When actor Matt Barber lines up with thousands of runners to raise funds for Great Ormond Street
Hospital’s Children’s Charity next month, he will have his own poignant reason for taking part.
Matt, best known for playing dashing young aristocrat Atticus Aldridge in the ITV period drama Downton Abbey, spent the first month of his life at the world-famous London children’s hospital after having life-saving surgery.
“Honestly, I simply wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Great Ormond Street Hospital – they saved my life,” says Matt, 36, who lives with his wife Cecelia in West London.
Now he’s one of the charity’s celebrity supporters, and as the RBC Race for the Kids celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, he’s hoping 10,000 people will join him in Hyde Park for the 5km run.
The money raised will go towards research into pioneering treatments, fresh equipment and refurbishment.
Matt’s mother Susan was seven months pregnant with him when she fell ill.
She and husband Peter, a solicitor, already had a toddler daughter, Abi.
“Mum went to her GP and they couldn’t work out what was wrong with her,” explains Matt. “But they also couldn’t find my heartbeat.”
Susan, a barrister, was referred to Hammersmith Hospital, West London, where she was admitted for tests.
Matt adds: “It appeared there was something wrong with me that was making her very ill.
“The hospital said they would have to do an emergency caesarian section.
“Their plan was to save my mum’s life and try and work out what was wrong with me.”
Within hours of being born – two months premature – Matt was rushed by ambulance to Great Ormond Street Hospital, dad Peter by his side, while Susan remained in Hammersmith Hospital.
“Mum wasn’t in a good state and the doctors weren’t sure if I would make it through the night,” says Matt.
“They didn’t know what was wrong with me. They had to operate the next day to find out.
“Mum managed to get to see me just before the operation.”
It turned out that Matt – who at that stage was only slightly bigger than one of his father’s hands – had mesoblastic nephroma, a rare, non-cancerous kidney tumour which is usually diagnosed before babies are a month old.
“My parents were told I had a kidney that hadn’t formed properly and the only information about my condition at that time was a footnote in a book,” says Matt. “But doctors said the operation would resolve it.
“Mum used to tell me when I was a kid that she took one look at the surgeon’s massive hands and wondered how he was going to operate on something so small.”
Luckily, Matt was in very good hands.
His consultant was Edward Kiely, one of the UK’s most experienced paediatric surgeons, who went on to become known for separating conjoined twins.
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With the affected kidney removed, Matt was transferred to an incubator in intensive care.
His parents were with him every day, often bringing sister Abi to visit.
“My mum said it was really tricky because children weren’t allowed in the canteen at the hospital back then, so they had to eat in a corridor,” says Matt.
“It’s amazing that has stayed in her memory all these years. That’s the difference between the hospital then and now though.
“I’ve seen some of the family care facilities at the hospital. There’s a real awareness now that it’s not just about the children who are being cared for – their siblings and parents need a huge amount of support too.”
After a month in hospital, Matt went from strength to strength, and his only restrictions for the future were that he wasn’t allowed to play rugby or ride a motorbike.
The family then moved from Hammersmith to Farnham, Surrey, where Matt went to primary school.
“I have a massive scar across my stomach, just under my ribs,” says Matt.
“I told people it was a shark bite. Once I even said I was lying on a flower bed in the garden and my dad stuck a spade through me.
“I used to get a stitch just under the scar when I was a little kid walking to school. I always put it down to the operation as it was where my scar was.”
But the tough start in life didn’t hold Matt back.
A talented musician who played the bassoon, saxophone and piano, he won scholarships to both his secondary schools – The Pilgrims’ School at Winchester Cathedral, where he was a chorister, and Bradfield College in Berkshire, where he went on to become head boy.
It was while he was studying classics and philosophy at Durham University that he veered more towards acting than music. After graduation, he did a post-grad course at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Playing the Honourable Ephraim Atticus Aldridge, son of Lord and Lady Sinderby, in Downton Abbey in 2014 and 2015 is Matt’s career highlight to date.
He isn’t in the Downton Abbey film out next month – he and Lady Rose, played by Lily James, were last seen heading for New York.
But he’s looking forward to seeing it.
“Downton Abbey was an incredible experience,” says Matt, whose character married Lady Rose just as he proposed to his real-life girlfriend, singer-songwriter Cecelia de Lisle.
Yet though his career and personal life were flourishing, Matt still felt a tug towards Great Ormond Street Hospital, but he wasn’t sure how he could help.
It was in 2016 when he played Fred, an impoverished writer, opposite Pixie Lott’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s at Haymarket Theatre that things started to happen. Pixie staged a charity night for a homelessness charity and Matt realised he might be able to do similar work for GOSH.
“By chance, I bumped into someone who introduced me to the artist liaison manager at Great Ormond Street Hospital,” he recalls.
“We had a meeting and I started to get involved. I read at a carol service, and for the last couple of years I have hosted the carol services.”
Over the last 10 years, RBC Race for the Kids has raised more than £5million for the hospital’s children’s charity.
In 2017, Matt couldn’t take part because of a ligament injury to his knee, but he helped set the run off with a klaxon.
“The atmosphere was electric,” he says. “It wasn’t about winning. It was about completing it together. Some people walked, others ran. Some were on scooters or in wheelchairs.
“There were some astonishing stories and a real sense of celebration.”
Matt can’t wait to cross the start line himself. He’s been training three times a week in Acton Park, near his home.
“For me, Race for the Kids won’t be about the running,” he says.
“If I cross the finish line, great, but it’s about helping this amazing hospital that does so much good work, and to which I owe my life.”
- Race for the Kids, sponsored by Royal Bank of Canada, is on October 12, 2019.
- To register, go to gosh.org/RBCraceforthekids .