Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

David Meade opens up about baby son's battle for life

Little George's mystery illness hit him like a 'car crash', as he tells Stephanie Bell

David Meade pictured with his son George
Television mentalist David Meade
David Meade with wife Elaine, daughter Tilly and son George

A super-happy wee boy who just giggles and giggles is how David Meade describes his baby son, who has faced a mountain of medical challenges since his birth just over a year ago.

Speaking for the first time about the heartache he and wife Elaine have faced since little George was born in January 2013, the TV star, mentalist and corporate speaker revealed that doctors are baffled by his son’s very complex symptoms.

Since his birth, little George has undergone surgery after surgery to correct faults with his major internal organs. He suffers countless seizures every day, even when he is sleeping, and is believed to have a syndrome so rare that a diagnosis still remains elusive. The top entertainer — who regularly wows audiences with his mind-bending tricks — has opened his heart about his family life while preparing to lend his support to Northern Ireland’s first-ever Great Ulster Pub Week, which kicked off yesterday.

Pub-goers in Portadown can prepare to be enthralled tonight as they are treated to a rare intimate performance by David in a special free ticket-only pop-up show at The Head O’The Road to mark the week-long event.

His enthusiasm for supporting the Great Ulster Pub Week is genuine, as he spent his teens working in the hospitality industry, where he met his wife Elaine, who is from Loughbrickland, when he was just 15.

The couple, who live in Banbridge, have two children -- Tilly (5) and George, who is just 15 months old -- and it's clear that both are the apple of David's eye.

He describes adorable Tilly with her mass of curly hair as "a wee dote" who is mesmerised by her daddy's appearances on the small screen.

"She is absolutely, entirely fascinated by the idea that daddy is on TV," he laughs. "I actually thought that when she is growing up and gets to the point that she understands I am on TV it would mean nothing to her, but I was so wrong.

"If I mention her on TV or say 'Hello Tilly', which I did on ITV's This Morning, she goes cock-a-hoop. For her, the real magic is the fact that I am on TV.

"She is really shy and I would love to try and increase her confidence; she is a girly girl, she loves clothes and fashion and the Disney Princesses and we are planning to bring her to Disneyland this year.

"If you've had a hard or a long day and you come back home, no matter what your day was like, she just fixes everything."

Last year was so tough on David (31) and Elaine (34) as they watched their baby son battling in hospital, that it is only now they are able to try and enjoy normal family life again.

The family is undergoing genetic testing as the baffled medical world try to identify what is causing little George's seizures.

David describes the shock of having to deal with their baby coping with so much as "like a car crash" which causes the body to go into automatic pilot and respond in a certain way.

Last year he had to cancel two tours to be by his son's bedside in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and pays heartfelt tribute to medical staff who helped carry them through.

"It's certainly not something you prepare for," he says. "It was a bit like a wake. When you have a sudden death in the family and you aren't prepared for it, the process of the wake carries you through it.

"So many things in the NHS kick into place and we felt extremely well supported. The medical staff at the Royal are true superheroes.

"I drove past the Royal for years and would have seen buckets with people collecting for it in Victoria Square and awkwardly looked to the left and pretended not to see them, but when you need them, these people are like riders on horseback. They spent as much time looking after us as they did George."

David reveals that little George was born with a frightening and complex number of defects in his main internal organs. In his first months he had to undergo a series of major operations to correct virtually every one of them, including his heart, bowel and valves, and while David and Elaine hope the worst in terms of surgery is behind their son, nothing is guaranteed.

"We are currently settling into trying to find what normality is for George," he says. "We don't have a diagnosis for his condition. He takes a huge amount of seizures every day, even while he is sleeping.

"The seizures have caused a lot of muscle damage, so he can't sit up, reach for toys or crawl, and there is no sign of him doing that yet.

"We don't think he has functional vision. There seems to be a two-second delay in him seeing anything.

"The doctors have never seen this composition of symptoms before and have said it is most definitely a syndrome of some sort. There are hundreds and hundreds of syndromes being discovered every day and they are doing everything they can to identify it.

"They are looking at the DNA sequences in all of us, not just George, and it could have been anything that caused it, even something as simple as me having a cold the week before he was born.

"We hope he has been through the worst of the big operations but he may need surgery on his eyes."

David describes George as "such a happy wee baby" who is always giggling and laughing and loves noises - "anything that rattles or squeaks or rustles."

He also reveals that cancelling those two tours last year hit the family income hard and David is especially mindful of the impact the hundreds of people who depended on him.

"There was a big financial impact for me and all the people who work on the tour - the road crew, sound men, all the venues. It was really challenging, but there was nowhere else we would rather have been than with George in the Royal to try and get him well."

Filming for David's hugely popular BBC TV series usually takes place during the summer months. This year, he is like a child looking forward to Christmas as he anticipates his first summer with his family, having just finished filming in the US.

"My wife's sister comes over from England every summer and they always go to Belfast Zoo," he says.

"Every year, something comes up and I can't go because I am working on the show. I've missed that family day out every summer and I'm just so excited to be able to go this year."

David's new series, to be screened in the autumn, promises something entirely new. He is just home after three weeks with his BBC crew in Las Vegas filming what he describes as his biggest show ever.

In it he pits his skills as a mentalist against the casinos to find out if there are tricks that can be used to increase a gambler's chance of winning.

There is a serious side to the show too, though, as David sets out to look at how people can lose their way in life through gambling, as well as demonstrating if techniques such as card counting and memory skills really do work.

It's a new approach, which he readily confesses has been developed to keep his show fresh. When David started his showbiz career five years ago, he was one of only two mentalists on TV. Today, with so much competition, he feels the pressure to keep ahead of his game.

"It's terrifying, to tell you the truth, for a number of reasons," he says. "The BBC has put a huge amount of trust in me for years now and I want to make sure I do the business for them. It's so congested now, with every channel having a mentalist, and for that reason we are trying to take the show in a slightly different direction.

"One way is to teach the audience some of the skills I have and how they can use them in everyday life. So we are trying to make the show still amazing but giving the audience a bit of 'take home'. It's like giving them a peek through the curtain of how I do things."

Before his career as a lecturer, TV star and corporate speaker, David worked in the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland, the UK and the US for several years until he was 21, doing a number of jobs -- from bar man to manager.

It's for this reason he has a real appreciation of the importance of an event like the Great Ulster Pub Week.

"I think it's brilliant. Pubs are a great way for the community to come together and they are an important part of the economy and they've had so many challenges.

"The smoking ban, which I personally think was a good thing, put them under pressure, as has the downturn in the economy, and I'm delighted to have the chance to give a big treat to those people who do support pubs."

With a room of just 50 people, tonight will be unique for David, who is used to playing to audiences of 1,000 in theatres or 600-plus during his many corporate events.

This time there is no place for Meade to hide; no camera tricks or mirrors as the audience get up close and personal with him as he attempts to make them believe he can control their minds.

He is relishing the challenge and intimacy of the small crowd, if only to thwart the doubters.

"Oh yes, when I do a show there are always people who will go on Twitter to say I am travelling around with the same crowd of 30 or 40 people who all agree with me," he says.

"Also, with the smaller crowd tonight, I can get to know their faces, the things they like or don't like and see what they think is funny or amazing or boring.

"In large rooms, you can't tell. I haven't done a show with only 50 people in years and I am really looking forward to it."

All tickets to the David Meade Great Ulster Pub Week pop-up show have now been allocated

Pubs primed for pop-up events

David’s show tonight is just one of the great events and surprises the public can expect to find in pubs during The Great Ulster Pub Week, which kicked off yesterday

Billed as the biggest pub-centric multi-venue event ever seen in Northern Ireland, it aims to showcase all that’s ‘great’ about the Ulster pub

Over 160 pubs across Northern Ireland are to be part of the celebration, staging hundreds of unique events to promote great food, great entertainment and great craic

For foodies, there’ll be special Great Ulster Pub Week menus in participating pubs, as well as wine and craft beer tastings and new cocktail list launches

And as the build-up for the Giro d’Italia continues, many pubs are dialling up the Pink Power, with special Giro-themed promotions, competitions and events running as part of their Great Ulster Pub Week programmes of activity

The special week got underway yesterday with a World Record attempt to stage the world’s largest simultaneous multi-venue pub quiz, in association with Downtown Radio, in aid of Cash for Kids

Pubs of Ulster will also be sending a touring magician and caricature artist around Northern Ireland to provide further surprise pop-up entertainment to unsuspecting customers in participating pubs

Caricature artist, Brian John Spencer, will be doing live portraits in pubs across Northern Ireland, while magician Rodd Hogg will shock and awe customers with his mind-boggling magic tricks

A special promo video, filmed by local filmmaker, Ben Price, and soundtracked by local band, Pretty Child Backfire, can also be viewed at Youtube.com/greatulsterpubweek

For further details on events and promotions, visit www.greatulsterpubweek.com or find The Great Ulster Pub Week on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and Instagram using the hashtag, #UlsterPubWeek

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