Travel Weekly has chosen Reuben’s Retreat as the official charity for the Agent Achievement Awards 2013. Juliet Dennis talks to Red Sea Holidays’ Nicola Graham, whose 23-month-old toddler died in August
Just a day before doctors discovered toddler Reuben Graham had a rare, aggressive brain tumour, his mum Nicola remembers thinking just how lucky she was.
Nicola and husband Mike Graham, trade relations manager at Red Sea Holidays and major account manager at Celebrity Cruises respectively, were on holiday in Devon with sons Reuben, 23 months, and Isaac, four.
It was August and they were camping in their friend’s garden. Reuben was laughing and running around singing Twinkle, Twinkle Chocolate Bar – his version of the well-known rhyme – into an empty jelly pot, which echoed as he sang. The family had enjoyed a day out at a theme park and were having a barbecue where Reuben got to eat his favourite food – sausages.
As was often the case, Reuben went to bed singing his favourite songs before he dropped off, exhausted by all the holiday fun.
Nicola, 41, recalled: “It was a wonderful day. I looked across at my family; we were all laughing. I actually stopped and, as I had done many times, thought ‘our life is great, we are so lucky’. Even the next morning, we all had a cuddle in bed – real happy campers.”
Reuben had been poorly on and off for three weeks and was regularly sick in the morning before becoming his usual cheeky self again. Doctors were at a loss, and after Reuben began to hold the side of his head, gave him a prescription for an ear infection.
The morning after their barbecue, Reuben took a tumble and turned pale. His parents decided to take him to Barnstaple Hospital.
At 7.30pm that night, after a CT scan, doctors broke the news of a suspected brain tumour the size of a satsuma. Reuben was sedated before being airlifted to Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital. “When he was put in the helicopter, I kissed him goodbye and told him he was going on an adventure. He never came to again,” said Nicola.
Much of the days that followed are a blur for Nicola. Despite an operation to relieve pressure on Reuben’s brain, he suffered multiple organ failure and was put on a life-support machine. Hopes of him recovering enough to endure an 18-hour operation to remove the atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour – which has few symptoms and affects only four to five children in the UK a year – soon faded. “It was just a complete horror,” said Nicola.
A week after Reuben went to hospital, Nicola and Mike made the toughest decision – to switch off Reuben’s life-support machine.
Nicola said: “I sang him Twinkle, Twinkle and told him how much we’d miss him. He passed away and I put him on the bed and promised we would do something in his name for ever.”
How you can help
Nicola’s hopes of donating Reuben’s organs could not be carried out because his tumour was cancerous.
Instead, the idea of Reuben’s Retreat was born – a house with at least three bedrooms for families whose children have life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses, with recreational activities, including animals for children to visit, and a counselling support centre.
“We are positive people; we had to scrabble around to get something positive from this utter devastation,” said Nicola.
Within two days of Reuben’s death, a Facebook page had been set up with the aim of raising £1 million in two years to set up Reuben’s Retreat.
Now, six weeks on, family, friends and colleagues have already raised more than £50,000.
On what would have been Reuben’s second birthday, on September 10, his nursery held a charity bake day, while scores of travel staff have raised funds.
“I have been overwhelmed by the support from the industry. We’ve worked in travel since we were in our teens, but we didn’t expect this much support,” said Nicola.
The Agent Achievement Awards 2013 will be held on April 15 at the Lancaster London hotel.
To support Reuben’s Retreat, go to reubensretreat.org
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