In ‘Breathe,’ pioneering couple live happily ever after, despite disability

Q&A with film's producer and main characters’ real-life son, Jonathan Cavendish

Struck by polio during a trip to Kenya with his wife Diana in 1958, the prognosis for 28-year-old Robin Cavendish wasn’t good. He became paralyzed from the neck down, and was put on a mechanical respirator to help him breathe. Doctors said he had three months to live.

In the newly released film Breathe, we get a glimpse into the Cavendish’s lives both before and after the diagnosis. The movie tells the inspirational true story of how the couple resfused to allow that diagnosis to define their lives, and went on to help other disabled people live happy and fulfilled lives against all odds. spoke recently with Jonathan Cavendish, son of Robin and Diana and the film’s producer, to discuss his parents’ incredible legacy and the lessons he hopes audiences take away from Breathe.

Did your parents ever talk to you about how your father reacted after being diagnosed with polio and told he had just 3 months to live?

My mother was was very much told to expect the worst. My father survived long enough to be shipped back from Kenya to the UK in a plane, and he was put into a hospital in Oxford. For that first year and a half in the hospital, he had to relearn to speak.

During that time, he was severely depressed and in fact he asked friends and the medical staff to turn off his machine. I was a baby at the time, and he wouldn't look at me because i think I was a reminder of both life and the impossibility of life as he saw it.

How did he overcome that initial shock and depression?
Slowly but surely my mother persuaded him to make a go of making a new form of life. Against all advice, he left the hospital.

At 83, my mother can still remember the words of the doctor shouting after him, “You’ll be dead in two weeks!”

From the moment they moved into a house and started this pioneering life that to one lived no one with that severity of disability had lived before, He never suffered from depression again and their lives became joyous, glorious happy lives despite the difficulties .

Who took care of your father after his diagnosis?
There was somebody else who looked after me for me for some of the time and my father for some of the time, and a district nurse would come in maybe two days per week. But other than that my mother was the sole carer for my father -- who was reliant on a breathing machine and was two minutes away from dying at any time.

It wasn’t straightforward, but she never regretted doing it. She loved him, and the film is really a love story and about what you can do with the power of love and friendship. My childhood was immensely happy, we had a lovely time. They were the sort of ppl who laughed in the face of disaster.

How did your father use his own experience to help other disabled people?
My father’s real enemy was boredom so he was constantly coming up with new plans and schemes - there was no TV or Internet or technology at the time to help him.

He and a professor from Oxford, Teddy Hall, created a wheelchair with a respirator on the back so he could move around. He commissioned an engineer to construct a hydraulic lift on his van and we would travel in the hold of cargo planes. He later created with Teddy Hall a line of these wheelchairs for disabled people.

He broke all the rules and did a whole series of things no one had ever done before. He encouraged other people [with disabilities like his] to leave hospital - he had a huge impact on people.

We also started a family charity, CS Disabled Holidays, which provides grants for disabled people and their carers to have holidays and respite breaks. My father realized that severely disabled people may need a holiday more than anyone else, and that their carers need it too, but are less likely than anyone to have one.

Why was it so important to you to tell your parents’ story?
I wanted to honor my parents, but more importantly I wanted to tell a very positive story. The film is completely true -- everything in it really happened

You will see the immense joy and fun that was part of their lives. I wanted to share with an audience all over the world that it’s fundamentally a love story about the power of love to help overcome seemingly insurmountable adversity. I wanted to show that if you have an attitude of taking things as they come and laughing at disaster and being pioneering - it’s amazing what can be done.

What do you think your father would say about the film if he were here to see it?
I think if my father were alive, he would dedicate this film to carers all over the world. His life was made possible, and then enjoyable, by the people who were looking after him. He always spoke about the importance of carers and caring, and the ways that people do that. He felt very powerfully that people were not given the credit for what they do.

I think he would like this film to be a recognition of everything [caregivers] do.


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Laura Dixon

As Caring's Editorial Manager, Laura writes and edits articles about important issues for family caregivers and seniors. See full bio