Interview: Mothers who found strength in tragedy honoured

Two Yorkshire mums who have suffered the loss of a daughter have been recognised for their achievements. Catherine Scott met them.

Julie Walker, Bridlington

Having lost her only child, Katie, at the age of 20 to cancer, Julie Walker honoured Katie's wish by setting up a charity in her name. Despite having a full-time job, Julie runs the Katie Walker Cancer Trust and as a result of her hard work and unstoppable attitude, the charity has gone from strength to strength. It funds vital research in the field of teenage cancer and provides support to parents going through the same ordeal.

When Katie was born in September 1986, Julie immediately knew something was wrong. Despite doctors' reassurances, Julie persisted and eventually, a scan revealed a large tumour in Katie's coccyx, which had been growing since her conception. Katie had an operation to remove the tumour, during which she "died" three times. Julie, and husband Micky, were told their daughter was unlikely to survive and if she did, she would never be able to walk

"I never really accepted that Katie was going to die," says Julie, "It wasn't going to happen to me."

At 12 months old, Katie defied all predictions. Having not only survived, she started walking unaided, but just after her third birthday, a lump appeared in her groin and a CT scan at Hull Royal Infirmary, confirmed the cancer had returned.

"The hospital told us we should just take our child home to die. But I knew Katie wouldn't give up and neither would I. I called the Sheffield hospital, where she'd first had surgery, and they agreed to give her a course of chemotherapy." Katie underwent six months of chemotherapy, leaving her ill and weak, but the results were positive, however they were warned she was very unlikely to survive if the cancer returned and she could have no further treatment within the next seven years.

"For the next seven years, we panicked every time Katie sneezed. We couldn't believe that she had beaten it, but she did. We made it through those seven years and then another seven. During those 14 years, she was amazing." But in October 2005, Katie had a terrible pain in her back. Julie immediately took her back to hospital. A series of tests could find no sign of cancer.

"After being given the all-clear, we had a fantastic Christmas. On January 5, we went back to Sheffield for an MRI scan. That evening, just after we'd arrived back home, we got a call from the hospital. Katie answered the phone and just collapsed in tears. They had found a tumour and she was going to die. We'd had 14 years of amazing health and that was the day our lives caved in." Tests showed the same cancer had returned and it was inoperable, but Katie remained adamant that she would survive.

"When Katie was diagnosed for the second time, she was one of only five cases in the UK. No-one had ever heard of anyone surviving and then contracting it a third time. She was determined not to let it beat her. Even though she was so ill, she would still go out and have fun."

Katie died on March 27, 2007. "Katie made us promise we would do two things after she died – that we would stay together and that we would set up a charity in her name. She told us that we had to be strong and not to allow ourselves to be 'wusses', saying she couldn't rest in peace if she knew we were sat around crying."

Julie set up the Katie Walker Cancer Trust to fund research into teenage cancer, which has raised an incredible 40,000 in three years and is now affiliated with the Teenage Cancer Trust. Julie and her husband continue to work full-time and run the charity in their evenings and weekends. In addition to funding research, they give financial support to families with teenagers suffering from cancer in the Yorkshire area.

"The charity has really helped up cope with Katie's death. She was amazing. Despite everything she was going through she always had a smile on her face. We'd like to reach as many people as possible, but if we can save just one life, this is all worth it."

Julie Chambers, Hull

Julie and husband Rob Chambers, 37, became proud parents of Zoe in December 2005. Soon after her birth, a routine check revealed Zoe had aortic stenosis, a congenital heart defect that affects the heart valves. Much of Zoe's first years were spent in and out of hospital, where she suffered several cardiac arrests.

At just four months old, Julie was informed by doctors that Zoe had cardiomyopathy, meaning the left side of her heart was enlarged. A heart transplant was Zoe's only chance of survival.

"It was awful, but we had to keep going for Zoe. Every time she had a cardiac arrest, she would come straight back laughing. She just wouldn't give up and neither would we," says Julie.

"When she was 13 months old, we were told Zoe only had 24 hours left to live. We prepared ourselves for the worst, but she just kept fighting back. I was so proud of how strong she was."

Julie kept fighting on behalf of her daughter, persuading her local hospital to refer her to heart specialists at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle where Zoe was fitted with the Berlin Heart in April 2008, a machine which would work to keep her heart pumping until a suitable donor was found.

"The attention we got was overwhelming. Many people had never seen the Berlin Heart before and to see such a hideous machine on someone so tiny was shocking."

A national newspaper launched an organ donation appeal, with Zoe as the face. Within one year, more than one million people had signed up to the Organ Donor Register

Just four days after the appeal launched, a donor was found for Zoe and in June 2008, when she was 18 months old, Zoe underwent a heart transplant. Her condition improved and over the next year she even began to walk.

Sadly, one year and one week after the operation, Zoe deteriorated and passed away in Julie's arms.

"Even though Zoe died a year after her transplant, I wouldn't change anything at all. I'd do it all again. In that last year, she recovered well and it was fantastic. When something like this happens, you have two options; you let it drag you under or you don't. I didn't want to sit around feeling sorry for myself so I threw myself into the organ donation campaign. It made me feel as though I was doing something positive and feel closer to Zoe."

Six months after Zoe's death, Julie joined Facebook to stay in touch with some of the mums she had met at the hospital. The group grew rapidly, with more and more mums who were going through the same thing, joining up.

"The reaction was amazing. So many mums joined up and the network allowed us to support each other. Now we have 1,000 friends and 4,500 members in Zoe's group. There are mums from all over the world, even as far as Australia.

"People often don't fully understand organ donation so I explain it to them and give them information. If they want to sign up, I'll take their form and post it on their behalf. If I can get just ten people signed up to organ donation every day, I'll be happy."

Julie also fundraises for the Children's Heart Unit Fund at Freeman Hospital and is currently organising the annual ball, which will take place on February 12, 2011. At the ball, Julie will present the Zoe Chambers Award.

February is set to be a busy time for Julie as she expecting her third baby – a brother or sister for her eight-year-old son, Dylan.

"I was not planning to have another baby, but I am a believer in things happening for a reason. There is an increased risk that the baby will have heart problems, but I have had a lot of scans and so far everything is OK but I won't be happy until the baby is born healthy."

Awards recognise mums who make a difference to lives of others

The Tesco magazine Mum of The Year Awards are in their sixth year.

The awards aim to recognise and celebrate hard working and deserving mums who have changed the lives of others.

There are eight awards, each presented to the winning mum in that category, at the prestigious ceremony at The Waldorf Hilton Hotel in London on February 27.

Julie Walker, from Bridlington, has been named Achieving Mum of the Year after being nominated by a friend.

Julie set up the Katie Walker Cancer Trust following the death of her daughter, Katie, aged 20. Despite having a full-time job the charity has raised more than 40,000 for research into children's cancer and to help other families in a similar situation.

For more information visit www.katiewalkercancertrust.co.uk

The Inspirational Mum of the Year award has been won by Julie Chambers from Hull.

Julie was nominated by one of the mums she helps on the Facebook site she created after the death of her daughter Zoe a year after she underwent a heart transplant.

Julie is the first person to be nominated by someone who has never met her.

Julie has since been to Wales to meet her nominator who has a little boy who will need a heart transplant one day.

Since the death of Zoe, Julie has continued working in memory of her little girl in trying to raise awareness of the need for people to join the Organ Donor Register and she is backing calls for people to have to opt out of being an organ donor.

For more information on organ donation, visit www.uktransplant.org.uk or to find out more about the Children Heart Unit Fund visit www.chuf.org.uk