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Robin Hanbury-Tenison was given a 20 per cent chance of surviving coronavirus – and that was before his organs started to fail By Sally Jones 5 May 2020 • 5:42 The Telegraph
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, one of the greatest explorers of his generation, has spoken for the first time about his extraordinary recovery after a seven-week battle with Covid-19, including three weeks under sedation on a ventilator in Intensive Care when his family were three times told to expect the worst.
On Monday evening, against all the odds, the charismatic adventurer returned home by ambulance to Cabilla, his beloved Cornish estate on Bodmin Moor, in time for his 84th birthday this Thursday.
Just days earlier, he had been wheeled out of Intensive Care at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, clapped and cheered by a long honour guard of nurses and doctors.
He had contracted the virus after a trip to the French Alps in early March where he had been “skiing like a maniac.” Now he is celebrating his seemingly miraculous survival and reliving the dramatic moment he came out of his coma.
“It’s the most terrific thing to be home and to be able to sleep in my own bed,” he says from the living room of his newly-restored home, the Old Deer House (which his family have cheekily renamed “the Old Dears’ House”), sitting in his wheelchair overlooking ancient oak woodlands. “I never thought I would be home again. I am so grateful for all the fuss that was made of me and to the angels at Derriford for keeping me alive. I now can’t wait to get fit enough to get back into our woods, where the real healing can begin.
“It was a nasty business,” he says, over the phone. “Covid-19 is very unpleasant and I was in a pretty bad way, in an induced coma, quite delirious and sedated for five weeks without a clue what was going on. They’d kept me in this condition all this time, and I very nearly dropped out a lot of times during it.
“But the big breakthrough moment came when they wheeled me into this new thing they’ve got at Derriford, the Intensive Care ‘Secret Garden.’ It sounds silly, but it was the most extraordinary turning point. I was wheeled out into garden in the open air. I had all these tubes in me and four people pushing this big bed, with everything leading it from it. Then I felt the sun on my face and the flowers… and suddenly I came out of it. I am convinced that’s what saved my life.”
Hanbury-Tension with Merlin
Hanbury-Tenison – who made his name leading the Royal Geographical Society’s largest expedition ever to the tropical rainforests of Borneo – remains weak and still faces weeks of physiotherapy. But he is now lucid and utterly determined to get back to full strength. His family are celebrating what they say is a miracle.
“He has defied all the odds,” says his wife Louella, 68. “The doctors and nurses are in awe of his extraordinary recovery when they thought he wouldn’t pull through. We want to shout from the rooftops about the amazing care he’s received, and the incredible NHS staff for five weeks in intensive care and, for the last two weeks, on an acute ward.”
When the ICU team heard he was to be discharged, they came across to his acute ward and swarmed around his bed to wish him bon voyage. They told him that he was their longest stay seriously ill patient and they really didn’t think he would make it, let alone go home. From an acute ward to home in one leap is quite extraordinary.
Now Hanbury-Tenison is doing well learning to walk again, balance, wash, dress and feed himself. “He has me to look after him,” says Louella, “in a new house that is mostly on one level. When Robin was recovering in the acute ward and had his mobile, he could ring us and we him. We FaceTimed. We could take the telephone and show him the view, the bluebells up the drive, the dogs, the horses and test his knowledge on plants and trees. This, and his wonderful experiences in the Secret Garden, brought him back to this planet when he was suffering sedation delirium and helped him remember his home and family.
“It was so great for him to sit in the Secret Garden, first in his intensive care bed then in a wheelchair, for half an hour every day, gaining strength from cool air, a patch of sky, raised flower beds, sunlight and normality.”
Merlin, his 34-year-old son, a former army officer, whose wife Lizzie is expecting their first child early in June, adds: “We were able to watch through an iPad screen as he felt the sun on his face and breathed unfiltered air for the first time in over a month. The change in him was palpable. I believe it was the beginning of his road to recovery and health. We hope now he is home he will challenge himself (and others) to raise some money to get Secret Gardens into more NHS Trusts for their intensive care patients.”
Hanbury-Tenison was originally given just a 20 per cent chance of survival, which dwindled to near-zero when he suffered multiple organ failure. He spent three weeks sedated on a ventilator and 10 days on kidney dialysis.
“Three weeks ago, we were preparing ourselves for the worst,” confided Merlin. “He’s my best friend as well as my father, and I’d always seen him as invincible, but as his condition worsened, we all tried to steel ourselves because it was looking more and more likely that he’d only come out of hospital feet first. His doctors and nurses were incredibly professional but no one gives you false hope.
“Somehow he kept fighting, though. All the nurses were rooting for him and following his progress: they said they’d never seen someone of his age with his level of strength and resilience. Hence the amazing celebrations, even though this has been a rollercoaster and he had a few complications after coming out of ICU. When they woke him up, he had the usual sedation delirium and after he was moved into the rehab unit, he tried to get out of bed with the tubes still attached, and fell, gashing his head, which needed eight stitches. He’s making far more sense now, though, and being able to talk to him again after so long has been a life-saver.
“We live just 65 yards away from him and my mother on Bodmin Moor, and they’re both great riders. They’ve had some amazing horseback expeditions, across France and along the Great Wall of China. So while he was in ICU, I cantered Colima, my father’s horse, out into the middle of the moor and FaceTimed him, turning the camera so he could feel as though he was out riding again. His face lit up and he was cheering from his hospital bed.”
Although Hanbury-Tenison will undergo weeks of rehab nursed by the devoted Louella, his legions of supporters are cautiously optimistic that, like Tennyson’s ageing Ulysses, he may have more adventures in store. This, after all, was the man who to celebrate his 80th birthday took on eight gruelling challenges, raising £80,000 for his beloved Survival International charity, which campaigns for the rights of tribal people.
He has run the London Marathon, water-skied across the English Channel and took part in a terrifying expedition with a group led by renowned caver Andy Eavis, down into Peak Cavern, appropriately nicknamed “the Devil’s Arse”, in Derbyshire. After a steepling descent by rope, they entered a claustrophobically narrow entrance and began the five-hour scramble towards the exit. After crawling painfully along the cramped, water-logged passages, heads craned above ice-cold sludge, they arrived, exhausted, at the locked exit grille. Eavis theatrically patted his drysuit: “My God, I’ve lost the key!”
The others gasped in horror – but Hanbury-Tenison, decades older than his comrades, smiled coolly and began calculating the best way back through the mud. (“Only kidding,” chortled Eavis, unlocking the grille. “I had it all the time.”)
A friend jokingly attributes Hanbury-Tenison’s durability to his willingness to eat virtually anything in the wild for sustenance. On his ground-breaking Mulu expedition to Sarawak, Borneo, in 1977, with over 130 scientists, his first wife Marika, then cookery editor of the Sunday Telegraph, flew out to join him and pressure-cooked a 10-foot python, which she served up as ‘Snake and Chips’. The pair later sampled crocodile, which she had shot, and still-warm monkey brains.
As a mischievous youngster, Merlin put his father’s boast that there was nothing he wouldn’t eat to the test at his 7th birthday party, challenging him to eat frogspawn. Desperate not to lose face in front of the young guests, Hanbury-Tenison consumed handfuls from a moorland pool, pronouncing it “Delicious!” He was later violently sick.
After Marika died tragically young of lung cancer in 1982, he married his neighbour and “soulmate”, Louella nee Williams, 15 years his junior, who had decided, aged 9, that this was the man she would marry. She has supported him tirelessly in all his ventures, remaining dauntless throughout his illness and, publicly at least, refusing to give up hope, marshalling friends and family to write and record messages encouraging him to keep battling.
“We are extraordinarily lucky,” she says. “Many much younger people than Robin have sadly died, and too many of the heroic NHS and social care workers have been struck down while caring for others. Robin has had the best of care. He’s almost 84, and somehow, despite multiple organ failure and a bang on the head, he’s pulled through.”
Hanbury-Tenison, a passionate naturalist and plantsman, is still finding his voice after weeks on a ventilator tube and tracheotomy but he is delighted to be home to enjoy the family’s latest project: rewilding Cabilla, releasing beavers and water voles along the River Bedalder (meaning “sweet water” in Cornish). Restoring red squirrels is a long-held dream, and there have been discussions about the possible introduction of pine martens to control the greys. The pair are also creating a forest bathing retreat for stressed urbanites among a valley of ancient oak woodland and planting thousands more oaks, replacing the sheep and cattle currently grazing the uplands with ancient hardy breeds like Tamworth pigs and Highland cattle. And then there’s the impending grandchild.
“As soon as he got home, Daddy was thrilled to see Lizzie’s baby bump,” Merlin laughed. “He’s so excited about being a grandfather again. I’ve shamelessly played the baby card throughout, and whenever in his low moments, he asked if there was any point in him keeping fighting to stay alive, I said: ‘You’re doing it for the new grandchild, so that the baby will know its amazing grandfather.’
“I want him to be around to read it the great adventure stories like Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island, just like he did when I was a boy.”