'Instinct told me the doctors were wrong'

by Catherine O'Brien for YOU Magazine first published 12th October 2014

Headaches, shaking, drowsiness – her son’s symptoms were deemed ‘probably nothing’ by his doctors but, as celebrity hair colourist Louise Galvin tells Catherine O’Brien, she knew they were signs that something was wrong. 

Louise at home with her children, from left, Ophelia, Daniel and Eleanor

Louise at home with her children, from left, Ophelia, Daniel and Eleanor

For most mothers of small children, late afternoon is when squabbles break out and tiredness and hunger levels reach a tipping point. In short, it is not normally the best time to conduct an interview. But Louise Galvin has insisted that 4pm is fine, and sure enough, when I turn up at the allotted hour, all is calm. Ophelia, seven, is about to begin a Kumon maths session, while Daniel, four, and Eleanor, two, are quietly enjoying a stopgap biscuit before tea. As for Louise, she projects such serenity in her loose-fitting shirt and skinny jeans, you’d think she’d just come in from a yoga session, rather than a full day at work.

Louise’s days are spent at the London salon owned by her father Daniel Galvin – the stylist credited with giving Twiggy her blonde crop, Princess Diana her highlights and a whole host of celebrities, from Sharon Osbourne to Nicole Kidman, their camera-ready tresses. As a hair colourist par excellence herself, Louise’s own clients include Samantha Cameron, Patsy Kensit and Sophie Dahl – all of whom value her ability to deliver not only fabulous-looking hair, but also a five-star relaxation experience.

Daniel now ‘leads a normal life'

Daniel now ‘leads a normal life'

Creating an aura of tranquillity is part of Louise’s professional tool kit and, at first glance, it is something she has seamlessly replicated in her home. She and her television executive husband Charlie Bracken live in a sumptuously renovated six-storey house in Kensington, where the neutral colour palette and elegant furnishings provide the perfect backdrop for their collection of 1950s abstracts. To almost any other visitor, it is a peaceful haven, but today Louise has invited me here to talk publicly for the first time about a painfully dark chapter in their lives.

Two years ago, Charlie and Louise sat before a consultant paediatrician and heard the news that every parent dreads – their son Daniel had a brain tumour. ‘When I think back to that moment, my overriding memory is of my legs buckling and panic invading my whole body,’ says Louise. ‘And even now, when I hold Daniel close, I feel tears welling up inside and tell myself we are just so lucky not to have lost him.’

Daniel is Charlie and Louise’s first child together. Charlie, 47, has four teenagers from an earlier marriage and similarly Louise has Ophelia, so their son’s arrival in 2010 cemented their blended family. And, until he was 17 months old, Daniel was the picture of blossoming good health. But in the early summer of 2012, Louise noticed that, despite the fact he had already been walking for four months, her son was struggling for balance. ‘He was also sleepier than usual and shaky when he woke up in the mornings,’ she recalls. ‘And he kept saying that his head hurt.’

Louise had only recently given birth to Eleanor and they were about to go on holiday, but she was concerned enough to take Daniel to their GP, who assured her there was ‘nothing to worry about’. She also, while taking Eleanor for a postnatal hospital check-up, sought a second opinion about Daniel. Again she was reassured that his symptoms were ‘probably nothing’ and she should keep an eye on him and bring him back if she continued to have worries.

Daniel was sleepier than usual and kept saying that his head hurt

The family went to Ibiza, where they have a villa, but the anxious niggle at the back of Louise’s mind would not go away. And, although Daniel was not overly poorly, he wasn’t himself either. On their return to the UK, Louise tried a different tack – she sought the opinion of a podiatrist who agreed that Daniel’s walking was ‘not great’, but like the doctors Louise had seen previously, suggested a watch-and-wait strategy. Finally a chance conversation with a friend led Louise to paediatrician Dr Michael Markiewicz at London’s Cromwell Hospital. ‘He said, “You are right, something is wrong,” and although in one sense, it was the last thing I wanted to hear, it was also a huge relief to know that we were now going to exhaust every avenue,’ she says.

Dr Markiewicz organised blood tests followed by a CT scan, which showed hydrocephalus – once known as ‘water on the brain’. And to find the cause of the hydrocephalus, Daniel then had an MRI scan, which showed a growth the size of a tangerine in his cerebellum – the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in motor control.

‘As soon as he got the results, he called us in and told us Daniel was going to need urgent surgery,’ says Louise. ‘And that was when our world shifted on its axis.’ Three days later, Daniel’s tumour was removed by an expert team in a six-hour operation at Great Ormond Street Hospital. The best news – which came with test results the following week – was that it was benign. 

Some of the incredible work done at Great Ormond Street Hospital

Louise and family outside their Kensington home

Louise and family outside their Kensington home

But still Daniel faced a long road to recovery. He needed to learn to sit, stand and walk all over again. He also developed posterior fossa syndrome, a temporary but distressing condition which, in Daniel’s case, caused spikes in his body temperature and mood swings. ‘He wouldn’t eat or drink and didn’t want anyone near him, which was very upsetting,’ says Louise. Six weeks later, as the family celebrated Christmas, Daniel finally had a smile on his face. ‘Only then did it feel like we were getting our little boy back at last.’

Almost two years on, Daniel is a happy, chatty boy who loves nothing better than running around with his sisters.

He is still working on his fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil, but otherwise, says Louise, ‘he leads a normal life’. However, the worrying times for Louise and Charlie are not completely over. Daniel has needed ongoing monitoring because surgeons were not able to remove his entire tumour. A tiny – 5mm – part of tissue remains, because, Louise explains, ‘it was in too awkward a place for them to get it out safely’. It means that Daniel must have regular scans to check for any regrowth – and initially the tumour did grow, although it has now stalled. 

Louise with her husband Charlie

Louise with her husband Charlie

‘As each appointment approaches, I have sleepless nights, and the most frustrating thing of all is that we know this could have been avoided,’ she says. Doctors have told Louise and Charlie that had there been an MRI scanner in the operating theatre they would have been able to scan Daniel during surgery and press ahead with the delicate removal process, ensuring that he came out tumour-free. Theatre MRI scanners are available in some other UK cities, but there isn’t one in Great Ormond Street. ‘It’s all down to funding,’ says Louise. ‘They need £2 million and I am going to be relentless in raising that money so that other children and parents don’t have to suffer in the way we have.’

With her huge hazel eyes and honey-kissed hair, Louise may look irrepressibly girlish, but she talks like a woman who means business. ‘I’m a natural optimist, and professionally I’ve always relied on my training and experience,’ she says. ‘But I’m also at that age where I’ve started to appreciate the value of my intuition.’

Now in her mid-40s, Louise is the eldest of Daniel and Mavis Galvin’s three children. Her parents met while working as stylists in the same Knightsbridge salon and by the time Louise came along, Daniel, the son of a humble barber, was making his name as a protégé of the legendary Leonard. Louise’s childhood was always tinged with glamour – as a small girl, she remembers her father driving a Rolls-Royce – but she also grew up understanding that hard work was paramount. When she was nine, she remembers her father coming home in a beaten-up yellow Toyota and explaining that he’d sold the Roller because all his money was going into starting up his own business. ‘My dad is someone who would never spend more than he earns,’ she explains.

Consequently, although home for Louise and her brothers Daniel Junior, now 43, and James, now 39, was a luxurious five-bedroomed house in Hertfordshire and they attended private schools, they didn’t have a family holiday abroad for seven years. ‘And when we did finally go away to a hotel, we were banned from touching the mini bar,’ she recalls.

Even now, when I hold Daniel close, I feel tears welling up inside

While her brothers were mischievous, Louise was the responsible big sister. ‘I was a good girl who did her homework, respected authority and always did what she was told.’ From the age of 11, she worked in her father’s salon on Saturdays, starting as the cloakroom girl and eventually graduating to washing hair and assisting senior stylists. Although academically able (she acquired a degree in literature and sociology in her early 30s), she left school at 16 and initially worked for public relations guru Lynne Franks before, along with her brothers, gravitating towards the family business.

Louise is extremely close to her mother (who gave up hairdressing to raise her own children, but has always played a crucial background role in the running of the salon). ‘When Daniel was ill, she moved in with us and I couldn’t have got through it without her,’ Louise says. But her relationship with her father sounds more complex. ‘I love him very much, but I have never been a daddy’s girl. He was tough on me always. When I started out in the salon he instructed the receptionists that they were not to book me clients – I had to build my reputation by recommendation. With my brothers, it was the opposite – he wanted them kept busy all the time. I can’t explain why he was like that. There is a lot of him in me – we share the same drive – and maybe that is why we clash sometimes. But I still totally respect him.’

Daniel playing piano

Daniel playing piano

Her father’s exacting stance paid off in terms of Louise’s professional success. She built a network of clients and for a while her career took her to Canada, where she set up a Galvin franchise and trained a team of colourists. Back in London, she launched her own award-winning products – collaborating with a French chemist to banish all ‘nasties’, including parabens, petrochemicals and silicone, which, she points out, destroys our hair’s natural ability to shine. Her Sacred Locks range of shampoos and conditioners is made using only natural ingredients and has been endorsed by many of Louise’s celebrity clients, including Cara Delevingne and Amanda Holden.

On a personal level, however, things didn’t always go so smoothly. In the mid-noughties, Louise had a brief, disastrous marriage which fell apart two weeks after the birth of Ophelia. Again, Louise’s father took a tough line. ‘I was back at work after eight weeks’ maternity leave. I had a mortgage to pay and he made it clear I had to be self-sufficient.’ It was a crunch time for Louise and she sought counselling to get her through it. ‘I have learnt that I don’t have to be gung ho and that I should give myself time to think things through.’

After three years of single motherhood, she met Charlie through a mutual friend. ‘We both had a bit of a Jerry Springer story,’ she says, alluding obliquely to their earlier marriages. ‘But we are also both positive and forward-looking. On our fifth date, he said, “I think this is it,” and I felt the same. He is everything I ever wanted.’

I’ll raise money relentlessly so that other parents don’t suffer in the way we have

Charlie and Louise celebrated their marriage with a lavish party at Claridge’s five years ago, and today, like those of most parents, their lives are a constant juggling act. Cambridge graduate Charlie is the financial brains behind cable TV giant Liberty Global and Louise continues to combine her salon work and products business with motherhood. But coping with the trauma of Daniel’s illness has focused their priorities and brought them even closer together. ‘We don’t take a single day for granted,’ says Louise. ‘I try to be relaxed and I don’t want to mollycoddle, but I’m so relieved that I kept searching for an answer to Daniel’s illness. That’s what I truly learned through this experience. I’m grateful that my son is alive and I’m also more determined than ever to trust my instincts.’

To help Louise raise money for an MRI scanner for Great Ormond Street Hospital, go to justgiving.com/Louise-Galvin

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