As his beloved brother lay silent and motionless in the hospital bed, trapped in his own body, Mark McMullan spent hours playing him their special song in the desperate hope he could hear.
One earplug in Declan’s ear, one in his own, together they listened to the powerful lyrics of the Les Miserables classic Bring Him Home – “Let him be, Let him live, Let me die”.
That universal prayer of hope became the symbol of Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Mark and his family’s struggle to bring the then 19-year-old Declan back to the family home from hospital after a cardiac arrest tragically left him with locked-in syndrome.
Architect Mark, now 24, from Crossgar, Co Down, Northern Ireland, explains, “Declan was my biggest fan, and that was the song I had sung in my local junior production of Les Miserables.
“Before he got sick, Declan told me that the only time he’d ever cried in his life was when I sang that song.
“He was so proud of me, and to see him lying there in hospital, blind, unable to move or speak, my music became a big comfort for him.”
But proving that with enough love and care, miracles can happen, Declan, now 26, was in the audience in his wheelchair at Mark’s BGT audition to listen as his little brother brought the house down with his beautiful rendition of the song.
All four judges were clearly moved, and TV’s Mr Nasty Simon Cowell was so touched by Mark’s dedication to his brother, he got up to meet Declan, who was sitting with their parents Brenda and John.
And for Mark to hear Simon say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you start getting calls from West End producers,” is an incredible change in direction since putting singing on hold to support his family.
Close in age, the two brothers have always shared a special bond.
Mark said: “We were more like best friends than brothers.”
The journey to this year’s Britain’s Got Talent semi-final tonight from March 16 2012, when Declan had a heart attack in his sleep, has been life-changing.
Mark was aged just 16 when Declan came home early after a night in the local pub complaining of feeling unwell and went to bed early.
The next morning as the Mark got ready for school, he noticed Declan wasn’t up yet.
“I went into his room that Friday morning to get a school tie,” says Mark, “and noticed he was lying at an awkward angle. Like he had just fallen back on to the bed.
“I called for my mum and dad, and we opened Declan’s eye lids, and his eyes had rolled back in his head.
“Me and my dad started CPR on him, but at this point he was dead.
“The paramedics took him straight into ITU at the Royal Victoria in Belfast.”
Mark’s distressed parents Brenda, 52, an administrator, and John, 51, a painter and decorator, and many of their large extended family rallied round and stood vigil at the hospital.
However, the future looked bleak as doctors estimated Declan had been dead for 20-30 minutes before he was found. Mark explains: “The brain shuts down after four minutes.”
But two weeks later when Declan’s ventilator was removed, medics were amazed that he managed to breathe on his own. However, his fight to live was only just beginning.
After six weeks in emergency care, Declan was moved into the cardiac ward after doctors discovered that his heart attack had been caused by an underlying congenital condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
It causes the heart to beat abnormally fast. Six months after the day of his heart attack, Declan was moved into the brain injury unit at Musgrave Park Hospital, also in Belfast.
Three months after the move, John realised he could communicate.
“We used to talk to Declan, but we had no idea if he could hear us.
Then one day my dad said to Declan, ‘If you can hear me, then blink twice for yes’ – and he did!” Declan’s whole family would come and try to talk to him, including his eldest brother, Daniel, 30, a chef, and 19-year-old fashion student sister Anna.
By saying the alphabet, they were able to get Declan to spell out words.
Mark laughs when he says that Declan’s first word was unprintable in a family paper. Now that they had Declan back, the family were adamant that he should come home.
The Bring Me Home song that the brothers had loved so much then began to take on even more significance as the family had to battle NHS chiefs who believed Declan would be better off where he was.
Now living in Newcastle with his girlfriend Zoe, 25, while he works full-time on a masters degree in architecture, Mark has allowed himself to dream again about a career in music.
“If I were to win the show, I would just be happy to have any type of career in music, but the cash prize would help us find a cure for Declan and also raise awareness,” says Mark.
So when Mark takes to the stage tonight, he doesn’t just sing for his brother, but for all the forgotten, silent people who have lost their voices too.
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