Five months after her husband Derek was struck down with coronavirus, Kate Garraway talks candidly to Julia Llewellyn Smith about her daily rollercoaster of emotions – and how dark humour is helping the family cope.
The last ‘normal’ Saturday Good Morning Britain and Smooth Radio host Kate Garraway spent with her husband Derek Draper was in late March. Their daughter Darcey, 14, was with friends and they’d dropped their son Billy, 11, off at his street-dance class, so they then went for brunch at their favourite local café.
‘We had such a lovely time,’ says Kate, 53. ‘We’d been waiting ages to put in sliding patio doors to our back garden – not a very rock and roll or romantic topic for brunch, I know, but we were so excited about the chance to make plans. After we discussed that, Derek said, “I fear a lockdown is coming; while we’re in isolation it’s a good time to print out the photos of the kids to put on the wall.” So then we went to B&Q to get some picture frames.’
Over five months later, the frames are stacked unwrapped in Kate and Derek’s hallway in North London. The photos were never printed out. ‘I don’t know how to use the printer,’ Kate says ruefully. For the day after the B&Q trip, on 29 March, Derek, 53, began feeling ill and was admitted to hospital. Just a week later he was in intensive care, diagnosed with Covid-19. Today he is still there, in a minimally conscious state from which no one knows if he will ever be able to recover.
‘We hope and believe he will come out of it, but we just don’t know,’ says Kate, who vomited when doctors first told her this. ‘The heart of the family has been ripped out and we don’t know if we will ever get it back.’
Derek is one of an estimated just five people in the world whose bodies have been damaged so much by Covid. He has survived but for how long – or even if he can recover – the doctors can’t say. His condition constantly fluctuates. ‘If they say this has improved today you don’t feel the euphoria you’d like because you have this feeling the next day something else will have gone wrong.
‘At first it was all about Derek’s lungs,’ Kate continues. ‘But then his kidneys started failing and he was on dialysis. Now they’ve realised Covid can affect every cell of the body: most recently Derek’s been having problems with his intestines. The absorption of food and vomiting are problems and they’re trying to work out whether that’s because his cells don’t produce the enzymes to digest. His liver and heart and blood vessels have been affected.’
Throughout all this, Kate has been holding the fort at home, trying to present a chipper front for the sake of the children. Since July she’s been back presenting GMB, fitting in work around endless conversations with medics, not to mention sorting out the nonstop legal and financial challenges that accompany a partner being in a coma.
‘There’s been more than the odd day when I’ve just been consumed with fear,’ she says. ‘But as a mum you can’t go to bed and cry for 24 hours. Children don’t choose when they’re going to be upset; you say: “It’s 9pm, I’m going to bed, I’ve got to be up at 2am for work,” and that’s when they suddenly want to talk about Dad, so of course you just have to say, “OK, let’s talk about it.”’
Kate’s talking to me via Zoom. The video link is ropey; before I can see her I hear Kate laughing at the technological shambles. Our chat is peppered with her hearty chuckles and broad smiles as she talks frankly about her ordeal. This cheery front wasn’t much in evidence at Kate’s home back in March.
‘Initially you couldn’t be laughing at anything, it would have been too strange. But the thing that came to reassure me it was OK to have fun was that Derek [a former political lobbyist in the early years of the first Blair government turned psychotherapist] was – is – a massive believer in silliness. Sometimes it would drive me crackers. I remember once we’d missed a flight and he was making all these jokes and I was like, “It’s not funny!” and he said, “You’ve got to laugh at it, so you can deal with it.” It’s trenches humour. You need it to get through. ‘So with the children I’d try to do things in a different way. We’d go and bounce on the trampoline for exercise and they’d laugh at how bad I was. Or once Darcey was googling about people in comas and found a story about a woman who came out of one speaking fluent Mandarin. We had a hysterical half hour imagining Dad coming round with a posh voice like Prince Charles rather than his Chorley accent. Billy was worried – “I don’t want Dad to sound different” – and I had to reassure him, but for Darcey to laugh was a real release in a situation that is obviously very, very sad and frightening.’
Yet Kate was worried as to how the public might react to her smiling, let alone laughing, when – at the advice of doctors who said she needed to re-establish routine – she returned to ITV, where she’s been a breakfast television regular for over 20 years. ‘I very consciously didn’t want to talk too much on air about the sadness of Derek. I don’t want to bring anybody down; my job is to cheer people up. But it’s a balance: I also don’t want anyone to think, ‘There she is smiling and not caring about her husband.’
Kate mentioned this fear during a programme, only to have it misinterpreted as her saying she had been trolled by angry viewers. ‘That was taken all wrong,’ she says. ‘I anticipated nastiness, but the truth is I haven’t been trolled at all. Everyone has been staggeringly supportive.’ Kate has also received support from Boris Johnson, who was admitted to intensive care with coronavirus in April, and his fiancée Carrie Symonds. ‘Boris hand-wrote me a really lovely note saying he was thinking about me and Carrie has sent us messages via other people saying she knows it’s very tough. So I have seen a very human side to them. Boris’s public face gets a lot of stick but the challenge is that politicians are all in the dark just like us.’
It’s desperately sad to think that this week Kate and Derek, who met at a drinks event organised by their mutual friend, former Labour politician Gloria del Piero, were planning a renewal of their wedding vows and a huge party to mark their 15th wedding anniversary on Thursday.
In December, she spoke about how Derek ‘had fallen in love with me all over again’, after watching her cope brilliantly with the deprivations of the jungle in the latest series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!. When she departed the jungle (she came fourth), Derek produced a ring and asked her to marry him again. ‘I felt I saw everything in a new light. I’d always known family and friends and love were the most important thing, but after the jungle that brought it into focus even more. Darcey was very excited: she was planning a second wedding – God knows what she’d have had me wearing. But now that won’t be happening and our anniversary will be very strange.’
After starting to feel ill, Derek thought it was from new painkillers he was taking for a long-term shoulder injury and sinusitis. No one suspected coronavirus as he had no cough or temperature – Covid’s official symptoms back then. But as his condition rapidly deteriorated, Kate called GMB’s resident medic Dr Hilary Jones who, after doing breathing tests over the phone, advised her to call 999. Derek was taken in an ambulance to hospital where, initially, he seemed to be doing well. ‘One of the last texts I have from him says, “The doctor says the lung X-ray is looking positive, I’m definitely not going to die,”’ she reveals.
Yet within hours, Derek’s condition worsened. ‘Doctors were saying, “He’s not going to make it.”’ Unable to breathe, he was put into a medical coma to give his lungs a rest. Before he went under, he called Kate and said, ‘I love you, you’ve saved my life.’
For several weeks, the family’s only contact with Derek was through hospital staff. ‘When I finally got to FaceTime him, seeing him unconscious was a big shock. He’s lost nearly eight stone in weight, a lot of it muscle throughout his body. He looked worn-out, thin and pale with dark circles under his eyes and there were lots of tubes.’
In July Derek emerged from his deep coma and started showing some signs of consciousness, occasionally opening his eyes. The family started talking to him on FaceTime via an iPad held by a nurse, although no one is sure if he can hear or not.
‘Darcey tends to chat to him while she’s doing other things, like building flat-pack furniture that they bought and were planning to assemble together. She’ll say, “Oh, Dad, I wish you were here, I can’t find the right screwdriver.” Sometimes I’ll just take the phone into the garden, so he can hear the kids mucking about. But we don’t know where he is in his thinking.’
Only a few weeks ago, Kate was finally allowed to visit Derek in hospital. Coronavirus precautions mean the children and Derek’s parents haven’t been able to yet. ‘I see him quite infrequently, not as often as I’d wish,’ she says, biting her lip. She’s compiled him playlists of his favourite songs (he especially loves Bob Dylan) and nurses prop an iPad of her presenting GMB in front of him.
Kate took a week off from the programme to dedicate herself to helping Billy prepare for starting secondary school (‘I’ve not been great on the home tutoring,’ she says wryly). ‘I’m always thinking how would Derek help Billy; he was so brilliant at all of that,’ she continues. ‘I imagine all the conversations he’d be having with Derek – it’s heartbreaking to think they may never be having them again. If someone said to you, “This is just a short-term period, you are going to get through it, then everything will get back to normal,” you’d have such a burst of energy. But it’s the same for anyone living with a loved one with Covid, it’s all an unknown. It grinds you down. What I have to accept is I’m a de-facto single mum for now when I’ve always said I don’t know how single mums do it.’
In fact, she’s a single working mum, with even more on her plate when she returns to her regular weekday morning slot next week at Smooth Radio. ‘I’m really looking forward to playing relaxing music – three hours on air when you can’t think about anything except what’s happening right now. All your thoughts, like, “I need to call this or that doctor”, have to go on the back burner. It’s weirdly restful.’
But as soon as work finishes, her thoughts return to Derek. ‘Every issue I’m dealing with I automatically think, “Oh, I’ll check with Derek” and then realise I can’t. There’s always this sadness. That and the heartbreak are the most wearing things.’ Still, Kate is inspiringly optimistic. ‘We’re lucky, so many people have lost loved ones,’ she says. ‘What you have to keep thinking is there were so many moments when doctors thought we’d lost Derek or were about to, and he’s still here. There is still hope.’
Meanwhile, she’s wondering about finally installing the patio doors the couple discussed that happy Saturday when they were blissfully unaware of what fate held in store. ‘It feels too sad to do it without him and I don’t know if we have the money now; the future care of Derek is my priority. But if he gets a little better, I will do it. I can’t wait for him to come home to us… that’s my dream.’
Kate will return to Smooth Radio on Monday 14 September to present her daily show, weekdays from 10am to 1pm