A CHARITY set up by a Farnham schoolboy before his death from a brain tumour last year, just four years after also losing his mum to breast cancer, has launched a pioneering rehab service to support other children battling cancer in his memory.
After Edgeborough School pupil Robbie Keville lost his mum Kate just days before Christmas in 2011, the youngster, then aged six, vowed to become a doctor to help others battling cancer. Such was his drive and passion, nobody doubted he would succeed.
However, in a cruel twist of fate, less than two years later in October 2013, Robbie was himself diagnosed with cancer and after a two-and-a half-year battle, the-then-10 year old passed away in February last year.
Prior to his death Robbie again vowed to do all he could to help others in the same situation, and so on Valentine’s Day 2015 he launched the charity robbiesrally - named after the original fundraising event, a car race in Alton.
Robbie’s dad Mark and older siblings Harry and Lara have since continued the fundraising, and the charity has now inspired countless fundraising events as well as featuring numerous times on national television - including an emotional interview with dad Mark on last year’s Channel 4 Stand Up to Cancer telethon.
Thanks to these efforts, in just over two years, Robbie’s charity has raised more than £260,000 - culminating on June 5 with the launch of Robbie’s Rehab, a highly-specialised NHS service at Southampton General Hospital, 100 per cent funded by robbiesrally to care for other young brain tumour patients across the Wessex NHS region.
Robbie’s Rehab is just the second service of its kind in the UK, enabling a whole spectrum of health professionals including speech, language and occupational therapists, physiotherapists and neuropsychologists to visit young patients in their homes, helping them return to where they were before their cancer diagnoses.
It is already caring for three children aged six to 15 years old and, once up and running, it is hoped the service could benefit as many as 50 children at any one time.
To meet this aim, Mark, Harry and Lara have ambitious plans to increase their fundraising total to £640,000 by June 2019 to guarantee a fully-staffed Robbie’s Rehab up until June 2020, when they expect to have the service fully established within the NHS.
Reflecting on the decade leading up to the launch of Robbie’s Rehab, Mark - a former City insurance broker - said family life was “idyllic” prior to his wife’s devastating cancer diagnosis.
“What a life we led and how lucky we were,” he told the Herald. “We made an enormous number of friends in and around Farnham, and life was great. Then on Christmas Day 2008 Kate found a lump on her breast and she knew immediately that it was cancer.
“She had it checked out and was told very quickly what it was, but she took it all in her stride and began treatment in early 2009. By that autumn she was fully back on her feet and neither of us ever thought that it could possibly be fatal. Then in the summer of 2011 it came back.
“She got progressively worse and then on December 16, she was given six weeks to live. She only survived three days.”
After Kate’s death, Mark and his three children tried hard to return to normality. Harry and Lara went back to their boarding schools, and a nanny was employed to look after young Robbie while Mark was at work.
But less than two years later, in October 2013, the alarm bells rang again when Mark noticed Robbie’s handwriting was getting a bit “wobbly”, and one morning his son woke up with a blinding headache and was sick in bed.
They immediately headed to Basingstoke Hospital and Mark refused to leave until they had seen the hospital’s head paediatrician and been referred for an MRI scan. Sure enough, the scan revealed a medulloblastoma tumour in Robbie’s brain.
Mark gave up his job in the City to look after his son full-time, and Robbie began a course of chemotherapy. Again Mark was optimistic that it was only a “minor blip” and after treatment his son would be back to his fun-loving, gregarious self.
Indeed, Robbie’s early treatment was successful. Just two weeks after an operation to remove the tumour, Mark treated his son to a ski trip and soon afterwards Robbie’s doctor told them Robbie was “relatively unscathed”.
The first robbiesrally fundraising event followed in February 2015 to celebrate the end of Robbie’s treatment.
“He was thin, exhausted and bald,” Mark said. “But Robbie was was full of life and couldn’t wait to get back. The only thing that made him angry was the fact he couldn’t play rugby!”
Robbie was beginning to struggle at school as his treatment affected his cognitive processing speed, and he had lost a lot of weight. In retrospect, Mark now realises that what he needed was the kind of rehabilitation his family is now committed to providing at Southampton General.
“The rehabilitation is there but it takes weeks to access, so if you need a physio or a speech and language therapist for instance, you have to wait for a long time,” Mark said.
“What we’re going to do is make sure that the moment a child is diagnosed, they will meet a dedicated therapist, who is still going to be with them two years later on a weekly basis, visiting them at home, sorting out each problem as it arises and helping bring a kid back from the brink of death to where they were before.”
However, all the rehab in the world could not have prepared them for what was to come next.
“It was a very positive time, very happy time and it never ever once occurred to me that it could come back, it really didn’t, I didn’t allow it to. Then, just like with Kate, in October 2015 it did.”
Robbie was still going for regular MRI scans to monitor his progress, and after one such scan, Mark received a phone call from Robbie’s consultant.
“He told me Robbie had a number of small tumours in his head and what he called a ‘sugar sprinkling’ of cancer cells over his brain. There’s no way anyone can survive that, especially not a child.
“I broke the news to Robbie at home, and he just asked if it meant more chemotherapy and burst into tears. I can’t remember him crying again after that really.
“I knew it would be a matter of months, and the four of us made a decision that we were going to be very open about it.
“We spent a lot of time in hospital, but for the last few weeks he was here at home in his room, which was a extraordinary time. He couldn’t eat or move, but he always wanted to see visitors and his bedroom was always full of people.
“His favourite person in the world, Bear Grylls, came to visit and is now the charity’s patron, and Lara even had her 18th birthday party in his room, with 20 members of the family up there guzzling Champagne with Robbie holding court.
“It was as happy a time as you can possibly imagine in that situation and Robbie loved every minute of his healthy hours awake. We were absolutely swamped with love, which made it all a lot easier.”
Robbie died in February 2016 at his family home in Odiham surrounded by those who loved him most. A funeral service followed at St Lawrence Church in Seale, where he was buried alongside his mum.
Mark added: “Robbie was an extraordinary child. He was just a celebrity, everybody knew him, he had a huge circle of friends, and no little boy was ever more loved than Robbie.
“He had an amazing life, and he was very clever, a natural sportsman, and had a huge sense of humour too. He really was a very special kid and he’s made a huge impression for a little chap.
“If there’s one comforting fact in all of this, it is the fact that the legacy of Robbie’s charity is allowing us to do something good, and by allowing us to do something good it is allowing us to feel good about ourselves.”
Mark and Harry have now set their sights on running an epic 10 marathons in 10 days between the Wessex NHS region hospitals this August. To sponsor Mark and Harry’s ‘robbiesregionrun’ effort, visit the website www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mark-keville3.