Recovering: Charlotte is now raising money for charity after her kidney transplant
Little did she know it, but when Charlotte Gordon Cumming fell down a rabbit hole while playing football with her young son, it saved her life. The singer-songwriter broke her ankle and was in so much pain that at lunch the next day she could barely eat. ‘I had three mouthfuls out of politeness,’ she says. ‘My husband had cooked the food, so I felt I should. If I’d had any more, I’d be dead.’
For that now notorious meal consisted of wild mushrooms cooked in butter and parsley. Charlotte’s husband, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, had picked them that morning in a wood on her brother Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming’s Scottish estate. The mushrooms were not edible ceps, as everyone thought, but deadly webcaps and 36 hours later all three were in the local hospital. By the end of the week they were in Aberdeen’s Royal Infirmary, critically ill and on dialysis. The poison had annihilated their kidneys; only a transplant could give them back their lives.
That was four years ago. Last summer, Nicholas’s health was deteriorating to such an extent that he accepted a kidney from his daughter Lauren. And three months ago, Charlotte, 54, had a kidney transplant thanks to the generosity of the mother of her son’s best friend. Speaking to her now, you would never guess all she has been through. Slim and petite, her hair is shiny, her skin rosy and she laughs often. ‘I think I look healthier now than I did before my poisoning,’ she says, sitting in the couple’s flat in Battersea, South London. ‘I’ve now got this 34-year-old kidney in me, so that’s 20 years younger than me. ‘The transplant went very smoothly. I was with my lovely donor, Serena. I was in hospital a week, which was pretty good going, and Serena was out in three days. It’s uncomfortable and you’re dealing with a large scar, but you wake up from it with a very positive feeling. Mainly, you just think, “Wow, no more dialysis.” ’
When Charlotte was told that she would have to go on dialysis – which involves being attached to a machine that filters the blood as the kidneys would – she had no idea how grueling it would be. She explains: ‘I thought it would be for a few weeks or months. ‘The first year, the poison was still in our systems. Because your blood is being churned around the body, the poison is as well. I was physically sick for eight months, every day. It was very intense. ‘We had to go three times a week to the hospital in Exeter. I was on the machine for three hours, Nick for five. It was harrowing. It is like a prison. But the worst thing is you are kept alive by a machine. That is nerve-racking. What if there’s a power cut? ‘Once the blood has been circulated through the machine, it comes back cold. They cover you in blankets but the cold is so internal, you can’t get warm. You come off feeling as if you’ve done ten rounds. And I was on it for four years.’
While Nick and Sir Alastair, both 62, went on to the NHS donor list, which provides organs from people who have died, Charlotte refused. She says: ‘For the first year, I was too ill to even contemplate the process. I also looked into other ways of cleaning out my blood and staying alive.’ She explored the Chinese qigong system, which focuses on posture, breathing and intention, and the Japanese healing practice reiki. ‘I went to California for three weeks to work with the qigong master,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure how much I want to say as it was quite “out there”. I did a rebirthing and they also detoxed me with natural herbs. I did reiki and still do reiki on myself. ‘In this country, white-coated doctors are gods to some, whereas I have always been open-minded.’ She admits her engagement with alternative medicine was a source of friction with her husband. She says: ‘We had very different ways of dealing with it and that caused a lot of anxiety on his part, but I don’t know any other way to be.’
Charlotte Gardon Cumming and Nicholas Evans at home in Devon. Both fell ill after Nicholas cooked poisonous mushrooms for lunch
Charlotte’s family have grown used to her non-conformist take on life. The daughter of clan chief Sir William Gordon Cumming, she grew up on the family’s idyllic 13,000-acre Altyre Estate, in Forres, Moray Shire, where Nicholas picked the mushrooms. She says: ‘I think my father was expecting me to marry a rich farmer in Wiltshire who had a shoot he could come to, but I didn’t.’ Instead, she married Mike Edwards, lead singer of the London rock band Live Wire. The couple divorced after seven years but he inspired her to begin writing her own songs, an eclectic mix of African Celtic rock. She has a couple of well-reviewed albums to her name, Mindwalking and The Brave Songs, and her next album is out in the spring.
On November 15, she is doing a charity gig at St Paul’s church in Covent Garden, which her 84-year-old mother will attend. ‘My father died in 2002, but my mother’s been slammed against the back walls of nightclubs in her pearls and sage suit,’ she laughs. ‘At one show, she took her pearls off because someone said she’d get mugged if she didn’t.’ Charlotte’s music has sustained her through the most difficult times. She did not return to Altyre, on Scotland’s north-east coast, for two years. Nick has never been back. She says: ‘I hope he will go one day. A couple of years ago I went back to face it. I love the place so much, it’s my childhood home and I never wanted to feel that I couldn’t go there without this sickness in my stomach. For Nick, he nearly died there – it’s a different perspective. I went back to the wood and said a few prayers, that I was grateful I was alive.’ While Nicholas has spoken of his ‘horrible’ guilt, Charlotte never blamed him for the poisoning, reasoning that any one of them might have picked the mushrooms that day.
Charlotte says: ‘My sister-in-law Louisa asked us if we could go and get the ceps. Because my ankle was broken I couldn’t so Nick volunteered but the fact is none of us checked the book and we should have done.’ However, the repercussions of the accident were so extreme it has inevitably been hard to come to terms with. Three people nearly died.
Sir Alastair’s wife, Louisa, was also taken ill, although not as severely, having consumed fewer mushrooms. She did not require a transplant. Charlotte says: ‘It’s been very hard. Some of us have struggled with reconciliation. For Nick it was an unbelievable struggle, but we’re still together. It’s been a very traumatic experience for my family but we are working through it.’ Some closure will come with a successful transplant for Sir Alastair. He had a transplant last June, with a kidney from the NHS list, but it did not take. Charlotte says: ‘I made a decision quite early on, which the boys didn’t, which was that I wanted a live donor. I knew that a live kidney was going to last a great deal longer than the other type.’
The search was not easy. Charlotte and Sir Alastair have two sisters, but they were unable to donate. In the end, it was Serena who helped save her life. Serena’s son Alfie is friends with Charlotte and Nick’s ten-year-old son, Finlay. She says: ‘The dialysis was taking its toll. I nearly died twice. Serena recognised that. I said to her, “I don’t know if I’m going to see my son alive when he’s 20.” Then she said that, completely unbeknown to me, she had gone off and had the tests.’ It was, of course, the ultimate act of generosity. The two women will always share a bond, as will their children, although Charlotte says that she hasn’t displayed any of Serena’s traits.
Deadly: Pictured is a webcap mushroom which Nicholas Evans mistook for edible ceps
She adds: ‘My father’s accountant had a transplant with his sister and a year later, he took up horse riding, drinking white wine and gardening. He’d never done any of those things before. They were all things that the sister did, so you never know. ‘Serena is a nurse. She’s quite forthright, but so am I. She used to do competitive swimming, so I’m thinking I might turn into a fish.’ While Serena has helped Charlotte beyond measure, there have been benefits for her, too. Charlotte says: ‘The greatest thing you can give somebody is their life back and I see it in her face when she sees me.’
All the proceeds of Charlotte’s concert next month will go to Give a Kidney, a charity which promotes altruistic donation. Her brother will now have a transplant from a live donor, next January. Charlotte says: ‘Chris, a lovely florist from Devon, had already offered him his kidney before his last transplant, but the doctors in Edinburgh pressured him not to take it. They said they hadn’t really done altruistic donor transplants before. ‘Thirty-six hours after this meeting, my brother got a call in the middle of the night saying they had a kidney, so he took it. I understand why but the fact remains he had a really good live donor and they shouldn’t have pushed him to take a kidney from the list. ‘That’s why Give a Kidney is such an important charity. There are people on the cusp of donating, and if they hear the right story they might step forward. Like Chris and like Ali, a social worker from Newcastle who heard my story through a friend of friend and offered to help, though sadly it didn’t work out.
Family seat: Charlotte was unable to return to Altyre House until two years after the group were poisoned
‘There are so many people who would say, “Yes, I’d do it for my relations but for a stranger? I don’t think so.” I understand that, of course I do, but it is possible to live a perfectly normal life with one kidney. ‘There are 7,000 people waiting for a kidney in this country. And anything we can do to highlight the situation and help people to make this extraordinary gift is worth it.’ Certainly, it’s given Charlotte and Nick their future back. And hopefully Sir Alastair, too. And now that she can look forward for the first time in years, Charlotte no longer wants to look back. ‘It is an extraordinary tale,’ she says. ‘I understand people’s fascination for it. If you look through history and mythical stories, poisoning is always rather riveting and is supposed to be final. I feel very humble to have survived it. ‘But I don’t want to be thought of as the “mushroom girl” any more. I want to go back into my world of music. The concert will be the beginning of that.
Daily Mail UK