Saturday, 14 May 2011

Airman's supreme challenge after tragic death of Steph By Hector Mackenzie

This article taken directly from the Ross-shire Journal with thanks in support of the Fungal Research Trust Appeal:

A ROSS-shire man robbed of the love of his life by a mystery infection is set to take on an astonishing feat of endurance in her memory.

Big-hearted pupils at two local schools this week lent a helping hand as Invergordon man Lewis Fraser geared up for the challenge of a lifetime.

His partner Steph Smith - a hugely accomplished trainee teacher who was pursuing her childhood dream - was just 21 when she took ill out of the blue in 2009. She was diagnosed a few days later with aspergillosis, an infection to which asthma sufferers are vulnerable. Tragically, just five days after diagnosis, Steph, who was a mild asthmatic, passed away at Raigmore Hospital. Distraught Lewis (26), an aircrew member at RAF Kinloss, promised himself after her death that he would do something to raise money for research into a condition about which little is known.

This October, he will attempt the Himalayan 100-mile Stage Race, an ultra-tough endurance test which involves tackling terrain climbing up to 11,500ft - and a marathon around Mount Everest. He's set himself a target of pulling in £5,000 for the Fungal Research Trust. Ninety-five per cent of the non-profit group's spending goes into research. Pupils at Maryburgh and Conon primary schools heard about his plight through big sister Dawn (28), who is a Dingwall-based active schools co-ordinator. They agreed to chip in with their own fundraising run, amounting to a cumulative 100 miles in itself.

That could boost his total by anything up to £1,000.

Lewis, who ran alongside some of the youngsters during their big-hearted effort this week, paid warm tribute to their kind gesture.

Talking about his motivation to help shed more light on the difficult to treat condition, which can also affect leukaemia and bone marrow transplant patients, Lewis said Steph had been "a beautiful young woman, in every sense of the word, both inside and out... who at the age of 21 had a tremendous life ahead of her".

He described her as "a vibrant, caring, thoughtful young woman with a zest for life". She had been on her final three month placement in her former primary school in Nairn when she became unwell. "At first it was thought that her symptoms were purely her asthma, and therefore this was what she was being treated for.

"However, on Tuesday, March 31, 2009, with her breathing causing her much distress, Steph was admitted to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness with a serious asthma attack and within a few days she was diagnosed as suffering from the disease known as aspergillosis. This dreadful disease tragically got a hold of Steph and her immune system was unable to fight it off.

"The disease had become so aggressive even in that short space of time, that it literally invaded her lungs and body, and antibiotics, specifically for this type of fungal infection, were ineffective in treating her."

The couple, who met by chance in Nairn, had lived together for a year - which Lewis describes as the best of his life - before she took ill. A young leader within the Girl Guides, the former head girl at Nairn Academy was working towards her Queen's Badge.

She was also an accomplished Highland and ballet dancer whose memory has been honoured by Aberdeen University, where she studied. The university commissioned a glass sculpture to be presented once a year to a student teacher who has shown the highest level of personal commitment and professional values throughout their study.

Said Lewis, "She had a heart of gold, was so selfless and with her trademark smile was immensely popular among her peers. She was everybody's friend."

Although a very mild asthmatic all her life, it was a condition which never hindered her in her activities in her all too short life. Lewis will tackle the tough October challenge with his friend, Aaron McKevitt. He has already paid from his own resources for the cost of travel and accommodation.

A former pupil of Park Primary and Invergordon Academy - his parents Sanders and Caroline live in the town's King Street - he admitted to being daunted by the challenge. He lost a stone training for the Nairn 10K and recounts on his blog that in the first couple of miles. "I was constantly being overtaken by everyone!" Undeterred, he is building up to a cross-country marathon in July.

* To sponsor Lewis, or find out more about his fundraising and the Fungal Research Trust, see online or type The Steph Smith Appeal into a search engine.

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