Colin’s life stopped and I never got to say goodbye

Nicola and Evie. Picture: Neil Hanna
Nicola and Evie. Picture: Neil Hanna
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ON Monday, Nicola Campbell will be surrounded by friends, many of whom she hasn’t seen in the last year.

It will be a day of smiles, of laughter, of memories, of shared stories of parenting. And it will be a day of tears.

Colin and Evie

Colin and Evie

Not hers, though, she thinks. Sitting in her Corstorphine home, contemplating the get-together in London, she seems confident that she’ll be “stoic” in the face of others’ upset. For Monday is the first anniversary of the death of her husband, Colin.

At just 38 years old, the successful lawyer and occasional tennis player died while on his way home from a match. His death was attributed to sudden adult death syndrome (SADS), a rare condition which affects the heart and which is generally undiagnosed until it proves fatal.

Looking back, Nicola cannot even remember if she said goodbye to him as he went out the door of their London home, racquet in hand for an hour’s play before they were due to watch a rugby game with friends.

“I was too busy getting yoghurt into [daughter] Evie and hoping that [daughter] Isla wouldn’t wake,” she recalls.

“I was tired and wanted to go for a sleep, too. We’d been out early in the morning, meeting friends and having a wander, and when Colin left it was all such a rush. I don’t think I even looked at him properly, which is quite horrific. As he went out he said he might be a bit longer than an hour and that was it. That was the last time we spoke.”

Evie, then 22 months, and Isla – nine weeks old – napped with their mother. “I woke up at 2.45pm,” said Nicola. “I couldn’t believe I’d slept so long, and both girls were crying. The phones had been going crazy, but I’d slept through it all. I had messages from my mother-in-law and I thought something must have happened with Colin’s dad, who suffers from Parkinson’s.

“When I spoke to her, she was in a state saying someone had called her asking if Colin was diabetic, which could only have meant that something was wrong and he wasn’t able to speak.

“Immediately I thought it was a car crash. I was in such a panic. I called Colin’s best friend, Ed, and asked him to come over with his wife to look after the girls so I could get to the hospital. I eventually called St George’s but they had no record of Colin in A&E or in the cardiac unit. I had no idea what was going on. I was totally panicked.”

By the time Nicola’s friends arrived and she was ready to leave the house around 4pm, a policeman was on the doorstep. “He never even said anything. He’d had to drive Colin’s car back to the house. It had happened in the car and Colin’s friend had been with him and managed to pull the car over and get him out on to the pavement. He didn’t have to tell me Colin had died because I knew. I was howling and screaming. It was horrific.”

The horror of that day seems so far removed from the serenity of the former fashion magazine writer’s new house in Old Kirk Road, where style bibles sit side-by-side with Peppa Pig books, and white walls bear the scantest of sticky-fingered traces. The sun shines brightly through the large windows of the downstairs lounge, and Nicola appears immaculate.

Not a tear brims as she talks about Colin, his death, her new life back in her home city and her plans to run the Edinburgh half-marathon in Colin’s memory, and raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

But read the posts on her blog of grief, Widows Don’t Wear Black, and it becomes apparent that it’s all a facade which gets her through each day.

Sadness hangs in the air – especially when she talks of Evie’s reactions to her father’s death. “Where is Daddy, Evie?” she asks her. “In the sky,” is the reply.

“We talk about Daddy all the time, don’t we? What did he call you?”

“A monkey,” Evie replies. “And mummy is an orangutan and Isla’s a chicken.”

Nicola says: “I wrote a poem for the girls about Colin and we read it sometimes. She [Evie] knew something was wrong the day he died. She used to love her bathtime with Daddy and from that day she refused to get back in the bath. It took me weeks to get her back in it.

“The nursery in London was great, and I tried to keep her days as normal as possible. Moving back to Edinburgh has been fantastic because of the family support. We just stumble through really. It’s difficult because every book, every programme like Peppa Pig, has a daddy in it. And she sees dads picking up their children from her new nursery. She said to me ‘my daddy will never pick me up’. It’s heartbreaking.”

The couple had met in 2001 while on a sailing holiday in Turkey and it was a connection with Edinburgh which drew them together.

“Colin’s dad was from Edinburgh, and it transpired he and my father had both gone to George Watson’s. And while his parents had moved to Kenya, he was actually born in the Simpsons and had many holidays here. He thought of himself as mostly Scottish,” she says, smiling.

“I was working in London and he was in Portsmouth, but he got a job with a great legal firm and moved to London in 2002. He didn’t ask me to marry him until 2007 and we married the next year. In fact his work, and his boss, Fiona Shackleton, were brilliant. Fiona gave a eulogy at his memorial service, and she said he was in line to become a partner. I wish he’d known that.”

Given the circumstances of Colin’s death there was an inquest, which Nicola says she didn’t attend, though she read the report. “In ways I wish I hadn’t,” she says. “It was tough. And it makes you ask questions which are of no use.

“I think I was always worried about the what ifs, that something might happen to him and I would phone him and ask him where he was quite a lot. I think it drove him crazy. But about 18 months before he died he came home after being given a well man check which his work offered, and he’d seen a cardiologist and he said to me ‘I might drop dead tomorrow but I’ll probably live a full and healthy life’. That’s what he’d been told.

“But if I go down that road, to pick at that . . . well, that way lies madness.

“It was about three months after he died that I was told it was SADS and that it might be genetic. So the girls have both had heart scans at the Sick Kids and there’s a genetic test I’m looking into as well which is offered by the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).”

The day after Colin died Nicola knew she wanted to return to Edinburgh. “We’d been talking about moving out of London anyway because of the girls, and so then Edinburgh seemed the most obvious place to be. My family have just enveloped me.”

Her blog also “just happened” because she was no longer seeing a grief counsellor. “It’s been a therapy, and I hope it’s helped others going through the same thing. I’ve had a lot of responses saying I’ve put into words how other women are feeling. I’ve recently met with another widow who lives in North Berwick and it’s good to share our experiences. The night times are the hardest, and then we send texts to each other saying ‘how rubbish is your evening?’”

When she can, the 37-year-old is squeezing in training to run the Edinburgh half-marathon in May, both in Colin’s memory (it’s held on what would have been his 40th birthday) and to raise £1500 for the British Heart Foundation which funds research into SADS. She’ll be joined by many of their London friends whom she’ll be with this Monday.

“I think it will be hard, but harder for other people. They’re not dealing with it every day, so I think seeing me will bring the emotions back for them and brings on the tears. So I’ll end up being stoic, but I do have my moments.”

• You can read Nicola’s blog at and donate to her fundraising at

Spotting the hidden danger

SUDDEN adult death syndrome is a rare condition caused by an irregular heart rhythm that can make the heart stop.

It can affect people of all ages, and has struck several high-profile athletes in recent years, including footballer Phil O’Donnell.

Often, there are no clues that someone is at risk until it’s too late – although there can be some warning signs if people experience dizziness or fainting spells, particularly during physical exercise or emotional upset.

The frequency of the condition isn’t fully known as many sudden deaths are put down to accidents. But research has indicated that about 500 deaths a year in the UK are because of SADS. It also seems that men are more at risk of SADS as research has shown that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of such deaths are in males. The average age of death was 33.

Inheritance may also be a factor, depending on the underlying syndrome, as almost one in five SADS cases have had a family history of sudden unexplained deaths before the age of 45. As more people become aware of the syndromes that may be responsible, more families and individuals are being diagnosed as being at risk.

In some situations, the use of beta blocker medications are effective, in other cases, surgery may be appropriate. For more information visit or