‘Now I can believe I’m alive.’ Robin Hanbury-Tenison awakes from his COVID-19 battle

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We have good news for you all – Robin Hanbury-Tenison is pulling through and after more than a month in intensive care he is now starting his long road to recovery.

Robin’s son Merlin has been blogging regularly on the Spectator web site about Robin’s ordeal with the Coronavirus, and it is worth reading all of his posts as this virus really is a very nasty and frightening one and we must all do our best to avoid catching it and spreading it.

If you wish to send a message to Robin you can now do so on this link https://www.plymouthhospitals.nhs.uk/send-a-card and the hospital will print them out and read them to him.

‘Now I can believe I’m alive.’ These were the first words I heard my father speak in over a month. It was 7.15 on Wednesday morning and I was just clambering out of bed for my morning jog on Bodmin Moor. I am lucky in that I can run a few miles down to an old china clay quarry on the moors with a trusty labrador and two terriers in tow without seeing a single other human being. My telephone rang and I noticed it was a Plymouth number, likely heralding a call from Derriford Hospital where my 83-year-old father, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, has been fighting coronavirus since mid-March. He has been sedated and on a ventilator for most of that time, has suffered multiple organ failures, needed a tracheotomy and has now been struggling to wake up for almost two weeks. The doctors were compassionate but realistic and have told my mother several times that ‘we may need to have a difficult conversation soon’. We knew this to be code for ‘it’s looking unlikely he’ll pull through’. We had begun to prepare ourselves for the worst and it’s been hideous thinking of my strong, virile father lying in a hospital bed with tubes running in and out of his battered and bruised body.

Whenever the telephone rings I suffer that small panic in my heart knowing it could well be the very worst kind of news which I know so many families across the UK have received from brave NHS doctors who have to tell them of the loss of a loved one. I answered the call and held my breath.

On the other end an excited nurse told me everything was fine (I exhaled noisily) and that Robin had just woken up and was speaking through his tracheotomy air-cuff for the first time. He was still a little confused because he was surrounded by people in layers of PPE and refused to believe he was either conscious or alive. He needed to hear a voice he knew and trusted and I was asked to speak to him about the situation he’d woken into.

After a few shaky statements about where he was and some choked platitudes about how loved he is by his family there was a pregnant pause on the other end before that one sentence tumbled down the airwaves. ‘Now I can believe I’m alive.’ His voice sounded like a shovel being run across gravel and it was clearly an effort to speak but after a month in the darkness there could be no more fitting sentiment for him or for us. He has waded through the valley of death with a Covid gremlin clinging to his ankles and now seems to be emerging into the sunlight at the far end.

He managed to tell me he was hugely embarrassed at all the fuss being made over him and that it looked like he was in a room full of spacemen. By now I had run across the yard and banged on my mother’s window and we were both huddled over the phone. We reminded him that he is remarkable for his age and that the real fight would now begin as he embarked on physio and rehabilitation before coming home to us. Never before have I been so glad to hear him grumble and pretend he isn’t looking forward to a challenge.

Later that morning we had a Zoom call with him where the nurses held an iPad and he was able to see us. We showed him the view from his bedroom window of the Fowey valley. We pointed the camera at spring flowers, and the dogs and horses to cheer him up and give him a flavour of the familiar. One of the nurses said they were going to try giving him some water later, the first thing to pass his lips in a month. He replied that he only drank the stuff with whisky in it. Whilst it was wonderful to hear him joke, it might be a while before he’s allowed hard spirits again.

They have a ‘physio garden’ at Derriford and they’re now able to wheel him out to it each day to see the sky and breathe unfiltered air. For a man who has spent his life in jungles and deserts the healing power of nature will be significant. I know that even this small garden will do as much for him as any other treatment until he is back on the moors where raw nature and wilderness abound.

There have been campaigns to supply iPads to NHS wards so coronavirus patients can see and speak with the ones they love. It’s wonderful the NHS now have this capability and that public generosity has enabled it. The combination of old healing methods such as breathing in the scent of a garden and feeling the sun on your face alongside the modern high-tech solutions made possible by tablets and video conferencing mean the long road to recovery can begin for Robin and for everyone who’s pulled through the initial onslaught of this brutal virus.