Merlin Hanbury-Tenison

My father is stable but so is our hope

My father is stable but so is our hope
Robin Hanbury-Tenison at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival last year (credit: YouTube)
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‘Your father is remarkable for his age’. I wouldn’t be able to count the number of times someone has said that to me over the last 20 years. It must be in the thousands. Everyone from the postman to fellow explorers to other farmers on Bodmin Moor. He has always been seen as invincible, indomitable and perennially young. A man who has behaved like a 30-year-old well into later life.

When I wrote a week ago that he had been rushed to Plymouth Hospital in an ambulance, sedated and placed on a ventilator due to complications arising from coronavirus, well-wishers were all positive and even upbeat about the situation. ‘If anyone can beat this, Robin can!’, ‘Your father is an ox! There is no way he will succumb’, ‘What a great story this will make for his next book!’. Messages like this flooded in from friends and family across the world. The care and love has been heartening and affirming.

My mother, wife and I even fell into the trap of believing it all. We are still self-isolating on our farm and have been waiting each day for the nurses to tell us that he is awake and on the mend. The NHS medical team at the hospital have been unimaginably wonderful. Overworked, under-resourced and swamped with patients, they have phoned my mother twice a day with progress reports and updates, sometimes even on their personal breaks. They have told us that they are speaking to him every day (as the sedated can still hear) and a few of them have even started reading his book on pandemics that my mother sensibly sent to the ICU with him last week.

The message most days has been ‘he’s settled, he’s stable’ and this has become a hook that we hang all manner of hopes on. ‘Stable’ must be better than worsening and surely if he can remain stable for long enough then he will shrug off this irritating virus. But his lungs are still full of fluid and two days ago a doctor called us to say that his kidneys are not functioning as they should be. He has now been sedated for nine days and with every day we worry the chances of him returning to us in the state he was before he was put to sleep will reduce. Stable has moved to ‘quite concerned’ and my once youthful and strong father still has a tube in his throat while the muscles that would help him breathe continue to atrophy. Meanwhile the beds around him in the ICU have filled up with other sufferers in a similar condition.

Another term that we hung our hopes on was ‘underlying health conditions’. Along with 'co-morbidity', this was a phrase many of us weren’t familiar with a few weeks ago. As the death rate in the UK crept up, the insistence from the media was that ‘all of those who have died were suffering from underlying health conditions’. This seemed to me like cause for optimism. I refused to believe that my father, the explorer and Peter Pan-esque defier of age, would be the first statistic to die without any pre-existing illness or condition. But the media no longer says this when it gives us the death toll. They stopped when it passed 200 and now a number of young people across the UK have tragically died who were all healthy before.

The narrative has changed. We are all at far greater risk than perhaps we realised and the need to get ahead of this virus has become ever more pressing. My father is still alive and we are certainly staying positive, we believe in him and we haven’t lost hope. But in our twice daily calls, the nurses gently remind us that he is very unwell and that it’s unlikely he will ever be exactly like his old ebullient self, even if he does pull through the following days and weeks.

Whether you are old or young, healthy or unwell, scared or blasé, please think carefully before you step outside and add to the danger that our nation and our people are already in. Every family can avoid going through the misery and fear that we are currently experiencing. I hope you do.