I don’t remember meeting Karen, because we’d known each other from early childhood. Our mothers were very close – they had met at the age of seven, gone to the same school and stayed friends into adulthood.
So Karen was one of those family friends who had always been there. But what began as a friendship of circumstance for me soon developed into a genuine and enduring bond.
Little boys generally want all their friends to be boys, and I was the same. But I made an exception for Karen and her younger sister, Debby. I loved seeing them.
There was only a year in age between Karen and me. As you get older, you sometimes grow apart from childhood friends as you find, increasingly, you have less in common. But with Karen, it was the opposite. Our friendship gained a new lease of life once we became teenagers. She was funny, engaging and passionate about life. It was a joy to be with her and there was little we wouldn’t discuss.
She was a loyal supporter, too. She’d often round up a load of friends to cheer me on during my earliest gigs at the Railway Tavern in Hampstead. I was on the bill, trying out my character Sir Bernard Chumley and, although they were way too young to gain entry, Karen and her friends would somehow manage to talk their way in. Even to burly doormen, Karen’s charm and power of persuasion were impossible to resist.
But in September 1997, she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia. She was 22. Despite the immense shock of the news and ordeal of her subsequent treatment, she remained as positive as ever.
Shortly after her diagnosis, when she should have been in her final year studying French and history at Warwick University, she was asked to appear in the Telegraph Magazine, for a feature about young cancer sufferers.
“It’s a terrible time to be diagnosed,” she said. “My friends are planning their futures, but I’ve had to put my life on hold. They’re getting het up about their exams when I’m facing a bone-marrow transplant, but you have to accept that.”
Karen had been in Paris doing the foreign part of her degree when she noticed two scratch-like lines on her cheeks. “They didn’t hurt, they were just terribly ugly and because they were on my face I was conscious of them all the time.” The Parisian doctor she consulted could offer no explanation, nor could her own family GP. She was offered a blood test to see if she was allergic to anything – “to put my mind at rest”.
Karen heard no alarm bells when she was summoned back to the surgery by phone. When her GP told her she had an abnormally high white blood cell count, she had no idea what it meant. When she asked if it was serious, the GP said: “It’s treatable.”
That shocked her. “‘Treatable’,” Karen said, “is such a terrible word.”
Even when a haematologist broke the news that she had chronic myeloid leukaemia, Karen remained hopeful. While she waited for a bone marrow donor, she was given her first course of chemotherapy, which didn’t seem to have any side-effects, other than causing her to lose her hair. Up until Christmas 1997, she led a completely full life, spending half the week at Warwick doing her degree, and the other in London for treatment.
When her hair came out in clumps, she decided to shave her head: “I’ve always had long hair, and didn’t want to be left with those long dangling strands.”
Karen underwent another course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and tolerated them well. But the anti-rejection drugs she had started taking gave her terrible stomach aches. A bone-marrow biopsy confirmed that the disease had accelerated with unusual speed.
It struck me at the time that, no matter how ill she became, Karen was always more concerned for others than herself. She immediately agreed to front a campaign for the Sue Harris Bone Marrow Trust, resulting in thousands joining the bone marrow donor register and tens of thousands of pounds raised.
At that stage, I was starting my career as a comedy writer and performer. I’d become a regular on Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s BBC comedy panel game Shooting Stars, playing the scorekeeping baby George Dawes, and had landed my first film role.
Whenever we’d meet up, Karen would never dwell on her own news but was always keen to hear mine. There was not a single trace of bitterness in her or sense of “Why me?”. I just remember her dignity and bravery in the face of a battle she was unable to win.
Barely a year after her diagnosis, Karen passed away on 18 September 1998, at the age of 23. It was a devastating time for her family, friends and all who knew her.
Although a boy in my wider circle of friends had died of leukaemia when I was 12, being older when Karen passed away had much more of an impact on me – partly because we were closer, but also because one is less shielded from the realities of terminal illness. It was one of the first funerals I had attended of someone my own age. The fact many of us were beginning our adult lives compounded this desperately sad and unfair loss.
However, out of something so awful, something special happened. During their regular visits to and from the leukaemia wing of Hammersmith Hospital in west London, Karen, Debby and their mother Sylvia were struck by the fact that were no external facilities nearby suitable for patients and their families.
It’s a problem that exists in hospitals around the world but, until then, no one seemed to have properly addressed it. We never think how much it costs for families to visit relatives staying for long periods in hospital, especially those staying in specialist units where some will travel a considerable distance for treatment, as well as the comfort of being near our loved ones.
After Karen’s death, Sylvia set up the Karen Morris Memorial Trust (KMMT), which creates “Karen’s Homes” – fully-equipped and comfortable flats in close vicinity to hospitals where leukaemia patients and their families can stay during their treatment. I was honoured to be asked to be the charity’s patron.
The KMMT marks its 20th anniversary this month. Due to the indefatigable efforts of Sylvia, Debby and all its supporters, the charity has raised more than £3.5m since its launch. There are now four Karen’s Homes, in Hammersmith, Oxford, Cambridge and Birmingham, which have provided accommodation to thousands of patients and their families over the years.
Supporters have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the Homes by completing marathons, swims, bike rides, quizzes, Everest challenges and even a walk across the Great Wall of China.
In 2003, I spent one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life raising money for the Trust – fortunately without having to engage in any kind of sporting endeavour. It happened almost by accident when I was called by my agent.
“I had no idea you were going on Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? next week,” he said. At that point, nor did I.
It turned out that Vic Reeves had asked Bob Mortimer to go on with him, but Bob was too scared and suggested me instead. Except nobody had told me about it.
At the time, Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire? was one of the most-watched programmes on British TV, and one of the most terrifying for contestants. Thankfully, it’s not a show you can prepare for by swotting up. The experience was enormous fun. Vic is a much more intelligent man than I, and I’m not sure I was much help at all, but somehow we managed to win £125,000 – half of which went to the KMMT.
At that stage, when the programme was broadcast in 2003, the Trust was in its early years, so it was fantastic to win the money and get the chance to talk about its work on national television. It struck a chord with people then and it continues to do so today.
I’m certain my friendship with Karen would still be going strong today. She had a profound impact on all those lucky enough to have known her. And, through the work of the Trust and Homes that bear her name, her remarkable legacy will endure.