous as I knew anything could happen to me, I had to totally trust the people trying to help me, I have never felt so alone and afraid.

I woke up in a maternity ward with babies crying and lots of women coming in and out, fumbling around in carrier bags, I will never forget the noise of those plastic carriers. I was a complete mess, my leg was bandaged and hurt like crazy. I was still so thirsty and in the early hours of the morning a nurse bought me some bread, dahl and a hot sweet milky tea. That was the greatest mug of tea I have ever had in my life! 

By mid-morning people started to arrive by helicopter and I saw the family who had been on the roof with me. Eventually Dave arrived and said he was going to get us back to Colombo, then disappeared again for a while. When he returned, he had secured us a mini bus and driver to take us home to our apartment. So off we went, taking the family of five from the roof top with us. 

I could hardly walk but felt so relieved that we were heading back to Colombo. En route we stopped at one the hotels who gave us food drink and let us shower and rest for a while. Eventually we arrived back after nightfall, where we were met by our friends who helped us sort out sleeping arrangements for the family from the rooftop.

The next day I went into Colombo hospital, my leg had not been sewn up, just packed with dressing, and the pain was unbearable. I had three lots of surgery and stayed in hospital for over a week. I went through feelings of euphoria, feeling indestructible, to those of facing my own mortality and feeling incredibly nervous of the elements.

After 10 days, Dave and I flew back to the UK. We were glad to be away from Sri Lanka and out of the situation for a while. However a week after arriving home my mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She went into hospital and never came home.

Following our near-death experience in Sri Lanka, I was offered a position in Hong Kong with a high street retailer and we moved over there in July 2005. On 12th October 2005 my mother died. By this point my previous outlook on life had faltered. I found my career was becoming less and less meaningful, in fact designing clothes seemed pointless. I was broken after losing my mum but stayed in Hong Kong and continued to work partly because I could not face coming back to the UK with so many memories of my mum.

By January 2006 I was pregnant at 39 years old. It was considered a geriatric pregnancy and my obstetrician was concerned about my age, explaining I would be high risk for complications. However all the scans were looking good. A nuchal fold test was done, but I refused an amnio as I’d had two miscarriages previously.

In mid September our daughter was born by emergency Caesarean in the midst of a typhoon. Childbirth was nothing like I had imagined, and neither was my daughter. 

In Hong Kong maternity leave was 10 weeks, so I finished work on a Friday and had Francesca on the following Thursday. I was given a spinal block which triggered trauma from the tsunami. I went into an emotional frenzy, but the nursing staff would not allow Dave in the delivery room, even though he would have calmed me. 

My wrists were strapped down and a screen was put in front of me while the team sliced me open to retrieve Francesca. I remember the weirdest sensation that someone was fumbling around in my inners! I was beside myself at this point, shouting “get my F*#@ing husband”. He was all I wanted and needed.

Then I heard her faint cry, the nurse brought Fran to my face wrapped in a towel and opened the towel to show me she was a girl. My wrists were still secured! Then they took her away. This was 8.31am. 

I was stitched up and taken to the recovery room, but I was completely distressed and really wanted Dave. The staff allowed me to speak to him by phone. He kept saying was how beautiful she was, and how he loved her and she would have the best life, and then he cried. We had at least 4 of these conversations before I was moved to the ward, and I assumed his tears were that of joy and being overwhelmed. For me I felt awful, as if I had not had a baby, just an operation to have my womb removed.

I went onto the very busy maternity ward at midday, in a bed between other new mothers who all had their babies with them, but not me. I had not seen Fran since her gender was revealed to me in the delivery room at 8.31am, and it was now 2.30pm. Dave was eventually allowed to see me and his reaction was perplexing. He just hugged me and cried. Then proceeded to tell me that Fran had Down Syndrome and a hole in her heart and may not survive the week. He was told she had pneumonia too and the Doctor had prescribed her a huge dose of antibiotics.

Dave told me he had fallen in love with Fran immediately and he would do everything to give her the best and happiest life. He said he didn’t give a sh*t about Down syndrome. 

I on the other hand had this horrific feeling that I could not love her because she was abnormal. I lay in the bed sobbing and wanting my mum. My only vision was of the disabled kids who went to the special school in the park where I grew up who we called "mongies". I had a disabled child that I could not love. I was an emotional mess with no one to support me except Dave.

By 4pm I still had not seen Fran, the Dr told me I could see her the following day as she was in the intensive care unit but Dave had other ideas, he told the Dr that if they didn’t take Fran to the ward to see me he would wheel us both out of the hospital!

So at 5.30pm I held my baby girl for the first time. And I fell in love too!

So now we were a family of 3 heading into the world of disability, discrimination, stereotyping. We were now on the fringe of society.

I went back to work after the 10 weeks plus some holiday I had accrued, and wow, I was not ready at all. My body was still recovering for a start. Dave became the daddy and mummy - he brought Fran up while I worked. I travelled a lot for my job and I found this distressing as I hated leaving Fran.  

While Fran was a toddler we seemed OK doing all the ‘normal’ things like play dates etc. We had some fabulous friends who were so supportive. We decided to move back to the UK and be near my family. By this time I felt I could manage being surrounded by memories of my mum. So, in January 2010 we returned home. It was a culture shock, there was still turmoil from the 2008 financial crash, which we had not felt the effects of as we lived in an ex-pat bubble. We set about trying to register Francesca into the UK system.

There was the political turmoil with Labour being blamed for the crash. When it came to the general election, we had not registered to vote; I had already started to question my political beliefs and was actually relieved that I could not vote, as I knew my vote would not be for the Conservatives, but definitely I could not bring myself to vote Labour as I had been brainwashed to believe that socialism was so bad and only for benefit scroungers and poor people who had made themselves that way by their own life choices.

As we progressed through next few years, I educated myself politically and was experiencing life first hand being in a minority, which made me question everything. 

I started to understand why we had a welfare system. I read about Nye Bevan, Clement Atlee, the 1970s, and socialism. I looked at policies from the Thatcher and Blair eras and started to realise how brainwashed and scammed I had been, through the media and my parents who knew know better. 

My career in the fashion industry became increasingly difficult to justify. I became a wage slave, going against my new-found morals. I realised I was facilitating a colonial, exploitative industry, creating landfill clothing. I tried to change things from the inside, by offering the retailers I worked for more eco-friendly, sustainable routes. 

So Dave and I set up our own ethical brand. Fferal Clothing. It is everything we wanted the clothing industry to aspire to; made in Portugal in a factory I have a long relationship with, where workers are paid properly, all the cotton is responsibly sourced and the product is Peta Vegan Approved. I would never have reached this stage if it was not for those traumatic events, especially having Fran. Because of her my entire life changed, she found the humane human in me, she showed me compassion, she taught me to walk in another’s shoes, that life choices are a privilege of people who can afford life choices. She has enabled me to meet so many amazing people whom I would never have known, she has made me so aware of so much, that we need a welfare system, a safety net, and an NHS to keep us in a civil and caring society. Just because you may be lucky enough or rich enough to never need the welfare system, does not mean that it is not desperately needed. 

I know how it feels to be in a minority stepping off the tread mill of ‘normality’, fighting the establishment for your child, constantly confirming that yes your child still has Down syndrome! Without these experiences, and in particular having Francesca, I would not be my true self, she found me and saved me and for that I will forever be in her debt.

Helen x


  • Omg!! Helen I cried for what you have both been through…. You and Dave are my heroes ❤. Survivors, Brave, and just beautiful people inside and out..
    Beautiful, sad, and gripping read

    I love you, im so proud to be your sister-in-law xxx

    Julie Crowther
  • Hi I am Ann. I have just read your post today. You are incredibly brave through all you have been through. You survived a terrible catastrophe, lost your mum and then a beautiful little girl came along to bring joy and happiness into your life. I’m sure you have had the most precious moments together. She may have Downs Syndrome but that is just a small part of who she is. My daughter is Autistic she was born in 2007 but only recently diagnosed. I like you lost mum a long time before my daughter was born. I’m sure mine and your mum are still around helping and giving us love and strength. Best wishes to you all xx

    Ann Cunningham

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