Former Scotland International rugby player Craig Chalmers and Freddie Farmer are swapping tales of physiotherapy sessions. The key to staving off boredom, they both agree, is making the experience fun.
When recovering from a knee injury, Chalmers used to balance on a wobble board and throw a physio ball against the wall. Every time he dropped the ball it was a wicket. Ten wickets and he was out.
“It’s unreal what a difference it makes when you make a game of it,” agrees Freddie. “Two hours have gone by, suddenly, and I think, ‘I can go home!’”
Chalmers may have 60 caps for Scotland, and been part of the British Lions, but 15-year-old Freddie has the edge when it comes to hours clocked up in the hands of physios.
Born prematurely at 28 weeks, weighing 2lbs 12oz, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months. Caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during, or soon after birth, cerebral palsy is the name for a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and co-ordination.
Freddie is quadriplegic, which means his cerebral palsy affects him all over. Intensive physio was essential to build the neural pathways needed to improve his mobility.
His mum, Deanne Catchesides, says, matter-of-factly: “Our options were either to leave him in a chair for the rest of his life or teach him what his body could do.” But the closest well-equipped physiotherapy centre was 100 miles away from the Farmers’ family home in Bromley, south-east London.
While Freddie made great progress, travelling to Oxford three times a year for two weeks at a time was costly, time-consuming and a strain on the family. It soon became clear that a centre nearer home would make a huge difference – and not just to their family.
So, in 2011, Deanne and her husband, Dean, set up the Freddie Farmer Foundation and launched the “Ready, Freddie, GO!” campaign to raise the £250,000 needed to set up a specialised physiotherapy centre for Freddie and children like him.
It was then that Freddie’s grandfather, a rugby fan, suggested they contact their local Wooden Spoon to help. The rugby-based children’s charity funds life-changing projects across the UK and Ireland to support children and young people with disabilities or those facing disadvantage. It is one of three charities supported by this year's Telegraph Christmas Appeal, along with Leukaemia Care and The Silver Line.
More than 400 committed volunteers help to raise funds in local communities up and down the country. The Farmers had found a building but it was all but derelict and needed extensive work if their dreams of a therapy room were to come true. It was precisely the kind of project that Wooden Spoon Kent was looking to fund and, in 2015, it helped to make the Spider Therapy Room happen, after raising £25,000.
“It was a wreck when they came and saw it,” says Deanne. “They believed in us and what we were going to achieve. Not many organisations would do that, and invest.” The Spider takes its name from a series of elastic ropes that create a web to support children while they are having physiotherapy, and allows them to exercise in any position – it’s a piece of equipment that Freddie has greatly benefited from.
Four years on, and Chalmers, a Wooden Spoon ambassador, is here to check out the Freddie Farmer Physiotherapy Centre, and to meet Freddie, of course. Your average teenager would find all the attention, cameras, journalists – and not least the presence of a former rugby international – overwhelming, but not Freddie.
He talks honestly and passionately about his life and ambitions. He and Chalmers click immediately. Physiotherapy isn’t the only thing they have in common. They’re both sports-mad and like to win. “On a Friday, we have a games day and it gets very competitive,” Freddie tells Chalmers, who chuckles, knowingly. “I don’t like losing and neither do a lot of the children here. It’s everyone for themselves.”
“I hate losing too!” says Chalmers. More than 75 children have been helped since the room opened, ranging in age from three to 16. Six children come for two weeks at a time, with two hours of physio each day. They then have an eight-week break before starting again.
The Foundation has a cosy but very practical flat attached to the building for those coming from further afield. They also have three full-time professional physiotherapists and an assistant based at the centre. Today, there are two children much younger than Freddie having physio in the Spider Therapy Room.
The belt and bungee cords are helping five-year-old Derby Murphy, who also has cerebral palsy, to be in an upright position. The joy of being able to move freely is written all over his face. Chalmers is clearly affected by the scene.
“The resilience and mental strength that all these kids have to have to come to this centre is fantastic,” he says. “It’s amazing to witness it first-hand.” The 51-year-old former fly-half has had his fair share of injuries. “I understand how hard it can be,” he says.
“I did my knee a couple of times and I was going into physio five hours a day. I know what you need to do to push yourself. You’ve got to be strong mentally, day-in and day-out.”
Freddie chips in: “It’s all about goals at the end of the day. I want to do it so I can get on my feet and be like everyone else. I’m not doing it for anyone else – I’m doing it for myself.”
In 2015, Freddie had an operation to take away the spasticity in his legs so that he could stand and walk. “The nerves in his spine were cut and now he can stand up and be so much stronger in his legs,” says Deanne.
It’s made a huge difference. “I stood for half an hour the other day,” says Freddie. The improvement means that he can help his mum and dad a lot more when they are moving him from either his bed to the shower, or his wheelchair.
As well as the Spider, the centre packs some pretty hefty equipment, such as an electromechanical gait trainer, called LokoHelp, that cost £55,000. Essentially a treadmill with a harness and clip-on boots, the repetitive movements help to create neural pathways. It can be quite boring though, says Freddie.
To make it more interesting, the children started having competitions to see who could go the longest. “We stopped because they would be on it for two hours, and that was a whole session,” says Deanne.
The record is two hours and 15 minutes, but the challenge is now capped at 20 minutes. “Or else they don’t get time for any other physio,” she says. It might sound like fun and games, but underneath it all there’s a drive that is astonishing and inspiring.
It can be hard sometimes, Freddie admits: “I just keep going, day by day. Sometimes I feel like giving up and then I think, ‘What am I doing this for? There’s never an end goal. You can always keep on going. One day, I might get to my end goal and there’s always another point.”
He’s off to college next year and hopes to study for a sports BTec. His dream is to become a football coach. “That’s my ambition,” he smiles. “But it’s no good just saying it – I’ve got to do it.”
He’s so grateful for the money Wooden Spoon has raised: “Without it, we couldn’t help all these children,” he says, gesturing around. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Every one in the room feels a bit teary, not least Chalmers. “It’s been great to come here and meet Freddie,” he says, ruffling his hair. “Except, of course, he’s a Millwall supporter.”
To make a donation to this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or call 0151 284 1927