LITTLE brothers can be annoying. They will cajole you, challenge you, follow you around and try your patience. And any little brother will get under your skin and occupy a special place in your heart.
Alex Ryan wasn’t any little brother. He was Nicole’s little brother. He gave her a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.
Alex lost his life aged 18 on January 23, 2016, after making one bad decision; taking a synthetic drug that proved fatal.
“My hopes and dreams died with him,” says Nicole.
Alex, on the cusp of his adult life, had hopes and dreams too.
“He hoped to get a rugby scholarship with UCC,” says Nicole.
“He and his best friend, Lauren, since they were in playschool, planned to get a place together in the city.
Nicole can talk about her beloved brother now.
“The more I talk about him, the more it helps me to help somebody else,” she says.
The 24-year-old, from Millstreet, felt the need to do something after Alex’s death to keep his spirit alive. She has spoken in a number of schools in Munster.
“Deaths can be avoided by ensuring that young people know the dangers that are out there,” says Nicole. “My belief is that it begins with education and the rest can follow after.
“My 18-year-old brother died after taking a synthetic high. Maybe he thought it was safe just because you can buy them on the websites that look legal.”
Nicole has an important message.
“Please don’t risk synthetic drugs,” she says. “They are produced in shacks by people who care only about profit at your expense. Those people don’t care about you. Only profit. The drugs are unregulated, untested, and they cost me my only brother.”
Nicole was an only child for four and half years, before Alex arrived.
“I was the eldest,” she says. “He stole my thunder! Now it was all about him. But when I met him, I fell in love with him. He became my human doll. We played with Barbies together. I gave him the ugliest Barbie to play with. I dressed Alex up as a girl; he loved it. Growing up with him was fun.
“He was a gentle giant, 6 foot seven inches. He never threw his weight around. He was light-hearted and kind-hearted and our mother’s pet. He got away with murder. We fought over the remote for the TV. He wouldn’t give it to me even though he wasn’t watching any programme. I blocked the Sky signal to get him back.”
But the bond of brother and sister was always strong.
“Alex loved being a baby. I took care of him and he loved that,” says Nicole. “He loved music. He loved me.”
Nicole still can’t quite believe that her little brother is gone.
“I still expect to see him coming down the street or walking through the front door.”
But that will never happen. Something much more tragic came knocking instead.
“I never imagined that it would come knocking on my door,” says Nicole.
She recalls the phone call that changed her life forever.
“I’m a marine engineer,” says Nicole. “I was back at work after Christmas, aboard ship. Pulling into Rosslare, my phone rang. It was my mother. The reception was bad and I had missed two calls from her. I thought mum was just checking up on me.
“The shock didn’t register at first. I went down to the engine room, had a chat with the lads and I had a cup of coffee. I called mum back. She said I had to come to CUH as quickly as I could. It was bad. I remember I couldn’t breathe. I had heard no news or media. Then, I saw the news, saying that six people were at a house party in Cork and one remained critical. That was my brother. I laughed hysterically from shock. I was frantic, wondering if I’d get to see him. What if he passed away?”
The 190km road journey to CUH passed in a daze.
“Alex looked so peaceful,” says Nicole of her arrival there. “Just like he was asleep. He was hooked up to a machine that helped him breathe. He was only doing 5% of his breathing. The hospital bed wasn’t long enough for his frame, so his legs dangled out the bottom of it. He was warm to the touch. He didn’t move.
“He had suffered cardiac arrest in the house and because of the lack of oxygen, he suffered irreversible brain damage. Alex looked perfect. He didn’t know us or himself.”
Things didn’t look good.
“If he survived, he would have to be taken care of every day for the rest of his life at 18,” says Nicole.
“He was deteriorating and nothing we did could result in him living. Anything we did; he still dies.”
Big sister had to be strong.
“I was always hopeful for my little brother,” says Nicole.
She will always remember the ominous sounds in the hospital. Beep. The synthetic breathing sound. Beep. She remembers the second of every heartbeat.
“Every minute felt like an eternity, yet every minute I cherished,” says Nicole. “Every second I treasured, I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. When the first test was unresponsive, I just knew in my heart that it was over. I could feel him slipping away from me and I couldn’t do a thing.”
She remembers crying when she knew that all hope was lost, but that Alex’s legacy of giving would go on.
“I hadn’t cried before then,” says Nicole. “Mum cried enough tears for the whole county. It was good to let it out.”
She remembers coming into the waiting room and sitting beside the nurse.
“All she said was; he is a positive match for four people, and this is down to you. I broke down,” says Nicole.
“I have never cried harder in my life. As we lost him, and our lives turned upside down, four people got four calls telling them ‘today is the day. Your life is about to change’. I was happy for them. But sad for me.”
She remembers the last night that she and Alex spent together.
“Mum and I took turns. But after a while, she went to sleep. She needed it. I sat all night by his side. My hand in his. Telling him stories. Staring at him. Putting my face against his warm arm. Just sitting beside him all night long. I just needed to be with him.”
She remembers their final goodbye.
“I kissed his face. Pressed my ear to his beating heart. I needed to hear his heart one last time because perhaps I’d never hear it again. All I wanted to do was wrap him up and carry him home.”
Alex donated his two kidneys, liver and heart to four individuals.
“It is good to know his heart still beats out there,” says Nicole.
She remembers the days after the funeral.
“So many people came. My eulogy was perfect. It all seemed like a blur. But I remember the cremation and it was truly beautiful.”
The days afterwards were endless.
“Every day I waited for him to come through the door and every day he didn’t,” says Nicole.
“Everything hurt, especially my heart. Nothing mattered,” says Nicole.
“Life made no sense. I suffered anxiety and panic attacks. Nobody knew Alex like I did. He was mine. I will be forever picking up the pieces.
“Everything that ever meant anything to me is gone. Just because of one bad choice.”
She remembers the day she had a choice to make.
“I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror. I would either let this take over my life of I take over it. So every day I would wake up try to be in a different mindset,” says Nicole.
“I still keep on falling some days but I continue to get back up.”
The world is a different place now for Nicole.
“Alex will never see who I am,” she says. “He will never walk me down the aisle. My whole future is gone. I gave up my career. I need to be with mum. We are still picking up the pieces left behind.”
Alex left something very precious behind.
“In his dying breath, he gave to somebody else,” says Nicole. “That was my brother. One organ donor can save eight lives. He saved four lives. We should all think about it.”
And we should think about something else too.
“Once students leave secondary school, they are out in the big bad world,” says Nicole,
“Nobody looks for bad things; they come to you. Drugs don’t care whether you are rich or poor or where you are from. They will take anyone. Think about the consequences. I could be your sister.”
Nicole was Alex’s big sister.
“I always thought that I could never hold him in my arms,” says Nicole. “He was too big. Now I can hold him in the palm of my hand.”
Alex will always be Nicole’s little brother. And he will always hold that special place in her heart.