I’m painfully aware that Derek would have wanted to tell his own story – and one day he still may.
In this book (edited extracts of which are being serialised here), I have tried to do him – and all those who love him – justice.
The help I have received from his brilliant team of doctors and specialists, and from people everywhere, has kept me going. By sharing this with you, I pray that it is in some way useful in tackling the challenges in your life. We all have our own Covid stories.
This is mine.
As December 31 faded into 2020, Derek and I raised a glass to each other. ‘This is going to be your year, darling,’ he said. ‘Move over, Ant and Dec! You’re not winning TV Presenter of the Year – my Kate is.’
He paused, then added jokingly: ‘Mind you, if you become a big star, you’re still doing my washing – or your career is off!’
This was classic Derek, always my biggest cheerleader, always giving me cheek.
He said it was to ‘keep my feet on the ground’ but really it was because he knew without a doubt that we already had everything we cared about right there: our little family and our normal little life, with our wonderful friends round us.
I couldn’t help but feel, though, that for all his banter, Derek might actually be right – and that something rather magical was going on this New Year. I was freshly home from my stint on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and I was relieved to have survived it without making a total fool of myself. I’d even managed to surprise myself by discovering some bravery I didn’t know I had.
As a result, new and exciting opportunities were coming my way.
By the first week of January, I had been offered the pilot for a new quiz show for ITV and my own Saturday morning chat show, which I was buzzing to get stuck into.
I had survived the toughest experience of my life and faced my worst fears: separation from my family, isolation, hunger, heights, snakes and all those creepy-crawlies – and thrived. Surely 2020 would be a breeze.
How wrong I was.
I’m A Celebrity hadn’t come anywhere close to being the toughest experience of my life. My biggest challenge was just around the corner. And it was, for the most part, going to take place in my own home.
The first time I heard mention of coronavirus was in the newsroom at Good Morning Britain, an unfamiliar word in a foreign news feed. It felt distant, not just physically but emotionally, too.
I’m not even sure we put those very early reports into our news bulletins. After all, why would an illness on the other side of the world have any resonance with somebody waking up here in the UK?
But by early March, Covid was dominating the headlines and on the 18th came news that schools would be closing the following week.
Derek went to his office and got everything he needed to work from our home in North London. After years as a successful political lobbyist, he was now a psychologist dealing with leadership training and developing FTSE 100 companies.
I was classed as a key worker, so I was still able to go in to Good Morning Britain and to my regular Smooth Radio show.
But not without changes – we started discussions about getting me a sort of home studio in case the restrictions got tighter.
It seemed like sensible planning, and at least I could be around more to help Derek with home-schooling our children – Darcey, 14, and ten-year-old Billy.
We could spend proper time together as a family and be as safe as possible.
When we went outside for the first Clap For Carers a week or so later, I found my eyes filling with tears at the emotion of it all. How could I have known just how much those Claps For Carers would carry me through in the tough weeks ahead?
The following morning, Friday, March 27, Derek, then 52, woke up with a splitting headache and pain in his sinuses.
I called our GP from work, mentioning that Derek thought it might be sinusitis.
The doctor asked if he had a temperature or a cough. When I said no, she sounded brighter.
‘Right, sinusitis, then,’ and immediately prescribed antibiotics without question.
On the way home from work that afternoon, I got a text from Derek. ‘Are you near?’ it said. ‘Please be near.’
This was not typical of Derek. He’s not the kind who gets man flu and behaves as if the world is ending. Then, minutes later, another: ‘Are you near? Please be near?’
He sounded desperate. I got home as quickly as I could and was relieved to see him playing Lego with Billy.
He did look unwell, though. ‘Derek, we aren’t missing the obvious here, are we?’ I said. ‘This isn’t Covid, is it?’
‘I’ve had that fear, too,’ he said. ‘But I’ve been taking my temperature all day and it’s definitely not up. And I don’t have a cough either.’
Back then, no one knew about the array of other symptoms and the advice was clear: if you don’t have a continuous cough or a rise in temperature, it’s not Covid.
Over that weekend, Derek seemed better, but on the Monday he looked awful – pale, clammy, exhausted.
I tried calling 111, I tried the GP, and I even thought about ringing the emergency services. But with no apparent Covid symptoms? After all, that was exactly what I had been encouraging people on air not to do.
Eventually I did what every single person who has ever worked in breakfast TV does at some point: I called Dr Hilary Jones, GMB’s resident health expert.
He asked me to get Derek on the phone. I could hear him putting Derek through a couple of tests, holding his breath for certain amounts of time. After a minute or two, my husband handed the phone back, apparently unworried.
But I will never forget what I heard next.
‘You need to call an ambulance. Now,’ said Dr Hilary.
‘Yes.’ He was completely serious, which I was not prepared for. ‘It’s worrying. His breathing really is not right.’ Even as I was dialling 999, I felt guilty that I might be wasting their time. But Dr Hilary had left no room for doubt, and now an ambulance was on its way.
The paramedics had a very definite air of urgency about them. They told us that Derek’s oxygen levels were very low and that he had to go to hospital immediately.
I felt an icy panic creep over me.
As they prepared to close the doors of the ambulance, Derek lifted the oxygen mask from his face. ‘Kate,’ he said, ‘this is not the last time you will see me. It isn’t.’ But I knew he would never have said that if at least a small part of him hadn’t been wondering if it was.
Derek’s texts from the hospital over the first hours were sporadic and confusing, keeping the worst of it from us. I didn’t know then that he wasn’t starting to get better.
‘Can’t phone, but all good,’ read one. ‘Thank you for your lovely notes. Love you all, won’t be able to reply.’
‘Reassuring to be here,’ said another. ‘Still can’t come off the breathing machine for one minute so can’t talk. Please bring wax earphones. I will text you the ward name when I get it. They say I am making an improvement.’
A consultant phoned and confirmed that Derek had tested positive for Covid. Part of me had clung to a fragment of hope it might be something else – something less devastating, something curable. But just as I was taking that in, he delivered worse news. Derek’s breathing capacity had gone down and they were considering putting him into an induced coma.
I tried to stay calm and explained that I had some items he had asked for and could I bring them to the hospital? They said they wouldn’t let me in but that I could drop things off.
But at the hospital, a nurse came out to meet me and said I could come in after all. My heart leapt with excitement because I was going to see Derek – then plunged as I saw the nurse’s expression.
Oh God, was this it? Were they letting me in because he was slipping away? Was he actually going to die?
I followed the nurse through A&E to the Red Area before reaching Derek, face down on a stretcher, still waiting for a bed. I gasped as I saw him. He looked horrific. His skin was waxy and so pale he almost looked an icy blue. He was shivering and drenched in sweat. It was obvious he really was incredibly sick.
I had hoped he might be on a ward, safe and getting treatment. But I realised he had effectively been in A&E all this time.
I asked if I could touch him, which was met with a regretful but firm no. I bent down so he could see me and kept telling him we loved him.
I don’t know how much he could hear. He seemed almost delirious, muttering again and again that he loved me.
Then he started to talk about a funeral – it took me a minute to realise he was talking about his own.
‘I want you at the funeral,’ he said, his voice very weak, ‘but I’m not sure about the children.’
Even saying that made him choke. He was gasping for breath, as if he had run a sprint in a smoke-filled room.
‘Don’t be daft,’ I said. ‘Stop talking about funerals. No one is going to a funeral. You’ve got to fight this.’
I was told I had to leave, but that someone would phone me soon.
In between breaths, Derek managed to tell me to send love to Billy and Darcey, and to beg me not to tell them what I had seen.
It was midnight when the consultant, Dr M, rang. ‘Listen, he’s really sick,’ he said. ‘We have some ventilators, but we need more. We’re trying to get him a bed in intensive care.’
I was struck by how posh he sounded, and how direct. Then, in a softer voice, he said: ‘It’s like the Somme. In the hospital this week, it’s like the bloody Somme.
‘All around us people are just dying as we fight to save them. I am just coming off a 36-hour shift and I have never in my career known anything like this.’
This was the reality of life behind the headlines: the pressure on the NHS, overworked staff, equipment and bed shortages. It was terrifying. Derek was now living the headlines, and so was I.
The children received a text from Derek with a photograph of him in a bed, a smiling doctor at his side. Thank goodness, they had found him a ward.
‘Greetings,’ it said. ‘It is still hard work but Dr Sarah says I am improving bit by bit. I love you both so much. I get to take my mask off for ten seconds an hour, and my food is a little lilac cube.’
And then I read his next text, just to me this time: ‘OK, not for the kids. I’ve been playing down how really awful it is. It is second after second of being locked in a mask thinking every second you’re going to die. I think they now may want to put me to sleep.’ He was referring to the induced coma they had told me about. It went on: ‘I know they are trying to do the best for me. But I just can’t breathe – it’s mental torture. I need a break. I want to be put unconscious.’
His messages became more and more desperate. ‘I don’t think you realise how bad it is,’ he wrote one evening. ‘It is unimaginable. I literally feel like I’m drowning and every breath is my last. Please tell them both I love them. The doctor says there’s no chance of me dying. I just have to keep going.’
It was heartbreaking to read, but those words – ‘no chance of me dying’ – shone out like a beacon. Were they true?
In the early hours of that night I had a call from Dr M. ‘I thought we were going to lose him this evening,’ he said.
Not only had they not been able to get Derek’s blood-oxygen levels up, but they were worried about his kidneys, heart, liver and lungs.
I felt sick, barely able to take in the detail, just hearing that he was slipping away, slipping away.
Dr M told me he was considering a process known as ECMO – extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – whereby the lungs are bypassed completely and oxygen is fed directly into the blood by a machine. Derek would have to be put in a coma for it to work. ‘It’s brutal,’ he said. ‘It might keep him alive, but it carries with it huge risks.’
I could hear the exhaustion in the doctor’s voice: the long shifts, the weariness of having constantly to deliver bad news to families, the endless fight. I must have dozed off in the chair, because I was sitting upright when another call came at six that morning.
‘Hi, I’m with Derek now on speakerphone,’ said a doctor whose voice I didn’t recognise.
‘We’re going to put him into an induced coma now so this is your chance to speak to him…’
‘What, you’re putting him into a coma right now?’ I asked. My heart was racing. The next voice I heard was Derek’s. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘You saved my life. And I don’t just mean now because I’m going into the coma to help me. I mean, everything, with the children, the family, our wonderful life. You saved me.’
‘I love you, too,’ I said, calling the kids so they could also speak to him. ‘It’s just for a few days, to give you a rest…’
I was breathless now and the words were tumbling over themselves as I scrambled up the stairs to give the kids the phone. ‘Wait, wait!’ I almost screamed. ‘Here’s Darcey and Billy to say I love you.’
‘Stop, Kate,’ said the stranger’s voice. ‘He’s gone under. He can’t hear you. We’ll call you later when he’s settled, but we have to go now.’
The line went dead. I suddenly felt alone, achingly alone. I didn’t know if I would ever hear Derek’s voice again.
The reversal in our roles seemed pitiful. Derek was a 6ft 2in rock of a man, while I have always been a bit of a feeble shrimp.
He was the one who lifted things down from the top shelf, carried the heavy shopping from the supermarket, got the bulky bags from the conveyor belt at the airport. Now he was lying there, the weak one, while I tried to gather my resources.
I could hear people outside enjoying the sunshine as I sat, phone in hand, wondering how to carry on. They have no idea, I thought. It’s as if they’re in another world.
The hospital phoned to tell me that Derek was being transferred to another hospital for ECMO treatment. And that he might not survive it, but he would almost certainly die without it.
The nurse on the phone said: ‘Kate, you have to know he’s very, very sick. You need to know that he might not make it.’
‘I know. I get that,’ I replied. But the blood was roaring in my head at hearing those words out loud for the first time. If I was honest with myself, I’d been fearing I’d lose him ever since he’d got into the ambulance outside our house. But hearing the experts put it to me so directly had an enormous impact.
Until that point, I’d been able to tell myself that my imagination was running away with me. But now it was a reality.
The next day they told me that my husband’s lungs were solid with Covid infection, and that he was clinging to life by a thread.
They’d later reveal that his heart had actually stopped during the procedure to place him on the ECMO machine – and that he was the sickest coronavirus patient they had seen who survived.
Slowly, agonisingly, Derek’s time on ECMO continued. Friends and strangers sent amazing messages of support – a safety net of love.
The owner of a Greek restaurant nearby started leaving wonderful tinfoil platters of nourishing family food on my doorstep. I could have cried with thankfulness.
David Beckham messaged me on Instagram. I hadn’t had the chance to look at social media so it was Darcey and Billy who spotted it and squealed with delight. I messaged him back, thanking him and saying the kids were thrilled. He sent a personal video to each of them – words of encouragement and fun. He said he’d been thinking of his own kids and how they might feel.
People from all sides of the political fence wanted to know if they could help.
Tony Blair called, so worried for Derek, saying he would pass on any medical developments he heard of from across the world. Boris Johnson wrote me the most tender personal note about Derek, recalling the fun times they’d had when he worked at The Spectator magazine and Derek was a political lobbyist.
These weren’t political manoeuvres but personal gestures. I felt like I was seeing the best of people in the worst of times.
Hundreds of thousands of people messaged me on Instagram. Some were just sending love, or sharing stories of loss and how they had got through it. Others were writing with tales of miraculous recoveries they wanted me to take heart from. One day I received a letter from a member of the Royal Family, offering the services of a Royal physician. How lovely, I thought, although it seemed utterly surreal.
But away from it all there was now just one thing I could do for Derek: talk to him.
I had tried everything I could to research, to persuade, to advocate. I had used all the skills I had in my public life, searching for facts and tugging at leads. And I had used all of my personal skills, trying to keep home life afloat, trying to stay focused for all of us.
Now I could turn this endless waiting into something positive.
Twice a day I spoke to Derek while the staff placed a phone by his ear. I would chat to him for as long as I could, telling him about holidays we were going to have, things we would do with the children, things we would do to the house and beyond. I didn’t know if he could hear, but I could imagine how lonely he would feel if he could hear and not know we were all rooting for him.
‘You’re somewhere safe,’ I would whisper to him. ‘You’re being looked after. I’m in touch with everyone. I’ve been speaking to your father this morning…’
Anything I could think of to say that would encourage him to survive, to come back to us, to leave the dark space he must have been in.
‘I know you’re in there, Derek,’ I’d say. ‘I know you’re there.’
These were the thoughts that kept me going while we waited to know if Derek had lived for another minute, another hour, another day.
© Kate Garraway, 2021
SOURCE: Daily Mail