I have known Lulu Gibbons since she was a baby. In fact, we first met before she was born. Her mother announced her pregnancy as we sat side by side on a Hong Kong bus travelling to Stanley Market on the far side of the island. I was just about the start work as a foreign correspondent and her mother was on a return visit to the territory where she and her family had lived for nearly two years. As the bus rumbled on over The Peak we compared notes on our families.
It was a few years before I saw Lulu again but when I did it was obvious she had two outstanding qualities; she was extremely determined and very kind. Sure, she was pretty, sociable and smart but, in my mind at least, all of those traits paled beside her unrelenting focus and genuine compassion.
As an academically able child she passed the entrance exam to Lady Eleanor Holles in Hampton. She coped with her studies very well and sailed through her GCSEs. She was always an active young girl and it came as no surprise to me when she joined the school’s excellent rowing squad. Several years later I realised just what this involved when my own daughter started rowing for Surbiton High School. The early morning starts are a particularly painful memory.
But just after Christmas 2012 as she headed toward her GCSEs Lulu began suffering from severe stomach pains that left her writhing on the ground in agony. Her weight dropped drastically over a matter of weeks, not least because eating anything would lead excruciating cramps and then exhaustion. On one occasion her mother, Ann, called for an ambulance.
It was several months before Lulu was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. A medically qualified family friend was able to speed up the process but in that time’s Lulu’s weight dropped even further. At one stage she weighed 55 kilograms even though she is nearly six feet tall. She lost 10 kilograms in weight in total, at one point losing five kilograms in two weeks. Holding together her academic life was hard and rowing became impossible.
“I had never known pain like it,” Lulu told me recently. “Sometimes I felt like I would pass out. I was on the floor, curled up in the foetal position. Nothing seemed to help. In the end, I actually became too scared to eat. I was frightened because we didn’t know what was wrong.”
“The diagnosis was a relief. At first I thought, why do I have this rubbish thing. I will have to go to hospital every two months during my A Levels and, at the time, I was off school, for at least two days every month because I was sick.”
“Then I thought, it could be a lot worse. I could have had cancer. I did the research. I knew it was a lifelong, chronic condition but I also believed that with the right approach you could grow out of it – or at least neutralize the symptoms.”
So when it came to thinking about her gap year expedition, Lulu had grave concerns that she wouldn’t be able to go at all. “There were loads of times I thought I might not be able to go but I just kept going with my plans on the assumption that I would find solutions along the way.”
Lulu’s treatment plan came together. She was put on steroids at the beginning, then received an infusion of Inflixamab every six weeks and was prescribed Azathioprine, a drug which she takes every day. Colonoscopies became routine. She gained weight and became strong enough to handle her school studies and work part-time to finance her global adventure.
She saved for two years with baby-sitting, helping her Mum’s flower business, waitressing at the Farmery and then again in the VIP lounge at the Wimbledon Championships. Then she asked me if she could volunteer for the Victoria Foundation, where I am an Ambassador. I was impressed. I have been a journalist for thirty years and I can honestly say she is one of the most remarkable young women I have ever met.
“This was something I had always wanted to do. I worked hard and got good grades but it was really important to me that I travelled first. I wanted to be out on my own, to really be myself. It is only one year and I thought it would provide me with the right foundation for life at university.”
Now the ulcers, which at one stage covered the length of her intestinal tract, have gone. Lulu has been diligent with her diet and lifestyle. She doesn’t eat diary or meat, only small amounts of processed foods, no spicy food and nothing that will ferment in her gut. She will always have to be diligent but she is a strong girl.
One hour after the photo shoot for the cover of this magazine she was back at University College Hospital for the results of a colonoscopy she’d had a week earlier. The day before she left she had a final infusion of Inflixamab which should take her through to the next leg of her trip. She had a full medical in order to get her Australian visa and, of course, there is always the prospect of a relapse when she is far from home.
So Lulu is going to keep us posted on how it all goes in her column, Love from Lulu. The first instalment is on page xx. She has just left Thailand. It’s a paradise which, for her, is minus the Thai Green Curry. She is now in Australia. She’s there for the first part of next year and then she travels on to the US.
Next autumn she’s off to Exeter University to study geography and economics.
Lucky Lulu. Lucky Exeter.
Photography: Fiona Fletcher
©RiverTribe Magazine 2017