THE year 2001 started full of promise for Keith Espey.
The then teenager, from Minane Bridge, had experienced elation then disappointment when he had been signed by Leeds United football team a few years earlier.
At 15, Keith had moved to Leeds to play on their youth team, training for two years alongside peers who would go on to become household names.
“The youth team all stayed on the grounds of the training centre,” Keith says.
“There were 25 of us, living together and playing football every day. A lot of the guys would have gone on to have big careers. Nicky Byrne from Westlife was my roommate for one year. Footballers like Johnny Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith.”
But in 1997, Keith had returned to Ireland to complete his Leaving Cert.
“I didn’t make the grade,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “I had to pack my bags and come home.”
But all this was behind him in 2001: he was 20, and by the end of May, he had one exam left to complete the third year of his CIT engineering degree, then he was looking forward to heading off to San Diego on his J1 visa with a group of friends.
But on May 30, tragedy struck the Espey family, a tragedy that Keith says he still hasn’t fully come to terms with to this day.
Keith’s brother Clive, who was 24, “a big, strong guy and always healthy,” was found dead in his home in New Zealand, where he was working as a mechanical engineer.
“There was no warning, no previous history of anything,” Keith says.
“It was during the day, and his girlfriend was out working. She came back to the house where they were staying and found him there. He had been dead for a few hours.
“They said it would have been pretty quick and he would have just fainted, basically.”
When Keith arrived home from college, the news was broken to him by his father and his eldest brother Cameron, who was then 28.
It was on the cusp of the mobile phone era and the brothers and their father had to wait until Mrs Espey arrived home from a shopping trip to break the news to her that her son had died.
“It’s just sheer devastation,” Keith says.
“There is just no way to comprehend what you’ve been told. Clive was involved in soccer, hockey, mountain biking. He did surfing when he was in New Zealand. He was really healthy, really strong.”
Clive was the middle of three boys, and Keith remembers him as a protective force in his life.
“If you ever got into trouble or if anyone ever gave you any hassle, he’d look after you and have your back,” he says.
“He was a tough guy who wouldn’t take any messing. He would defend you, he would really mind you.
“We wouldn’t have hung out together, but we got on well. We did mountain biking together, we would have both worked together in our dad’s business to help out.
"I think, as we got older, we would have got on even better. But it was not to be.”
Clive’s body was flown back to Ireland and his funeral was held. Keith backed out of his J1 plans.
“We buried Clive on the day I was supposed to fly out, so I didn’t end up going,” he says.
“I thought I might go out after a few weeks, but I just couldn’t face it.”
When a healthy young person dies of a sudden cardiac death, 95% of the time, coroners can find a structural problem with the heart or arteries. But in 5% of cases, no such cause can be found. This is known as SADS: Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome. This is what had happened to Clive.
For family members bereaved by such a cruelly sudden loss, the grief can be compounded by trying to make sense of the senseless.
“When there’s an accident, as tragic as it is, you can get a handle on understanding what happened,” Keith says.
“We were left with so many questions. The fact we hadn’t seen him for six months made it even harder: it seemed so abstract and strange that it could happen.
“Sometimes I think I still haven’t gotten my head around it. It’s still shocking. You still end up thinking about what caused it, how it happened.
“When they did the autopsy, structurally, his heart was perfect. There was nothing that they could point to as being wrong. All they could come up with was that maybe some virus had hit the electrical signals in his heart and made them go haywire.”
Indeed, Clive had mentioned feeling under the weather in his last conversation with his mother, days earlier. He had taken a couple of days off work, feeling fatigued. But, in a healthy 24-year-old, this is not flagged as a potential danger.
SADS is not something that many people will be aware of, forming as it does a sort of anti-diagnosis. Yet at least one person under 35 dies of SADS in Ireland each week, according to CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young), a support group that offers free counselling services to families bereaved by SADS, as well as free heart screenings for families where a genetic heart condition is suspected. 75% of SADS cases are amongst young men.
The Espeys were supported by CRY after Clive’s death: Keith’s brother was given health screening and the family were invited to gatherings and events. Even though a genetic component is not suspected in Clive’s case, Keith takes the precaution of going for a heart check every five years.
Now a dad to three himself, he says parenthood has given him a fresh insight into exactly how difficult losing Clive must have been for his parents. But they responded with stoicism.
“You don’t fully understand until you become a parent yourself,” he says.
“But now that I have three children, it becomes even more shocking, to think about losing your child: it’s not meant to be that way. My parents were quite strong, and they tried to keep going as best they could.
“Some families throw themselves into fund- raising and are more outgoing than we would have been. We haven’t really said anything publicly about this over the last 20 years.”
But with the 20th anniversary of Clive’s death this May, Keith decided to run a year-long fundraiser for CRY and the Irish Heart Foundation, who also run a SADS support group, through his landscape gardening business, Noblewood Landscapes.
“We thought it would be nice to do something to commemorate 20 years,” Keith says.
“So we’re encouraging anyone who buys something on the online shop to donate a euro or more if they feel like it. Any donations they get, we’ll match them as a company.”
Noblewood Landscapes is at: www.noblewoodgardenstore.ie
For more information on SADS see www.cry.ie