For nine years, Caroline Bridle has struggled to breathe and suffered with seizures every time she talked about her son’s battle with brain cancer. Daniel Bridle was just 18 when he died after a 20-month fight against the disease in 2014.
But even now, the memory of sitting down with her eldest son and telling him his cancer was terminal haunts her. “The worst thing for me was telling him he was going to die,” Caroline said. “How do you tell your child he’s going to die? That’s what haunts me the most, seeing his little face. That’s something I’m trying to deal with.”
Daniel loved animals and he had a border collie called Ollie. Caroline has fond memories of her son in bed surrounded by the family’s two hamsters, cats and Ollie the dog. “It made him happy when he was poorly,” Caroline added.
Inspired by Daniel’s love of animals, Caroline has sought to deal with her grief by making something positive come out of his short but full life. It’s why she’s raised £10,000 to sponsor an anti-poaching dog to help track down rhino poachers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dan the dog was just a puppy when Caroline first met him at Welsh charity Dogs 4 Wildlife, based in Carmarthenshire. But he’s now been deployed in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa and seeing him at work has filled Caroline with hope. She knows her son would approve.
“When he was going through his cancer journey Ollie used to visit him in bed,” said Caroline, from her home in Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire. “It was a big part of his journey up until he died. I know my son would love this. I wanted to do something that interested him and his values.”
Daniel was a student at Pembrokeshire College when he started getting knee pain. The sporty teenager initially thought it was an injury he’d picked up but after repeated trips to the doctors, Caroline eventually took him to A&E where an X-Ray showed he had bone cancer. By that time, it had spread to five different parts of his body. “He didn’t stand a chance,” said Caroline.
Daniel immediately started a “brutal” regime of chemotherapy and the family spent months in the Heath Hospital in Cardiff. He was given 10-15% chance of recovery and they all held on to that. But four months later, the consultant took Caroline aside and told her it would just be palliative care going forwards. It was another nine months before Caroline broke the news to Daniel.
“I couldn’t imagine telling him while he was going through the treatment,” she said. “It’s brutal what they go through with bone cancer.” His chemotherapy ended in August, 2013, and Daniel spent the next ten months at home until his death in June, 2014.
“The thing I relive the most is sitting down with Daniel,” Caroline continued. “No-one tells you what to do when your child is going to die. The hardest thing is having to come to terms with that.” When Daniel mentioned he’d have to go back to hospital for more treatment, Caroline told him there would be no more.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry Dan, there’s nothing they can do for you’. He started screaming. That first night he broke his heart.. Then the next day he was comforting me and said ‘just don’t think about it mum’. He was very brave.”
At the time, Daniel’s brother, Lewis, was 16 and his sister, Nicole, was 13. They were “amazing”, said Caroline. They would make him a fried breakfast before they headed off to school and Nicole would write little notes for her brother. They all made the most of the final months, going on holidays and ticking off a bucket list dream of going to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.
Daniel also started creating his own memories for when he’d no longer be around. He left Lewis and Nicole special presents for their eighteenth birthdays and even bought silver cufflinks for their future wedding days so “he could be there too”. And it wasn’t until after he died that Caroline found a video message left by Daniel for her 50th birthday.
In it, he simply says: “Happy 50th birthday mum. Hope to be there with you. Love you for always.” It’s a message that Caroline treasures. “How do you digest something like that as a teen,” Caroline asked proudly. “He was pretty special.”
“Only now can I talk about it,” Caroline continued. She was diagnosed with a brain disorder and PTSD as a result of the trauma and would experience seizures and paralysis. “There’s nothing worse than losing a child. The dog has helped me along the way.”
Since she lost Daniel, Caroline has raised close to £70,000 through the Daniel Bridle memorial fund for the Bone Cancer Research Trust. Then, when she saw the Dogs 4 Wildlife charity, she knew it was something she could also do for Daniel. She raised £10,000 through various events which fully funded the training of Dan the dog. Dan is working with the Bonamanzi Ranger and K9 unit, a project set up between the IFPCP, Project Rhino, Cumbria Zoo and the Bonamanzi Game Reserve in a bid to halt the poaching epidemic.
Poaching more than doubled in the region last year threatening the existence of white rhinos. The anti-poaching dogs are bred and trained by the not-for-profit charity in the Carmarthenshire countryside.
“Knowing he’s going off and doing something amazing gives me hope,” Caroline continued. “My driving force is I don’t want Daniel to have died for nothing, for that sweet little boy to have lived and for nothing good to come of it.” .
Darren Priddle, co-founder and director of Dogs 4 Wildlife, said: “When Caroline told us of Daniel’s inspiring story, naming one of our puppies in memory of her son was a fitting tribute to the dedication of Caroline and her family in Daniel’s memory and future legacy.”
“It’s helped me deal with the grief,” Caroline added. “It’s kept me positively motivated. There was so much more to my son than the cancer. Animals were what he loved. It’s a story of love and hope. It’s been a bumpy ride but if we can do something positively, hopefully more people can be inspired by it.”