Soldier's moving tribute to brave wife

AN ESSEX soldier has described how he held his young wife in his arms as she lost a harrowing three-and-a-half-year battle against illness.Lance Corporal Robert Kennedy was due to be serving in Iraq with members of Colchester-based 16 Air Assault Brigade, but Army chiefs ordered him to stay home so he could be with Helen, who at the age of just 22 was suffering from a terminal brain disease.

By Roddy Ashworth

AN ESSEX soldier has described how he held his young wife in his arms as she lost a harrowing three-and-a-half-year battle against illness.

Lance Corporal Robert Kennedy was due to be serving in Iraq with members of Colchester-based 16 Air Assault Brigade, but Army chiefs ordered him to stay home so he could be with Helen, who at the age of just 22 was suffering from a terminal brain disease.

She finally lost her fight for life last week , and Robert last night paid a moving tribute to her.

Clacton-born Helen, whose maiden name was Margerum, began to suffer from slight memory loss and a twitch in her fingers towards the end of 2000.

Her concerned mother wrote to Robert in Germany, where he was on exercise with the Second Batallion the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

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On learning of her illness he returned home to Britain to be with Helen, then his girlfriend, who was working for Axa Insurance in Colchester.

Initially doctors were baffled by her deteriorating condition, as it shared some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's and even variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease – the human form of mad cow disease.

But in January 2001 – after a barrage of medical tests - she was diagnosed with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), an extremely rare condition caused by a mutation of the measles virus which is always fatal.

To the couple's horror, doctors told Helen and Robert that she was only expected to live for another three months.

"Her, myself and her parents were totally stunned. It was the last thing we expected. We all thought there would be a cure," Robert said.

"All the plans we had made were blown straight out of the water. It was terrible," he added.

Helen was admitted to the St Helena Hospice while Robert searched for a suitable home. He was helped by the Army, who found him a place on the Garrison, and he kitted it out with the medical equipment to look after her. The couple moved in just before Valentine's Day 2001.

"She had limited mobility. By February she had progressed from the little twitches in October to being barely able to move across a room.

"It was hard for her, because at school she had been a real performer. She started doing ballet when she was about three years old, and carried on until just before she left Clacton County High School at the age of 16."

Robert, who now serves with Colchester-based 8 Close Support Company of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), added: "But suddenly she needed help feeding, bathing and with all her daily activities."

On March 28 – Ipswich Town fan Helen's 20th birthday – she and Robert married at an emotional ceremony at the Garrison Church, followed by a reception at the St Helena Hospice at Highwoods.

"We had been going to have children. She always loved kids – she adored them," said 32-year-old Robert, adding that she had worked as an assistant at the West Avenue Nursery in Clacton after leaving school.

"She was going to train to be a nurse, and then we were going to marry and have children," he said.

In July 2001 Helen fell seriously ill with pneumonia and was taken to Colchester General Hospital. However, to the surprise of both Robert and the doctors treating her she managed to pull through.

Tragically, though, the disease destroyed her remaining strength and she was left weak and unable to speak.

"She came out, but she couldn't come back home. She went back to the St Helena Hospice. She had a private room. The staff rigged up a double bed and we virtually lived there together for nine months.

"They bent over backwards to try and help us out – they were wonderful.

"She was moved to the Carnarvon Nursing Home in Clacton. There I would sit at her bedside all evening until the early hours of the morning.

"Since she came out of hospital she was blind, completely paralysed and couldn't speak. She last spoke to me in June 2001.

"But she could respond. When you spoke to her and it was something she liked she would smile, and she didn't like it she would screw her face up."

Helen Kennedy died in Robert's arms on January 13.

Yesterday he thanked the Army, who he said showed him support and understanding throughout his tragic ordeal.

"I have put my career on hold for the last three-and-a-half years to look after Helen," said Robert, who was one of the first British troops into Kosovo in 1999.

"When my unit went to Iraq, I felt I should go but they wouldn't let me, in case something happened back here and they couldn't get me back fast enough.

"Their attitude was that Helen was more important to me than work, and I should be with her."

Helen leaves a brother, 25-year-old James, and sister, 19-year-old Joy, as well as parents John and Janet.

Her funeral will take place at 1pm next Friday, January 30, at Great Clacton Methodist Church in Valley Road.

The family have asked that no black be worn at the ceremony, and that instead of flowers any donations should be made to the St Helena Hospice, c/o Leslie Barlow at Clacton Funeral Service, 98 Station Road, Clacton, CO156AA.

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