Teen dies just 3 weeks after brain tumor symptoms were mistaken for an ear infection

SUFFOLK, United Kingdom — A grieving mother is calling for greater brain research after her teenage son’s suspected ear infection turned out to be a deadly tumor. Niall Kavanagh was rushed to the hospital with sudden forgetfulness and an inability to speak. Just three weeks later, the 19-year-old died.

Kavanagh had been unwell for several weeks, but his symptoms were blamed on a suspected virus or ear infection, according to his mother.

“I’ll never understand how Niall went from being a fit, healthy 19-year-old, playing football and living with his girlfriend, to dying three weeks after diagnosis,” his mother Claire says in an online video. “Losing him has destroyed my life and I don’t want other families to endure the same heartbreak.”

Claire says the first sign anything was wrong came after a game of football he played in September 2021. The teen called to tell his mother he had been sick and collapsed and was taken to the hospital, but doctors apparently missed the early warning signs.

“He actually went to see out-of-hours doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital on two consecutive Saturdays,” the teen’s mother explains. “But he was looked over and sent home with a suspected virus or ear infection.”

After his symptoms persisted and worsened over several weeks, Claire made him a doctor’s appointment with a general practitioner — but he never made the date. Claire says alarm bells first began ringing when Niall, from Newmarket, Suffolk, forgot he had spoken to her, and other family members started to worry too. Niall’s family rushed him to the emergency room after he became unable to walk or talk, as his condition deteriorated rapidly.

Niall Kavanagh and his mother Claire
Niall Kavanagh and his mother Claire in Addenbrooke’s Hospital. (Credit: SWNS)

“Niall’s brother went over to his house the same day and called to tell me there was something wrong and he was going to put him to bed,” Claire continues. “When I got there, Niall was conscious and sat up gesturing, but he couldn’t speak.”

“In the end, we lifted him into the car and drove him to Addenbrooke’s ourselves. He couldn’t walk or talk and the staff there thought he’d taken something. Then there was talk about him having had a seizure because he just wasn’t responding. He was able to move but he couldn’t coordinate anything.”

The 19-year-old was eventually taken for a scan and doctors revealed the heartbreaking news that there was a lesion on his brain, in October 2021. Doctors feared he wouldn’t survive the emergency surgery, because they had “never seen anything aggressive as Niall’s brain tumor,” according to his mother.

“It left us with almost no hope. I had to go home and tell Niall’s two younger brothers they needed to say goodbye,” Claire adds.

Niall did recover, and for three weeks was able to talk, use his phone, and breathe on his own. However, after a procedure to remove a shunt from his head, Niall failed to regain consciousness.

Niall Kavanagh holding his mother Claire's hands
Niall Kavanagh holding his mother Claire’s hand in hospital. (Credit: SWNS)

“He was returned to the ICU and when I saw him the following morning, he wasn’t responding like he had before,” the boy’s mother explains. “He just gradually faded after that. I was told Niall’s brain was swelling and they couldn’t do anything to stop it. Essentially, he was dying.”

Niall Kavanagh died three weeks later on Nov. 1, 2021, after doctors ran tests to determine brain stem death.

“I wanted a miracle but his surgeon agreed that having him back for those three weeks was a miracle in itself,” Claire says.

Now, the grieving mother is working with Brain Tumour Research to petition for greater funding for research. The organization wants the government to recognize brain tumor research as a critical priority. The increase in research investment would put brain tumors in line with the spending on cancers of the breast, bowel, and lung, as well as leukemia.

“I’ve signed the petition and encourage others to as well because money for brain tumor research is so desperately needed,” Claire explains.

Claire Kavanagh with a photo of son Niall
Claire Kavanagh with a photo of son Niall at a race day held in his honor in 2022. (Credit: SWNS)

“What happened to Niall is a tragedy, to lose somebody so young and so quickly is devastating,” says Charlie Allsebrook, community development manager for Brain Tumour Research, according to a statement from SWNS.

“We’re very grateful to Claire for supporting our petition and helping to raise awareness. For too long governments have put brain tumors on the ‘too difficult to think about’ pile. Patients and families continue to be let down by a funding system that is built in silos and not fit for purpose. If everyone can spare just a few minutes to sign and share, we will soon hit the 100,000 signatures we need and help find a cure, bringing hope to families whose loved ones have been affected by brain tumors.”

The petition, which is still open to sign and share, closes at the end of October 2023.

South West News Service writer Amy Reast contributed to this report.

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