By the age of just four, Teddy Lichten had undergone 20 sessions of radiotherapy.
It was just after his third birthday in July 2022 that the toddler was diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma – a rare and aggressive childhood cancer, which had invaded nearly most of his body and taken over more than half of his bone marrow.
Teddy’s family were told he had a 40-50% chance of long-term survival and the next 12 months brought a whirlwind of urgent hospital visits.
Parents Kat and Alistair were left ‘shattered’ by the news, and admitted they didn’t realise the reality of childhood cancer until it happened to them.
For weeks at a time Teddy would be admitted to the world famous cancer hospital, the Royal Marsden, in South London for his treatment – a 40 minute drive from his home in Hassocks, West Sussex.
‘He spent up to 10 days there every three weeks for four months,’ Teddy’s mum Kat, 34, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘He had induction chemotherapy then had two stem cell transplants, as well as countless sessions of radiotherapy. We stayed at one of the family flats nearby as we had to be there at 8.30am every day.’
Ahead of his surgery at Royal Marsden, Kat recalls how Teddy had felt ‘frightened’ and ‘very low’ during his treatment.
But once at the hospital, things soon changed.
‘The staff all got to know us and Teddy, and they knew what was normal for him and what was a sign he was poorly,’ explains Kat.
Today Teddy still routinely goes for appointments at The Royal Marsden as he undergoes immunotherapy. But his home away from home – described as ‘outstanding’ by his parents – now faces an uncertain future, as the children’s cancer services at the hospital could shut.
Instead, kids on the ward could end up being relocated to either St George’s Hospital in Tooting nearly nine miles away or the Evelina Children’s Hospital in Lambeth, which is an hour drive away. The move could cost in the region of £40 million.
Petrol costs, central London traffic and congestion charges – plus the dramatic change in scene for the children who have come to love Marsden – are key fears for Kat and other parents.
‘Teddy overheard me talking about it to his grandma, and was quite worried, asking me lots of questions about when it would happen and why,’ adds Kat.
‘At the beginning of his journey we were sometimes at Marsden as outpatients four days in a week.
‘At three hours each way, this would mean 24 hours spent in hospital transport in just one week.’
The lack of a Level 3 children’s intensive care unit (PICU) at the Royal Marsden is the reason behind the potential move. The NHS has said such a ward – usually found at bigger hospitals – is necessary to minimise any danger caused by transfers of children with cancer between hospitals.
Due to the very low numbers of children who would require the space at the Royal Marsden, the hospital couldn’t house an ICU on site.
In a bid to overturn the decision, Kat has joined forces with a small army of outraged parents who have demanded that NHS London reconsider the move of services. Together, they’ve created the #HearTheMarsdenKids campaign.
Families who use the Marsden fear new wards simply won’t match the care and attention they already receive.
Rebecca Gilligan, who lives in Worcester Park, says her daughter, Eva, wouldn’t be alive without the Royal Marsden Hospital. Her daughter was just 18 months old when she was diagnosed with a Wilms’ Tumour, a rare kidney cancer.
She’s had over 400 different procedures, 40 rounds of chemotherapy, two major surgeries – including the loss of a kidney – three minor surgeries, and two rounds of radiotherapy at the site.
Now 11, Eva has spent months at the Royal Marsden whilst having stem cell harvesting, high-dose chemo, and a stem cell transplant.
‘The care at this facility is second to none, without the dedicated treatment and alternative off-plan protocols that the hospital used my daughter would not be here today,’ Rebecca tells Metro.co.uk.
‘We spent months living at the hospital, even spending Christmas day there. The staff made this day so magical and special for all of the in-patients, with lots of gifts for the children. A lunch was provided in the canteen for our family to attend with us. It was so needed for all the children too ill to be at home during the festive period.’
Today, Eva is doing ‘really well’ following treatment and attending follow-up appointments at the Marsden.
But she’s worried about the potential loss of her hospital family.
‘Eva is unhappy about the proposed plans and very sad. She wants her care to stay at the Royal Marsden,’ adds Rebecca.
‘Staff know her history and she has grown up with all of the staff. It feels familiar and safe for my daughter, and is a short car journey away.’
The decision to move the hospital has ‘devastated’ families, admits Annie Martin, 48, a language tutor.
Her daughter Issy was first diagnosed aged 11 with a rare form of leukaemia called Philadelphia Chromosome Positive Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. She received two years of chemotherapy treatment at The Royal Marsden.
Following eight months of remission Issy, then 14, was diagnosed with a second leukaemia, also rare in children, Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia.
‘The journey that children battling cancer will have to face to get to their appointments [if services move] is daunting to say the least,’ Annie tells Metro.co.uk.
‘The practicalities of getting a child with cancer into London are nigh on impossible. Tackling those roads after a day in hospital, tired, emotional and with a very sick child in the car would be a nightmare.
‘Issy tells me the Marsden is different. The night before her admission for her general anaesthetic and bone marrow harvest, she asked me if it was weird that she felt excited for her hospital sleepover.
‘The scale of the hospital, the environment, the proximity to home and the warmth of the reception and care are what got us all through.’
Issy’s younger sister, Tilly, used to be terrified of hospitals, Annie adds. However, at the age of just 11, she was given the chance to save her sister’s life – although it would involve a major operation and a stay on ward.
Issy urgently required a stem cell transplant and her little sister was selected as a potentially life-saving bone marrow donor.
Tilly, like many children, feared the suffocating white walls of hospitals, characterless corridors and intimidating equipment. But her mum says the Marsden made her feel at ease straight away.
‘One of the doctors perched on the arm of Tilly’s chair and gave her all the time she needed, talking through all her questions and allaying her fears about the second procedure,’ Annie explains.
‘He put absolutely no pressure on her despite the fact that we really really needed her cells that day and there were teams standing by in theatre.
‘The care and the time given, and the respect shown to her that day will never leave me and they gave a little girl of 11 the confidence to provide her big sister’s cure.’
The Marsden families have until the end of the month to make their voices heard. A petition has been launched which has already garnered more than 8,000 signatures.
In a bid to persuade NHS London to find a way to keep services at the Marsden, they have also suggested a ‘risk-adapted’ model whereby any patients who, upon diagnosis, are likely to need PICU services throughout the course of their treatment, would simply receive their specialist care at St George’s Hospital.
For the remaining 93% of children cancer patients who would likely never need these services, they could remain at The Royal Marsden for both in and outpatient appointments, on-site access to research specialists and drug trials and radiotherapy treatment.
While services are not expected to move before 2026 and a consultation is ongoing into the situation, Chris Streather, medical director for NHS London, insists that the ‘strength of feeling’ in response to the proposals has been taken into account.
‘Our proposals are designed to create a future children’s cancer centre which has the experience and expertise of the existing service but is on the same site as a children’s intensive care unit, surgical teams and other children’s specialists,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Both options for the future location – Evelina London and St George’s – deliver children’s services which are rated outstanding by the Care Quality Commission, and both could deliver a future Principal Treatment Centre that meets the national requirements.’
However, Professor Nicholas van As, medical director for The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust argues: ‘The current service at The Royal Marsden is assessed as high-quality and safe, and a third of children treated in the hospital are able to access clinical trials through our world leading Oak Paediatric and Adolescent Oncology Drug Development Unit.
‘It’s important that the benefits currently available to children at The Royal Marsden are retained in the future.’
Annie and Issy have also joined the campaign to keep the services at Royal Marsden in a bid to help future generations, rather than themselves.
‘As a 16-year-old Issy’s care will remain at the Royal Marsden if the proposed relocation goes ahead as she will have completed her transition to teenage and young adult (TYA services). Our involvement in the campaign is not for us,’ explains Annie.
‘We have four and a half years of lived experience and want to share it not only for the good of the children and families using this service, but also for the benefit of the NHS which we support wholeheartedly.
‘Now they just need to listen.’
If you would like to sign the #HearTheMarsdenKids petition, click here
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