‘All I could say to the nurses was, ‘please look after my baby’’- friends rally in the face of serious illnesses

Best friends Harry Leggett, Kate Bywater, Laura Mills and Maria Suffolk, who are hosting a dinner da

Best friends Harry Leggett, Kate Bywater, Laura Mills and Maria Suffolk, who are hosting a dinner dance and auction in aid of two charities close to their hearts. Picture: KAREN BETHELL - Credit: Archant

Four friends who have provided each other with unstinting support through life's ups and downs are on target to raise more than £3,000 for charity, after serious illness inspired them to organise a dinner dance and auction that sold out within minutes of being advertised.

Childhood best friends Kate Bywater and Maria Suffolk, who met as classmates at Sheringham Primary School 31 years ago, teamed up with Harry Leggett and Laura Mills as teenagers.

The friends became inseparable, and, after all four married, they kept in touch, meeting up most weeks for coffee mornings at each other's houses.

Harry, Laura and Maria went on to have nine children between them, but, when Kate, 32, gave birth to daughter Lola five years ago, the headaches, slurred speech and exhaustion she put down to having just had a baby turned out to be something more sinister.

'My symptoms very quickly progressed to losing all sensation down my right hand side and, within seconds, I was wheeled off for CT scans and investigations,' Kate remembered. 'All I could say to the nurses was, 'please look after my baby', it was horrible.'

She was devastated when tests revealed that not only had she suffered a mini stroke, thought by doctors to have been caused by undiagnosed pre-eclampsia - a condition causing high blood pressure in pregnancy – but she had also been unknowingly living with a hole in the heart since childhood.

'They think what happened was that the pre-eclampsia caused a blood clot, which shot through the hole in my heart and into my brain,' Kate explained.

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Although, after treatment, her stroke symptoms quickly disappeared, Kate, who works as deputy practice manager at Staithe doctors' surgery, at Stalham, had to undergo an operation to close the hole in her heart six months later and, while she has made a full recovery, her health scare has had lasting effects.

'I still have terrible anxiety and panic attacks,' she explained. 'And, although I didn't suffer any permanent damage, it made me realise just how awful having a stroke is for patients and their families.'

Kate was helped in her recovery by the support of her family - and by her friendship with Harry, Maria and Laura.

However, the four pals were hit by more devastating news when, six months ago, the flu Harry's husband Jon thought he was suffering from turned out to be something far more serious.

When Jon, who works as a project manager at Norwich City Football Club, was sent by his GP for blood tests to discover the cause of his persistant chest pains and breathlessness, the family got the results more quickly than expected.

'That evening, there was a knock at the door and there was an emergency doctor and an ambulance outside,' Harry explained.

The blood tests showed Jon, 36, needed urgent care and, after being rushed to hospital, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.

'Our world just turned upside down,' Harry, 34, said. 'Within 48 hours, Jon was having chemotherapy.'

Because of the risk of infection, the couple's children – Jay Jay, 6, Jenson, 4, and 20-month-old Jessie – were not allowed to visit for the five weeks Jon spent in hospital.

'It was difficult, but, I think at a time like that, you are just on auto-pilot; it is only when you stop that you realise how much pressure you are under,' Harry said.

A 'glass half-full' attitude, the knowledge that there are others in a worse situation, and the support of family and friends have helped, Harry added, and, after four rounds of chemotherapy, Jon is on the road to recovery.

'Things are looking good for the future and, although there is a 50pc chance that the disease will come back, we will cross that bridge when we come to it,' she said.

Meeting for coffee while Jon was recovering, Harry, Kate, Maria and Laura hit on the idea of organising a charity dinner dance and auction to raise funds for the Stroke Association and national leukaemia charity Antony Nolan and, after they wrote letters to local businesses and advertised the event on Facebook, they were inundated with offers of support.

'It just snowballed,' Cromer pharmacy technician Maria, 32, said. 'We had to increase the number of tickets to 150 and, even then, we sold out within hours of advertising them.

Donated auction prizes range from a microlite flight and an executive box package at a Norwich City football match, to weekend breaks and tickets to a West End show.

The friends will also be raffling off prizes including restaurant vouchers and tickets to local attractions, as well as running a £500 cash draw at the event, which runs at the Links Hotel, West Runton, on Saturday.

'We have just been amazed by the amount of support we have had,' mum-of-four Laura, 36, said. 'We would like to say a huge 'thank you' to everyone and it's been such a success, that we are thinking of doing something even bigger next year.'

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