A teenage boy with an undiagnosed brain tumour climbed the tallest mountain in North Africa just a day before he almost died from a massive brain bleed.
Kaleb Ells was 14 when his mum and dad waved him off on a school trekking trip to Mount Toubkal in Marrakesh in July 2015.
On the day the Birmingham teen was due to fly home, his parents Sally and Simon found out he had been hospitalised with suspected food poisoning.
But it quickly became clear that something more serious was wrong with their son. At 11pm, the pair learned Ells was having scans.
“When I asked what on and they said his brain, we knew it was life threatening,” Sally said.
“After midnight, we got a call from the hospital, saying Kaleb was having a brain bleed, caused by a brain tumour.”
As Ells’ mum and dad rushed to the airport, neurosurgeons began emergency surgery on the schoolboy.
She continued: “What Simon and I both thought, but couldn’t express to each other was that we were going to Marrakech to bring back our son’s body.
“During the five-hour flight, we had no idea if our son was still alive.”
When they finally reached the hospital, Ells was in a coma.
The 50-year-old mum continued: “We were terrified our son may never wake up, let alone speak, move or talk.
“When we saw Kaleb in intensive care, he looked so young and helpless, and was on a ventilator. His heartbeat was very slow and irregular and alarms went off every few minutes.”
The teen - who turned 15 while he was in a coma - woke up two days after his parents arrived following an operation to insert a shunt into his brain.
He was flown back to the UK a few days later, but faced even more surgery.
Doctors at Birmingham Children’s Hospital warned Ells’ parents that the nine-hour operation needed to remove the teen’s brain tumour could be fatal, or leave him with severe disabilities.
While surgeons were unable to remove the 5cm tumour due to its position in the centre of the brain, they debulked the mass and removed as much of the clotting as possible. Biopsy results revealed it was a low grade tumour.
Finally allowed home to recover two weeks later, Ells described to his parents what had happened in Morocco.
“Everything was a blur at first, but now I get vivid flashbacks of being in Morocco after getting off the plane and a rush of hot air,” he said.
“I remember being crouched over a toilet vomiting thinking I must just have a bug.
“Immediately before I collapsed, I felt the most ill I’ve ever felt in my life. But I remember thinking all I had to do was get on the plane, get home and my parents could take me to the GP for some simple medication.
“It didn’t cross my mind it could be a brain tumour,” Ells added.
Doctors believe that when he climbed Mount Toubkal, he probably already had a buildup of fluid in his brain, but that the altitude triggered the bleed in his tumour.
He now has brain scans every three months.
Despite suffering from memory loss, confusion and fatigue, Ells went on to achieve nine A* grades in his GCSEs just ten months later.
As well as studying for his A Levels, he is now raising awareness for The Brain Tumour Charity. Friends and family have also raised more than £800 for the organisation through fundraising work.
Ells said: “I’ve missed out on being a carefree teenager, but now I want to help The Brain Tumour Charity by helping people to have more empathy and understanding for those living with and affected by a brain tumour, the biggest cancer killer of the under 40s.”
Sarah Lindsell, The Brain Tumour Charity’s chief executive, added: “I can only imagine Sally and Simon’s anguish when Kaleb nearly lost his life while he was abroad with his school.
“We are happy he is doing so well now and hugely grateful to him and his parents for sharing their story to help us raise awareness about this devastating disease.”
For more information about The Brain Tumour Charity, visit thebraintumourcharity.org