The smile his parents could not live without

Published: June 5, 2009  |  Source:

119c-smThe heart-breaking story behind the Beachy Head tragedy

With his sunny nature and joyful little face Sam Puttick would have made a heartbreaking poster boy, smiling happily into the camera in spite of his devastating physical disabilities.

For these are the touching images which were due to be unveiled to launch a major new fundraising campaign this autumn for the charity Spinal Research.

With the slogan ‘Our Future Is His Future’, the charity had chosen Sam – paralysed from the neck down in a road crash when he was 16 months old – to symbolise all they are striving to achieve.

They hoped to map Sam’s progress over the years, showing how research could improve quality of life and limb function for people with spinal cord injuries – maybe, one day, even finding a cure to allow victims such as Sam to walk again.

Sam’s parents Neil and Kazumi couldn’t have been more excited, for they shared this same vision for their son. With a remarkable lack of bitterness or self-pity over the accident which left their son quadriplegic, they looked to the future with optimism.

‘Neil and Kazumi couldn’t have been more open and supportive when I asked if we could use Sam for the campaign,’ says Jonathan Miall, chief executive of Spinal Research.

‘They had aspirations for Sam and were convinced that medical advances would improve his quality of life over the years. They were dedicated to his happiness.’

Following the tragic events of last weekend, when the bodies of Sam and his parents were found at the foot of the cliffs at Beachy Head, these images present a vivid picture of a child so adored by his parents that they could see no future for themselves once his own had gone.

Four days after contracting pneumococcal meningitis, Sam died peacefully at home in the village of Brokerswood in Wiltshire on Friday evening last week, after doctors told his devastated parents there was nothing more they could do to save him.

On Sunday, after leaving an emotional note, Neil Puttick, 34, and his 44-year-old Japanese wife drove 150 miles in their people carrier to East Sussex and took their own lives. One can only imagine the torment these two adoring but deeply private parents went though during the 36-hours following Sam’s death, when they were alone with his body, for they apparently spoke to no one.

Grief-stricken, their usual positivity must have ebbed away as they became united in their desire to be reunited with their son in death. Their suicide pact appears to have been no spur of the moment decision. It must have taken some planning and determination to carry it through.

Sam’s body was found in a zipped-up rucksack alongside his parents’ bodies at the base of the cliffs. It is perhaps typical of the kind of parents Neil and Kazumi were that they had packed a second bag filled with their son’s favourite toys. Sam, say all who knew him, loved his toy tractors.

The actions of these two parents have moved everyone who has read about them, and hundreds of people have sent messages of condolence to the website Stuff4Sam, which his parents set up following the car crash which left him paralysed.

Last night, the Putticks’ closest relatives, including Neil’s parents’ Alan and Mary, were too distressed to speak of the tragedy, but the following message was left – presumably by them – on the website: ‘Thank you for all your overwhelming love and support, all your kind words are greatly appreciated.’

The message went on to ask people to support the charity Spinal Research in memory of Sam and his parents, in the hope that others may gain from the future developments Neil and Kazumi so fervently hoped would benefit Sam.

Meanwhile, the testimony of friends painted a picture of a family so close that it could not bear to be separated.

Sam’s godmother, Cindy Stockting, a former teacher from Wiltshire, said: ‘Neil and Kazumi couldn’t bear to be parted from Sam. They just wanted to be with their son when he died and now they are all together in Heaven.

Dedicated family: Neil and Kazumi with their son Sam
Dedicated family: Neil and Kazumi with their son Sam

‘Sam was a wonderful boy in every way. What has happened has shattered our lives beyond repair.’

It is a measure of the Putticks’ characters that they never once expressed any bitterness towards the other driver involved in the 2005 crash that left Sam crippled and Kazumi with a fractured pelvis and legs.

It is believed that police were never able to establish who was to blame in the head-on collision. And, this week, the driver of the other car involved in the crash, Josephine Elias, 52, a married surveyor from Chippenham, with two sons aged 23 and 24, expressed her deep sadness at their deaths.

In a statement she said: ‘I was deeply saddened and distressed to hear of these terrible events involving Mr and Mrs Puttick and their son Sam.

‘My thoughts are, of course, with their respective families.’

Toby Roe, 36, who was a close friend of Neil’s from their days at Exeter University and was best man at his and Kazumi’s church blessing 12 years ago – which followed a civil wedding ceremony in Japan – said: ‘They never once expressed any anger towards the other driver in the accident, nor would they want anyone else to.

‘As far as they were concerned it was an accident. They accepted what had happened could not be changed and moved on. All they were concerned about was keeping Sam healthy and making him happy. He was the entire focus of Neil and Kazumi’s lives. Everything they did, they did for him.

‘While it is impossible for those closest to them to take in what has happened, I can imagine the huge void they must have felt when Sam died.

‘Although it is hard to take any positives out of this horrible situation, one small shred of light you can draw from this is the extraordinarily powerful love Neil and Kazumi felt for Sam.’

Those closest to the family say the couple, who met while they were temping in an office in Britain, were ‘made for each other’.

Neil, who graduated from Exeter with a degree in archaeology and would later become a web designer, adored Kazumi from the moment he met her.

‘Neil was the most generous, decent, bloke I’ve ever had the privilege to know,’ says Toby Roe, who works in corporate communications. ‘He was loyal, kind and gentle. One of life’s genuinely good blokes.

‘After Sam was born, they couldn’t have been happier. Neil was quite a private person and we saw each other from time to time after university. But he was happiest when he was just with Kazumi and Sam.’

The Putticks lived in a cottage in the chocolate-box village of Bratton in Wiltshire, with a trout farm flowing through their back garden. Other residents described them as ‘the perfect neighbours’.

One former neighbour said: ‘They were deeply in love with each other and when Sam came along, they lived for him. When he was born, Neil was so happy and brought cookies round for all the neighbours.

‘Neil used to walk around the garden showing Sam the ducks and rabbits. Sam was a sweetheart and he loved it. He was so cute, he used to giggle with delight and never seemed to cry.’

This family idyll, however, was shattered in July 2005 when Kazumi was driving her son down a country lane to meet friends and was involved in a car crash.

Two passing doctors, both anaesthetists, stopped to help, bringing Sam back from the brink of death twice.

He had suffered a catastrophic injury, high in the spinal column, akin to the one that paralysed Superman actor Christopher Reeve.

Sam subsequently contracted MRSA in hospital and over the next two years he was in and out of hospital.

His brain was undamaged and in all other respects he was an intelligent boy, but he could not move his limbs and – as the spinal injury was so high – was unable to breathe unaided. Although he was able to attend a mainstream school, he needed 24-hour care, seven days-a-week, 365 days-a-year.

Toby Roe says: ‘Neil and Kazumi were incredibly proud of Sam, because he was so very brave. He was in and out of hospital for various procedures and operations after the accident, but never once complained.

‘We were all devastated by Sam’s injuries, but Neil wouldn’t tolerate any sympathy. He and Kazumi were so positive about the future, they made it easier for us to feel positive, too.

‘I am sure Neil and Kazumi must have been through some very dark times after the accident, but they kept those feelings private.’

With the personal injury insurance they received, the family moved from their cottage to the £1million farmhouse in Brokerswood, and set about building an extension to house medical equipment for Sam.

In such cases, insurance awards are staggered over time, as the accident victim’s needs are assessed.

Both Neil and Kazumi, who once worked as a translator at the Honda plant in Swindon, gave up their jobs to care for Sam, with the help of a team of carers, although Neil had spoken to friends about maybe returning to work – though based at home – when Sam was in school.

Doting mother: Kazumi with Sam, a friend said he was the entire focus of her and her husband's lives
Doting mother: Kazumi with Sam, a friend said he was the entire focus of her and her husband's lives

The Putticks also set up the website Stuff4Sam to raise donations to pay for additional equipment – not covered by the insurance payout – which they felt were essential to improving Sam’s quality of life.

It was shortly after Sam’s accident that Neil contacted Spinal Research, interested in obtaining a credit card embossed with their logo, saying that he was the parent of a three-year-old, newly injured son.

‘I responded to Neil’s inquiry because it is quite rare for a young child to suffer and survive such an accident,’ says chief executive Jonathan Miall.

‘Usually we see this type of injury in the 18-to-25 age bracket or, increasingly, elderly people who suffer a fall in the home.

‘With a spinal injury life expectancy is near normal, and we could see a wonderful opportunity in Sam to follow his progress over the years, showing how research was improving his life. Neil and Kazumi were very open when I suggested this.

‘Sam, quite apart from being a very happy boy, had the potential to become a potent symbol for the future. His parents were thinking ahead to when he was 20, or 40. They wanted him to be able to achieve some independence.

‘When I first went to meet Neil and Kazumi, what struck me was how calm and almost serene they were.

‘They worked very well as a team in caring for Sam. They seemed to be coping very well, but I have learned over the years that you never really know what is happening deep inside someone, as a serious spinal injury is a life-changing event, not only for the victim but for the whole family.

‘When I first met Sam he was quite shy, but once he got to know you he was very giggly. He seemed very much aware of the situation he was in and it is a credit to his parents that he was so happy.

‘There was never any complaining, no chippiness or bitterness, no “poor me”. They were incredibly positive, allowing Sam to experience everything an able-bodied child could, and keeping him healthy and fit, which is very important.

‘It is very perplexing for me in a way to understand why they chose to die in this way, and everyone here is distressed by what has happened.

‘I’m no psychiatrist, but it strikes me as unusual for two parents to feel exactly the same way and choose the same course of action.

‘The only scenario that exists is that they were not only completely dedicated to him, but to each other as well.’

Sue Capon, 51, a friend of the family who runs the Brokerswood Country Park opposite the Putticks’ home in Wiltshire, last saw Neil on Monday, when he waved and they exchanged a few pleasant words.

‘Sam’s illness must have happened very quickly on the Tuesday, because Neil made no mention of the fact that he was poorly,’ said Sue. ‘I didn’t notice anything untoward.

‘I remember the first time I met the family when they came to see me, when they were thinking of buying a local place called Wishing Well Farm. Neil had a look round and thought it would be perfect for Sam.

‘He was an adorable little boy, who loved coming to look at our new tractor or using his specially adapted bike. Neil had this great aura about him. He loved his wife and he loved his son, and that was all that mattered to him, their happiness. I felt humbled by their dedication to Sam.

‘They had a team of people helping them in the week, because Sam needed round the clock care, but at the weekends it was just the three of them. They used to call it “Sam’s time”. They used to love walking him around the country park.

‘They wanted him to have exactly the same experiences as other children and Kazumi spent four months planning an Easter trip back to Japan so Sam could see his family over there. They took 65 bags with them containing all the equipment they needed for him.

‘When they came back, they said they’d had a lovely time, and Sam had brought some Japanese sweets back for my daughter to try.

‘Sam was an incredibly bright and bubbly little boy. He was even beginning to learn Japanese.’

Sue first wondered if something was wrong last Sunday. Busy during the half-term, she hadn’t seen the Putticks since her conversation with Neil on the Monday.

She’d had no idea Sam had been ill and taken to hospital, only to return home to die.

The family’s silver car was not on the drive and, unusually, all the blinds and curtains were drawn.

‘I was a bit worried because normally if they go away, they ask me to look after their house,’ says Sue. ‘We’ve all asked ourselves 100 times: could we have stopped this if we had only called round?

‘When I saw the news reports on television I thought it looked like their car, but still I didn’t make the connection. I still can’t believe it now and we are all devastated.

‘If you had asked me before if I could have ever imagined this scenario, I would have said never. Not in a million years.

‘But Sam was their whole life, so what do you do when that light goes out?’

By Helen Weathers

To make a donation, visit