Last week, Kate Garraway told of the agonising decision to put her desperately sick husband Derek into a coma.
Now, in the second part of her soul-wrenching memoir, Kate recounts the joyous moment when, after he had spent a year in hospital with Covid-19, she saw the first flickering signs of recovery.
It was one of those soulless hospital rooms that nobody finds welcoming. I wondered how many others had sat there waiting to know their fate. Opposite me was an eminent neurologist, Dr W. ‘The good news,’ he began, ‘is that we know Derek is not brain dead.’
My husband’s mysterious failure to come round from his two-month induced coma had been baffling doctors for some weeks now. They wondered if it might be something to do with Covid-related inflammation in his brain. But electrical tests had revealed hopeful signs of activity, said Dr W.
‘I think a good recovery would be exceptional,’ he continued. ‘But I don’t think, at this stage, we have the evidence to rule out a reasonable recovery.’
Last week, Kate Garraway told of the agonising decision to put her desperately sick husband Derek into a coma but now she reveals the second part of her soul-wrenching memoir
This sounded promising. But what, I wondered, was ‘reasonable’?
Derek, back home with us being the usual Derek but maybe with a bit of a limp? In a wheelchair, with some short-term memory loss? With an inhaler, or on drugs for life?
‘So what does a reasonable recovery look like?’ I asked Dr W. ‘What is the best we can hope for? What is in your mind when you use that term?’
His reply was a phrase that still haunts me. ‘Being able to hold a hairbrush,’ he said.
I felt as though I’d been shot. His words brought to mind images of damaged people sitting in institutions, one hand on a hairbrush, slowly brushing. Something like you might see in an old movie. It seemed a world away from anything I had ever associated with my husband.
Derek, brilliantly clever, mentally terrifying. My sounding board, the yin to my yang, the inspirational father to my children. My love, my life.
I felt out of my body, floating somewhere above. Was I going to faint?
I don’t know how long this moment went on for. I suppose it must have been seconds, but I felt as if I was travelling for days. As if I was walking across that rope bridge from one life to another on I’m A Celebrity… But this was real.
DESPAIR: Kate breaks down during a video call with Derek after he had spent a year in hospital with Covid-19
‘How long before you know more?’ I asked. ‘Not how long will it take for him to recover, because you don’t know if he can even recover, but how long before you might know more?’
After a long pause Dr W looked straight at me, then away. ‘Well, Kate’ – the first time he had used my name – ‘I think it’s fair to say if he is still like this after two years we will know there is very little chance of him making any meaningful recovery.’
I screamed inside my head. Until now I had been living from minute to minute, wondering every time I went to sleep if my husband would still be alive in the morning. How could I go on like this for another two years?
Worse still, how could Derek be trapped like this for two years?
The vastness of the time was like a black hole. There was nothing to get any purchase on, no date on a calendar to aim for. No reassuring sentence to myself: ‘Just get through today, Kate, and pray he doesn’t die.’
So all this time I had been praying for Derek to live, willing him to come home to us, fearing that we would lose him. Now I had this new, even more terrifying, fear that, even if he lived, Derek might still be lost to us for ever.
I was determined to try to communicate with Derek as much as I could. I needed to see his face and for him to see mine. We set up a system whereby I could make video calls with the touch of a button.
EYE CONTACT: Derek stares at a screen during his long hospital stay
Every time I rang I was thinking, right, what could trigger him? What anecdote might connect? What would help him know that life is out there? The nurses would hold a tablet screen close to his face, and sometimes it seemed as if his eyes swivelled in my direction. It seemed he was looking hard at me, really trying, and the team in the room would be saying: ‘He’s definitely focusing on your voice.’
But there was no proof it wasn’t just because a blue-lit oblong tablet was flickering in front of him.
It was hard to tell what was real progress and what wasn’t. It must have been a month or so after that first shattering conversation when Dr W phoned with good news.
‘I know how hard these past weeks have been for you, Kate,’ he said, ‘so we’ve found a way you can come in and see Derek.’
To see him! To touch him! Maybe, just maybe, if I held Derek’s hand he would know I was there and could squeeze it back.
‘You won’t be able to touch him,’ Dr W said, as if he had read my mind. ‘It will have to be like a sort of prison visit, and you’ll have to wear the full PPE, but it’s a start and we think we can make that happen tomorrow. Are you free?’
Free! I would have cancelled the Queen to make that appointment! Of course I was free.
I had not seen Derek since the day I had gone into the hospital to bring him a few things before he was put into his coma, months before.
I felt almost giddy with excitement as I prepared for the visit, blow-drying my hair and putting on make-up, picking an outfit. It was as if Derek and I had a date.
My mind was racing as I arrived at the hospital and waited while they made sure all safety precautions and isolation measures were in place.
Even now it remains hard to describe how I felt when I saw him. It was like a white ball of shock so bright you want to put your hand up to your eyes to protect them.
My husband was unrecognisable. Legs like sticks, thinner than I’d thought his previously big frame could make possible. His arms too – how could muscle, flesh and fat become so small? Even his bones should be bigger than that, surely?
His lungs heaved, mechanically wrenching in and out in an unnatural, desperate way. His eyes stared straight up as he lay on the bed, which I was grateful for as I didn’t want him to see my reaction.
‘Derek, it’s Kate,’ I said. ‘I’m here. I’m always here. You’re safe in a hospital where they’re going to get you better.’
I was almost shouting, as if turning up the volume would somehow bridge the divide.
I looked deep into his eyes and said: ‘I know you can’t respond, but I know you’re in there. I know you love us and we all love you. I am going to get you out.’
His eyes were fixed on me, but with no movement in the surrounding muscles they looked blank.
‘I know you’re still in there. We all love you. You’re going to be OK.’
Then my time was up. I was whisked away.
I have no memory of leaving the hospital or getting into the taxi home. My phone kept ringing. It was Derek’s mum and my parents. But I couldn’t collect myself enough to answer. I was sobbing uncontrollably – sobbing and shaking.
I got out two streets from home to gather myself. I couldn’t let the children see me like this. I carried on walking, then called my friend Rob Rinder, known to his fans as Judge Rinder. I poured out my misery, sitting on the kerb, sobbing into the gutter.
‘Right, stop thinking,’ said Rob. ‘And that’s an order. You’re in medical shock. There’s nothing you can do right now but sleep. Go home, close your eyes and sleep. That is your one task.’
The simplicity seemed to work. Making it a medical problem that I couldn’t fix, rather than my failure to cope, somehow shifted things.
I went home, putting a smile on my face, and opened the door, somehow managing to say: ‘Yes, Dad loved all the things you sent. He’s weak but doing well. Now let’s watch some telly, whatever you want, because I think I’m just going to fall asleep.’
It worked. The next day I could function enough to keep going, although I no longer wrestled any joy from watching the children leap about in the garden.
‘Be careful! Don’t hurt yourselves,’ I fretted.
‘Mum, you’re turning into Dad,’ said our daughter Darcey. ‘He used to be the worrier and now you are too.’ She knew something was wrong, something had changed. Then one day, seemingly from nowhere, she suddenly asked: ‘Mum, are you going to kill yourself?’
I literally jumped, as if I’d been startled by a knock at the door.
‘No! What do you mean? What on earth would make you say that?’
‘Because you’re so sad all the time about Dad.’
‘No, absolutely not, Darcey. It couldn’t be any more the opposite of that. I’ve never wanted to live more,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to kill myself. No. I hate the idea you’ve been thinking that, worrying about it.’
The Power Of Hope by Kate Garraway
Darcey nodded. ‘Good. That’s sorted, then. Now, while we’re talking, I have one more question.’
God, what could it be?
‘Mum, can I have a dog?’
And we were back! She knew she was pushing it, and we both collapsed into fits of giggles. We were going to be OK.
Darcey’s question had brought me up sharp. I had to make changes. I had to take my life off pause.
Billy, our son, had by now returned to school, so I decided to go back to work. I had to send a signal to my children, and to the viewers who had given me such support, that life was going on, that it hadn’t ended with Derek’s diagnosis.
It helped that the world was just waking up. Lockdown was lifting, restrictions lightening. Like moles, our family emerged blinking into the sunshine.
It was not long after this, at the height of summer, that Derek started to move his right hand.
During one of my video calls, the hospital team asked me to test it out by asking Derek to move his right hand. So I did. No response.
Then they said: ‘Ask him again, but this time leave a gap.’ So I asked him again. And this time, he looked me really hard in the eye and moved his right hand.
I wanted to burst with excitement. That was the first time there’d been any connection between us. They said it might have been coincidental, but I was sure it wasn’t.
I went in to see him again that week and there was less shock this time about the change in him. I felt he was doing better, that he was brighter in the eyes. But always the hospital urged caution. Weeks went on like this: stop, start; hope, doubt; determination, and the fear of delusion.
Then, at last, came the real breakthrough. One morning the physios were moving Derek and accompanying it with their usual friendly chit-chat. ‘Let me know if this is uncomfortable,’ and ‘Let me know if anything hurts, Derek,’ and so on. Out of the blue came a word. Clear and unmistakable. ‘Pain.’
Not a mouthed word, not a whisper, but an actual sound, as clear as a bell. ‘Pain.’
The team rang me immediately. Part of me was horrified that this could be his first word, that it must have been his prevalent thought or experience if it was strong enough to prompt speech. But it showed a brain connection, and this was incredible news. He had felt something and he knew and used the right word to articulate what it was. So simple, but so utterly profound.
Yes, just saying ‘pain’ was a long way from the caring, sensitive, clever husband and father Derek had been before Covid, but it was a start. And I was convinced that this was what he would want me to think, too.
BUT, of course, what I was really craving wasn’t just words but the emotion, personality, the essence of the man I loved.
I thought I had seen a flicker of that sometimes on our video calls, particularly when the children were talking to him and he almost seemed to be smiling, a strange crooked smile. The children were convinced it was there.
Then one day on FaceTime I was talking at him – looking straight into his eyes.
It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, video contact? Many of us have experienced it with Zoom calls for work. In normal communication, you aren’t constantly staring. You’re looking down at your notes in a meeting or at your food if you are sharing a meal, or you’re looking around you. Not staring hard into people’s eyes.
At home, Derek and I wouldn’t stare at each other all the time. We were busy doing other things – eating, loading the dishwasher, lying in bed chatting – not locked into that hard stare. And as I chatted to him, it reminded me of one of our early dates, when he had forced me to dance to Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, and I had squirmed and tried to release myself from his gaze.
As I stared into that iPad screen I said to him: ‘This reminds me of that date – do you remember it? When you forced me to stare into your eyes. I kept trying to look away but you wouldn’t let me.’
I carried on chatting about it, then asked him directly: ‘Do you remember?’ And his face started to crumple and contort in a strange way. ‘Don’t worry!’ I said, ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t.’
I was concerned I was distressing him. But his face continued to crumple and I suddenly realised he was crying – actual tears streaming down his cheeks.
‘Do you remember?’ I asked again. To which he nodded. He actually nodded! ‘You do! You do!’ I yelped.
‘Yes,’ he mouthed. ‘Yes… yes.’ Then, to top it off, ‘Of course,’ as clear as a bell. He was in there! He knew me!
I told him he was amazing, that he was a miracle, that it was all going to be OK, at which he sobbed and sobbed. ‘I’m going to save you,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get you out, I promise.’
He stared at me. Now he was going, slipping back into unconsciousness. But he had come up from that deep ocean, just for a moment, so I knew it could happen again.
AFTER that magical moment of recognition there were several further times when Derek would bob up from what I saw as his deep ocean of unconsciousness, and I would sense more connection with each one.
More words were coming, all in whispers and used correctly. Each time he came up I would try to fill him with as much belief as I could that he was going to get better. I would tell him to try as hard as he could, that the better he got, the quicker he could come home. Home was his safe place, where he was loved and in control. It was a world away from where he was now: alone, frightened, unable to control his mind and body.
He seemed to respond to this, and to latch on to home as hope, a way to reclaim his life.
I talked to the doctors about the reality of having him back with us. Clearly, it was impossible now as Derek needed 24-hour intensive care. But what about the future?
His shoes were still by the front door, next to his wellies, as if he might come home at any minute to be helped into his favourite chair in the garden. We had had to keep alive the hope that could happen, but now we had to shift our expectations to meet what we could make happen in reality.
I took the Field Of Dreams approach: if you build it, they will come. I chose a leap of faith – I would create a home in which Derek could be cared for, even if he remained as he was right now. That way we were facing up to his changed self, and perhaps it would give us a base to hope for the future.
The hospital recommended a private assessor to come to our house to help us form a plan. She was fantastic, giving us practical guidance but emotional support, too.
There were so many practicalities to tackle. Our bedroom and bathroom were on the first floor, not ground level. Stairs were clearly out of the question for Derek, so we had to create one-floor living for the whole family. That meant saying goodbye to our living room to make it into a bedroom, which in turn meant we had to extend the kitchen to give us a family room that could incorporate a sofa and TV, space for a wheelchair or stretcher.
We also had to dismantle Derek’s man cave, our old garage, which was attached to the house but was too narrow for a modern car. He had long used it as a shed. Luckily it had a little loo at the back, so plumbing was already built in. Now it could be turned into a wet room for Derek.
He had loved that garage, pottering in there at the weekends, and it was sad that we’d have to get rid of the space where Derek used to mend toys and do DIY. I felt as if I was giving up on something big he loved.
But the reality was that, right now, he couldn’t hold a hammer and I just had to stay in the practical. Stay on goal. And then, on April 7, it finally happened. Derek was allowed home – 373 days after an ambulance had taken him to hospital.
It is now more than a year since Covid tore Derek from us, and I am still learning every day about our changed life but I am so grateful to have the chance to. While I know Derek’s health is still fragile, I also know that he’s still here: he has proved himself the exception, the family’s beacon of hope.
Yes, I can see that we have to find a way to move forward together, and to learn who we are now. We may yet have to discover love all over again, a new love, the terms of our relationship entirely renegotiated.
But isn’t that the case for all marriages? Aren’t we all changing all the time, to some degree? Might Derek and I even value our happiness, our relationships, even more, having had that essential truth made clear to us with such stark reality?
I will fight on for him, knowing that I have done it before and I can do it again. There are new treatments on the horizon.
He is home. He is still alive. And so is hope.
© Kate Garraway, 2021
Abridged, edited extract from The Power Of Hope, by Kate Garraway, published by Bantam Press on Thursday at £20. To order a copy for £16, go to mailshop. co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before May 9. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.