The 63 heroes who saved our son


Michael Cockerham recalls with chilling clarity the moment he and his wife realised they might lose their three-week-old son, Phineas.

‘He was lying on a bed hooked up to drips and tubes while teams of medics were working on him,’ says Michael, 42.

‘I asked the doctor whether he was going to die; he paused for a long time before answering, in a noncommittal way, that he didn’t think so.

‘That was when I realised there was the possibility we could lose Phineas and I just broke down.’

Only a few weeks earlier, Michael and his wife, Laura, had taken their healthy newborn baby home.

Then, one night, Phineas developed a mild fever; with terrifying speed the virus turned deadly, overwhelming his immune system. Now his parents could only watch on helplessly as doctors battled to save his life.

‘It had all happened so quickly — one minute he just had a virus, the next he was close to death,’ recalls Michael.

Amazingly, Phineas recovered — thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the hospital staff who worked on him.

His father was so grateful he embarked on a mission to photograph every doctor, nurse and specialist who’d helped save his little boy — all 63 of them — to acknowledge their incredible work, and help raise funds for their hospital, the Evelina Children’s Hospital, London.

As Michael, a professional photographer who lives with Laura and their sons Joshua, seven, Toby, four, and Phineas, now two, in Hextable, Kent, explains: ‘I never want to forget the people who fought to save my son. And I wanted to highlight the huge team involved in his care, to show the enormous number of medics needed to save a life.’

His photographs — below — provide a brilliant visual testament to the resources the NHS commits to saving lives every day.

Each picture tells the story of the vital contribution that each medic made.

The family’s terrifying story began in May, 2010.

One night, Phineas suddenly become lethargic and developed a temperature.

Laura, 33, took him at 6am the next day to the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, where she was told her son just had a virus, and to take him home.

But a few hours later, Phineas’s condition had worsened, so Laura took him to another hospital, Darent Valley Hospital, near  Dartford.

‘Phineas had become more listless, and even less responsive,’ she says. ‘He wasn’t even crying.’

On seeing his condition, a nurse immediately called for a consultant.

‘That’s when I really started to panic,’ recalls Laura; she rang Michael, who had taken their other two sons to visit Laura’s parents, and he arrived later.

The doctors couldn’t work out what was causing his symptoms — Phineas’s oxygen and blood sugar levels were dangerously low, which can lead to long-term brain damage or be fatal.

Just 24 hours after he’d arrived at hospital, doctors took the decision to transfer Phineas to the specialist Evelina Children’s Hospital 12 miles away in London.

‘He was transferred in a type of cocoon — it looked like something produced by Nasa,’ says Michael.

‘I’ve never seen so many dials and pumps and buttons. It was all temperature-controlled, with heart rate and oxygen monitors built into it. Laura went with him and I followed in the car, so I was 45 minutes behind the ambulance.’

For the next 36 hours, staff at the Evelina battled to keep Phineas alive, while trying to work out what was causing his symptoms.

His temperature had soared to 102f, and they flooded his tiny body with a vast number of antibiotics and antivirals, in the hope of catching whatever it was behind his condition.

Phineas also underwent chest X-rays, a lumbar puncture to check the spinal fluid for signs of brain inflammation, blood tests and urine tests.

‘The doctors couldn’t tell us whether he would suffer any brain damage, so it was running through our minds how we, and our family, would cope with this,’ says Michael.

It was a desperately fraught time, made worse by the fact that they weren’t able to hold their son, because of the machines and wires keeping him alive.

Finally, the doctors managed to stabilise Phineas’s condition.

Michael explains: ‘One of the doctors came up to us and said it had been life-threatening, but that he was going to pull through. We were both overwhelmed with relief and Laura dissolved into tears — it was a combination of such fatigue, worry and relief.’

They were then able to hold their son properly.

‘It was difficult as he still had tubes in him, but it was just so lovely to have him back in our arms,’ says Michael.

Phineas was moved from intensive care on to another ward; five days after he was admitted, the medics discovered the cause of his illness — the Parechovirus.

It’s a common virus, often causing nothing more than fever and general malaise, but because Phineas was so young, it had overwhelmed his immature immune system.

The year Phineas was admitted to hospital, 2010, doctors had witnessed a rise in cases of the virus, which is transmitted in bodily fluids, though they were unsure why.

However severe reactions to the pathogen remain rare. In the majority of people it causes few, if any, symptoms, but in some newborns it can have more serious effects.

A week after he was admitted with a life-threatening illness,  Phineas was well enough to go home. But Michael wanted to do something to express his gratitude.

With the help of a hospital consultant, he tracked down all the staff who’d helped saved Phineas.

‘Some were shy about having their picture taken, but they understood what I was trying to achieve.’

His book of the photographs, Phineas’s Friends, is now on sale, with all proceeds going to the Evelina Children’s Hospital.

‘He was just a tiny baby, but so many people fought to save his life and keep him here with us.

‘Now, every time I look at that book of photographs, I’m overcome with gratitude. I will show Phineas the book when he is older and tell him about all these remarkable people.

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