Captain Rob Anders, 49, from Suffolk served in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for 30 years, with his last role being that of Deputy Commodore. He was awarded an OBE in March 2020 for leading the rescue in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian that hit the Bahamas in September 2019. In November of that year, he was also asked to read the Citation to open the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Last December, in the midst of his successful career, Rob was diagnosed with a Grade 4 Glioblastoma. He died suddenly only days later following a large seizure the day before he was due to have surgery.
He left behind his wife of 18 years, Phillipa, and their two teenage children Nell, 16, and 14-year-old Will. The family have been piecing their lives back together whilst supporting The Brain Tumour Charity by raising over £16,000 for the organisation which is the world’s leading brain tumour charity and the largest dedicated funder of research into brain tumours globally.
Despite their trauma, the family is trying to look to the future and ensure that Rob lives on in all that they do. They have drawn together some ‘life lessons’ from their collective experiences with him which they hope will shape, influence and parent them now that Rob is no longer able to do so in person.
Phillipa said: “We all try to have a “what would Dad do?” mind set when approaching difficult questions or challenges in our lives. We want to keep his values as well as his kind and courageous spirit alive in any way that we can.
“Rob would always say if he saw something which wasn’t quite right. He was always looking out for other people and he would stand up for what he believed in. He taught us all to be honest and to say what we think.
“Rob was from a big family and that meant everything to him. He worked hard to achieve what he did and his work ethic meant that he wasn’t afraid to just muck in and get on with things.”
The respect, admiration and camaraderie which Rob had attracted both professionally and personally was reflected at his Committal of Ashes at Sea ceremony in August 2021. Many people attended to share the personal memories of how they would remember Rob.
Phillipa said: “Rob was in a position of strong leadership as Captain of the ships he worked on. That kind of role and circumstance could be quite isolating, but Rob would walk around the ship, learn absolutely everyone’s names and give out sweets to them all. He knew everyone personally and genuinely so he could ensure they were getting on OK and so they knew that they could come to him if they needed anything. He could be imposing but really he was a teddy bear.”
Despite their obvious love for him, the family acknowledge that no one is perfect and so they will also learn from what Rob didn’t do.
Phillipa said: “Rob was very stubborn and he would never admit when he was wrong. For example, he found a very dated book on local walks for our daily outings during Lockdown last summer. He took on the role of navigator – just like he had done professionally – but we got completely lost and, on one occasion, we even got chased by wild boar! He still didn’t admit that we were lost and refused to let go of his role as ‘chief navigator’. However, even on that day, we still had fun and we took home a positive experience of never giving up.
The family say that Rob was also incredibly competitive. When Nell was studying for her History GCSE, Rob sat some practice papers with her to compete on who could get the highest score – a teacher even offered to mark them both. Nell never actually told her dad that he scored higher than her.
Nell said: “Dad’s coping mechanism was humour and so is mine. During that short time following his diagnosis before he passed away, he would try his best to make us laugh or to tell silly jokes. It’s how he got through it all.
“One day Dad couldn’t walk and then the next day he couldn’t talk. He started falling over regularly which he would turn it into a joke by commando crawling across the floor. We could all see that he was clearly embarrassed by what was happening and that really ate me up inside.
“Conversations changed from Dad saying that ‘we would all be OK’ to ‘you will all be OK’ just a couple of days later – he knew what was happening and that it didn’t look good. We had only just begun to process his diagnosis and then Dad died.
“Dad taught us all so much – not least that you should never do DIY if you can pay someone else to do it instead! Things that he built or did around the house never lasted for long, but he always gave it a go before getting the professionals in!”
It was last December when everything changed for the Anders family. Rob was working at Navy Headquarters in Portsmouth when he got in touch to say that he hadn’t been feeling well. He had been having a mild pins and needles sensation in his left arm for a number of weeks which had initially been put down to stress. But the intensity and frequency had increased until he was experiencing a strong sensation 20 to 30 times a day in his face, body and leg all down his left side.
The decision was made for him to come home and go to the GP. From there, here was sent straight to A&E at Ipswich Hospital where he stayed for five days as his symptoms got progressively worse. The Covid pandemic was in full swing at this time which meant that the family couldn’t be together. Rob was admitted for tests, including an MRI scan, which confirmed that there was a 7-9cm mass on his brain.
After those five days Rob was sent home as the hospital was worried about the rising number of Covid cases. He then had to wait for a referral for treatment at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge – two hours away from the family home.
A few days later, the mass was confirmed to be a Grade 4 Glioblastoma and Rob was given a prognosis of just 12-18 months. Urgent surgery was scheduled for the following week in the hope of giving him the longest amount of time possible with his loved ones.
The heartbroken family spent time together planning what the next few months would look like and how they would keep things ticking over as Rob had his treatment. They spent what would end up being their last weekend together snuggled up in bed, reading, watching their favourite TV and films and eating good food.
Phillipa said: “If we had known that it would be our last weekend together then we wouldn’t have done anything differently – it was the perfect way to spend that time as a family.
“During that time, Rob became very obsessed with his phone – he had loads of acquaintances and a small number of close friends so he was calling people who he hadn’t spoken to in a long time and he posted lots of very ‘him’ jokes on Facebook. He was so determined to get through all this but none of us had any way of knowing how quickly it would all happen.”
The night before the scheduled surgery, Rob was struggling to sleep and he kept thrashing around in the bed next to Phillipa as well as going regularly hot and cold. Phillipa initially thought that maybe he was anxious about what the next day had in store. But, knowing that something wasn’t right, she called NHS 111 who told her to go to A&E. They decided to all make the two-hour drive to Addenbrookes Hospital instead as Rob was due to be admitted there later that day.
Phillipa said: “At 4am, it took me and the kids half an hour to get Rob down the stairs and into the car so that we could drive through the night to arrive at the hospital very early that morning. Because of Covid, the kids had to stay in the car and, with the assistance of a security guard and a nurse who regularly checked on them, that’s where they stayed for the next seven hours while Rob was assessed.”
Around 30 minutes after arriving, Phillipa and Rob were in a hospital cubicle when she had to shout for help as Rob suddenly made an odd noise, went a strange colour and his body flopped. A team of 15 medical professionals came and resuscitated him after Rob had his first seizure.
The doctors suspected and later confirmed that there was a cyst, larger than the actual tumour, at the back of Rob’s brain which was putting massive amounts of pressure on his brain. Rob was admitted and taken to a ward so Phillipa went home as the medical team promised to keep in touch with her.
Nell and Will couldn’t go into the hospital due to the Covid restrictions in place at the time, which was heartbreaking for them all. They had taken snacks, blankets and a laptop with them for the journey which were then incredibly useful when trying to pass the hours. Nell and Will spent time watching programmes including The Office and The IT Crowd. The pandemic also meant that other family members, including Rob’s Mum, Dad and three brothers couldn’t visit him during this time either.
Nell said: “We knew Dad wasn’t well and he got progressively worse on the car journey too. He had been gagging and needed to stick his head out of the car window to try and help.
“I thought that we would see Dad again tomorrow so we just sat there wondering what was happening. I asked the nurse who kept checking on us how Dad was but she said that our mum would tell us.”
The family had a dinner of fish and chips followed by ice cream as they tried to mentally process all that had been happening and talk through how things would work going forward. After the meal, the consultant contacted them to say an MRI scan would be carried out ahead of the operation which would aim to remove as much of the tumour as possible. He said he would next contact the family again the next day when the operation was over.
But a few hours later, the phone rang again and a nurse told Phillipa that she should return to the hospital as quickly as possible. She left the children in the care of a neighbour and made the two-hour trip again. The nurse who had called her was waiting in the hospital car park for her to arrive. Phillipa was told that, on the way to the MRI scan, Rob had a huge seizure which had lasted two hours.
Phillipa said: “The medical team told me that normally a person wouldn’t survive such a massive seizure. They actually didn’t know how he had got through it. But, they did know that there was now nothing which could be done at all as he was in a comatose state. All medication and treatment was stopped – I was just to be with him until the time came.
“Rob had told me before being admitted for the operation: “If I can’t be me then I don’t want to be here” so letting him go is what I know he would have wanted. I just kept talking to him about anything and everything – our memories, his work, our incredible children, I sang, told jokes, just kept on talking and holding his hand – with no idea how much time we had. I did promise that I would give up my job with an arts charity to make sure that the kids came first, so that’s what I soon did.”
Phillipa sat next to Rob and talked to him for around an hour with one hand under his hospital gown so she could feel his heart – so therefore knew precisely when he passed away. She called a nurse who came to confirm what had happened and then the nurse spent some time with Phillipa talking about Rob and the impact he had made in the world for around an hour too.
Phillipa said: “It felt so wrong to leave the hospital without Rob next to me – it was such a calm and clear night, eerily peaceful, and I called my sister who lives in America so she could talk to me whilst I made the long journey back home. I thought I would need to tell the children when I got home – but they already knew.”
Nell and Will had been at home throughout this time with possibly an innate knowledge of what was happening to their dad.
The following day, the family tried their best to keep things as normal as possible and they spent the day getting the last bits of Christmas shopping. With Covid restrictions in place, the family then spent Christmas Day together at home.
Phillipa said: “The kids didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to their dad. Will remembers helping him out of the car into a wheelchair at Addenbrokes Hospital and him mumbling: “I love you and I’ll see you soon.” Not being able to say goodbye was hard. It meant that if we saw people breaking Covid rules, we would get very angry.
“The rest of Rob’s family have, of course, been hit very hard by Rob’s death. The fact that they couldn’t see him was heartbreaking. We’ve all pulled together and supported each other which is exactly what Rob would have wanted.”
After such a fast loss, the family now had the time to process what had happened to them and to confront their individual grief.
Phillipa said: “Everything that happened was such a whirlwind. When something like that happens, you have to deal with the practical stuff and you don’t really have the time or capacity to deal with the trauma and the emotional side of it. It was a way to protect our emotions at the time as it was only 10 days but, by the end of it all, we were exhausted.
“Really, it may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise that things happened so quickly – we just had to make it all up at the time as there was no opportunity to stop and think. The treatment would have destroyed him which would have been too much for us to witness him going through.”
Nell and Will have also been handling their grief in recent months with the help of counsellors. Thanks to this support, Nell has now stopped taking the anti-depressants she was prescribed in the immediate aftermath of her dad’s death.
The family has chosen to support The Brain Tumour Charity in the hope of finding a cure for the disease which reduces life expectancy for an average of 27 years – the highest of any cancer type. They used the charity’s website as a vital source of information during the difficult time following Rob’s diagnosis and credit the organisation for the work it does to help those affected by a brain tumour diagnosis.
Phillipa said: “I had never even heard of a Glioblastoma before Rob’s diagnosis so getting accurate information on what it actually meant was vital. Fundraising for The Brain Tumour Charity has given us a positive focus as we feel like we can help someone else who may be affected by a diagnosis in some way. Maybe something positive could come from something so awful. The Brain Tumour Charity has been incredibly warm and welcoming to us all and we’re so appreciative of that.”
The family has been fundraising by holding many different events including walking a marathon over the February half term with all the Scouts in their local troop also taking on the challenge. Will also organised and completed a 12 and 24 hour gaming live stream in memory of his dad.
Nell added: “We are supporting The Brain Tumour Charity as we want to do whatever we can to ensure that other people don’t have to go through what we have. The Charity has lots of great resources for finding out facts in an honest and not scary way rather than just Googling for information.”