A printed sign on Kate Garraway’s front door reads: “Wash your hands immediately on entering. Do not touch anything. Go straight to the sink and wash for 20 seconds.”
Placed there by Kate’s husband Derek in February, it shows how seriously he viewed the coronavirus that, by a cruel twist of fate, he contracted just one month later.
Ten weeks on, he’s still critically ill in an intensive care unit, having already been brought back to life once after his heart stopped.
And now, in an exclusive interview with the Sun, Kate reveals she has now been prepared by doctors for her “second worst case scenario”.
She says: “There was a terrible phone call two weeks ago from a senior doctor in the intensive care unit. It was late at night on a Friday and I remember exactly where I was sitting and what I was wearing. My first question, the one I always ask when the hospital call, was, ‘Is Derek still alive?’ and he said he was, but then asked me what my greatest fear was.
“I said, ‘Derek dying’ and he replied, ‘Well, now I think I have to give you a second worst case scenario, which is that he never changes from this. That he is locked in this for ever’. He said, ‘I’m not telling you this to scare you. It’s because we don’t know if he can recover. We’ll only know over the coming weeks and months’.
“I threw up, there and then. People had said to me before that they thought he was going to die, but not that he might stay in this state.
“It’s like a second level of loss. We may lose him even if we don’t lose him. If he doesn’t wake up, then he’s sort of lost anyway … not that I’d love him any less or ever give up. I’d fly all over the world to find a cure if there was one, but all this is unprecedented.
“There have been many awful calls over the weeks, but that one was particularly awful because I realised that, even though he’s now COVID-free, the battle has changed.”
After weeks of Derek being too hooked up to equipment to move, the doctors had managed to give him an MRI scan.
“So they could finally see the damage they hadn’t been able to see before,” says Kate quietly. “The virus has just attacked everything.
“He’s got a tracheotomy now, so he’s breathing through that, and his lungs, which have clots, are showing some sign of recovery.
“But the MRI showed that he has damage everywhere, holes in his heart, his liver is impacted, and his pancreas … well, he’s now very, very diabetic which he wasn’t before.
“He’s been on kidney dialysis because his kidneys stopped functioning. And his nerves and his neurology have been affected by the virus, but the impact and the damage of that, they don’t yet know.
“He’s still being given breathing support, but the hope is that each day he will need less. They are watching him constantly, it’s like spinning plates. But whatever happens, we’re looking at months and months of rehabilitation.”
It was a cruel blow because, just before her birthday on May 4, Derek opened his eyes for the first time. Kate smiles: “That was an amazing day. I thought, ‘Here we go, this is it. The start of his recovery’. But then he closed them. Although he still opens them periodically, there’s no sense of whether he’s actually seeing anything. He’s not moving, but they don’t yet know why. It could be muscle weakness.
“We FaceTime him every night, whenever the staff are free to do it, and I have seen him open his eyes. We’re not allowed to go in because of the infection risk, but I wonder, if I was there in person talking to him, would it make a difference? I don’t know and it’s agonising.” Derek was put in to an induced coma in early April, but they have stopped giving him the drugs in the hope he regains consciousness.
Kate says: “They’ve been trying for the past three weeks to bring him out and he’s not regaining consciousness.
“If you don’t regain it in the first two or three days then that’s when they start talking about weeks, months, even a year.”
We’re talking, at a safe distance, in her back garden in North London, surrounded by the usual trappings of a happy family life.
There’s a large paddling pool, a couple of swings, a mini-vegetable patch her kids have built and nurtured.
But on March 30, when 52-year-old Derek was taken away by ambulance while struggling to breathe, 53-year-old Kate and her children, Darcey, 14, and Billy, ten, were plunged in to a world of pain and uncertainty that, ten weeks on, shows no sign of abating.
At first, the doctors hoped he’d recover quickly, but a week after being admitted to the first hospital, it became clear it was serious and he needed to be moved somewhere that could provide extra support.
When the transfer team arrived, they called Kate to say he was too sick to be moved and he needed surgery for an ECMO machine (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) to be fitted in his leg as soon as possible.
Kate recalls: “They said there was a 50 per cent risk of a stroke or his heart stopping, but then told me they believed he would die that night if they didn’t do it.
“So I said, ‘Let’s do it then’. And actually, I was told his heart did stop. But they got it going again.”
Listening to the litany of critical decisions she’s had to make on her husband’s behalf, and the amount of times she’s been told that his life is teetering on the edge, it’s a miracle she’s still even functioning.
At first, she went in to journalist mode, trying to learn everything she could about the virus.
And she has stacks of box files to prove it.
But as the days became weeks, she found it increasingly harder to cope.
She says: “First thing in the morning, especially, is when I get consumed with fear. I don’t really sleep well so I nap when I can.
“The doctors are really adamant that I have to look after myself because this is a long haul and I can’t be folding, especially for the kids. So I am trying to do that.
“Adrenaline got me through the first few weeks, but after the call about the MRI scan, I couldn’t stop crying. But it’s good to cry.
“The hospital recommended professional help for me and the children, so in the last week we have started talking to them and I have been learning tools for staying calm.
“There have been moments when I have felt so consumed by fear and sadness and worry about our future, and Derek’s future, and the little family that we are.
“I’ve been trying to practise mindful techniques, it helps to turn off the adrenaline.
“You have to focus on the now by activating your senses.
“For instance, sucking on an orange and concentrating just on the taste pushes all other thoughts out of your mind.
“Of course it doesn’t last long but it helps you to take things a step at a time.”
On top of everything, she is in lockdown with the children alone.
Despite Derek’s parents and sisters being desperate to help out, they have not been allowed to travel down from Chorley, Lancs.
Billy returns to school this coming Monday and Darcey will remain home where she has been a fantastic support to her mum.
Kate says: “They’ve always known, because they are very aware people can die from COVID, that the risk is there. But they’ve never asked me directly, ‘Is Dad going to die?’ whenever I come off the phone.
“They say, ‘How is Dad today?’ and I always try to say something positive like, ‘He’s really stable today’ or ‘His kidneys seem to be doing better’ or ‘He’s very sick but he’s fighting hard and the doctors are taking good care of him’.
“To keep stressing he might die is giving them terrifying uncertainty which is tough to deal with as a child. But I’ve never lied to them, I just try to stress the positive.
“After the MRI scan I had been really crying and Darcey could tell. She said, ‘I’m worried about you, Mum, because you’re so sad’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry but it’s just such a sad situation.’
“She asked what the doctors said and I told her they’d said he wasn’t going to get better quickly. She and Billy had made ‘welcome home’ banners and when he asked when Dad might be home, Darcey said it could be a year.”
When they asked if they could FaceTime him, Kate was worried.
She says: “I was very nervous because he does look very sick. When Darcey saw him, she said, ‘He looks fine.’ He just looks asleep, but there were lots of tubes which I had warned her about.”
Considering the number of times he’s been near death, what does she think keeps Derek going?
Kate replies: “Incredibly good care, for starters. Everyone looking after him is simply amazing.
“Other than that, the doctors tell me it’s just down to his DNA. For ages, they were saying, ‘It’s all about the lungs’, then the lungs start to show flickers of improvement and then more damage elsewhere in the body emerges.
“It just feels like this virus is throwing more and more challenges at him and the doctors.
“And now suddenly it’s become all about something else, other stuff that he’s got to get through.
“I know I’m not alone and there are thousands of people like me going through this torture, and tens of thousands more who have it worse than I because they have lost loved ones and my heart really goes out to them. I know we are so lucky Derek is still with us because where there is life there is hope.
“I do wonder about the future, but you just have to stay positive and never give up don’t you? That’s all you can do.”
This article originally appeared on the Sun and was reproduced with permission