Campaign to save lives after Jamie Skinner death

Steven and Sonia McCraw, Karen Greechan and Tony Skinner recall Jamie. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Steven and Sonia McCraw, Karen Greechan and Tony Skinner recall Jamie. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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JAMIE Skinner’s brother, Tony, has a photograph on his phone, one which even now makes him shake his head in utter disbelief.

“Look at him,” he whispers. “He was so fit and healthy . . . You’d never think there was anything wrong.”

The image is of a boy with a sunshine smile many of us already know: most would recognise Jamie’s broad grin from pictures of him, headphones around his neck, wearing a purple T-shirt; or of footballer Jamie in his maroon top. Images that have appeared many times since one awful day just before Christmas last year.

But this picture is different. Because it shows just how fit, strong and apparently healthy Jamie was – 6ft tall, rippling six-pack abs, strong arms. A youth, surely, in the very peak of condition.

Today that snap – grabbed just weeks before Jamie dropped to the ground at Saughton football pitch and, in front of horrified brother-in-law Steven, died – is far more than that.

For it’s now also a powerful reminder that if this awful tragedy could happen to him, it could happen to any one of us. And to any of our children.

Jamie was 13, yet so tall and powerful that many mistook him for much older. Talented on the athletics field, a star on the football pitch, dynamic on the basketball court, he was impressive in virtually any sport he tried. He was smart at school, and popular.

In the natural order of life, he should not have died that Sunday afternoon in December, just as many of us were cramming in our last bit of Christmas shopping or, like Jamie’s sister Sonia McCraw, at home, where she was painting her friend’s nails. And he may not have died, if lifesaving heart-start equipment stored just yards from where he fell had been rushed to his aid and used. It’s a thought that haunts Jamie’s family. Close, loving and dignified, they have spent months grieving while tortured by questions.

And it’s why they are pouring their efforts into not only raising awareness of hidden cardiac conditions, but also into equipping sports centres and schools with defibrillators and training people in how to use them.

Sonia, 29, lowers her head, steeling herself to hear husband Steven, 34, recall what began as a perfectly ordinary Sunday. Jamie was taking part in a trial for Tynecastle Under-14s and the match against Spartans was only ten minutes old in the second half. “Everyone was talking about this guy, saying he was massive and looked so much older than the other boys,” says Steven. “That was Jamie.

“He headed the ball, there was a tackle and then he slowed down, held himself across his chest or his stomach, and fell back.”

Sonia, at home with children Steven, aged seven, and toddler Sean, picked up a frantic call from her husband. “He said Jamie had collapsed and he wanted to know if he ever had had a fit. I said, ‘he’s never even had a cold, he’s never been unwell, what do you mean fits?’

“My pal said, ‘If it’s a fit, don’t worry, they’ll take him to hospital and he’ll be fine’.”

But beneath that super-fit physique, Jamie had an enlarged heart, possibly the result of a childhood virus, perhaps genetic. And tragically, when his heart stopped, the one piece of equipment that could have saved him was in the sports centre office while trained staff failed to use it.

Circumstances combined to bring to a desperately sad end a young life which began 3000 miles away in Nigeria.

Sonia and Tony’s father George’s work in health and safety had taken him to west Africa, where he met Jamie’s mother, Queen. The couple married and Jamie, at the time still a baby, became an adored member of the Skinner family.

He was six when he arrived in Edinburgh for the first time and while a little overwhelmed, he quickly charmed everyone he met. “He walked in with this wee cheeky face, he was so full of life,” remembers Sonia. “He realised what a completely different life it was here.”

The humble lifestyle of children in Nigeria had given Jamie an appreciation for all that came his way. “He was grateful for everything he got,” nods brother Tony.

Sonia and Tony, along with cousin Karen Greechan, 44, build up a vibrant picture of the lad who arrived in a blaze of energy.

Amid the hurt there are smiles as they recall his insatiable appetite for chicken: “He’d buy a whole cooked chicken and eat it,” laughs Sonia. “KFC and sleep, his favourite things.”

And there are fond memories of the impact he had on others. “He liked the girls,” nods Karen, smiling. “All his friends say he liked a prank. He picked the girls up and spun them – they loved it.”

“He wanted to be famous,” adds Sonia, and the irony that in some ways he is does not escape her. “He’d say, ‘I’ll be better than Beckham’. ”

“Even though,” smiles Tony, “he could hardly kick a ball until he came here.”

Jamie played at first to fit in at Craigour Park Primary. Later he played because he was so good. He was a natural at so many sports, adds Tony, that eventually he had to ditch some to concentrate on his dream of becoming a footballer.

Jamie was naturally bright and continued to excel at Liberton High School. In May last year he was selected as one of nine Anne Frank Ambassadors, chosen to help spread her message.

All the while, Jamie was harbouring the hidden heart problem that, on December 22, would end his life. He should have been in one of the safest places possible, just a few hundred yards from the Saughton Sports Centre on-site defibrillator, which could have given him a kick-start.

Instead a harrowing sequence of delays and confusion – what happened and why, the family are still trying to find out – deprived Jamie of even that chance.

The family’s anguish and grief constantly bubbles just under the surface. But while they wait for answers, they are pouring their energy into trying to make sure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen to someone else.

The Jamie Skinner Foundation was set up to raise awareness of “silent” cardiac conditions. At the same time, the family is determined to raise funds to buy defibrillators.

It would be a remarkable tribute to a young man who made a dramatic impact.

The scale of how much he was cared for hits Sonia every time she visits his grave at Craigmillar Castle Park Cemetery, marked by a simple stone engraved with a football and covered in tributes.

“I couldn’t go for months after the funeral,” she says.

“It was too difficult and I couldn’t bear to think of him lying there. Now I get comfort from it.”

Jamie’s family gathered to pay their final respects at the cemetery on a bitter January day after a painful Christmas.

Grief is never far away, however, they hope the Jamie Skinner Foundation can turn an agonising loss into something positive.

“We’re never going to forget what happened,” adds Tony. “What we want most of all is to keep Jamie’s memory alive.”

WHEN EVERY MINUTE IS VITAL

Acting quickly when someone is in cardiac arrest and fighting for their life is vital, says the British Heart Foundation.

Around 60,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests take place in the UK every year. When someone goes into cardiac arrest every minute without CPR and defibrillation reduces their chances of survival by ten per cent.

A defibrillator is a machine that delivers an electric shock to the heart when someone is having a cardiac arrest.