Not a day has gone by since Keith Titmuss was laid to rest that his family haven’t visited his grave. Some days they go twice. And if you happened to drive past Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Leppington on February 12, you would have seen dozens around a barbecue celebrating his 21st birthday.
“It’s our happy place,” Keith’s mother, Lafo, says, bearing a smile to mask the pain. “Zara [Keith’s 13-year-old sister] doesn’t feel like her day will end properly unless she goes and sees her brother.
“She doesn’t say much. She just likes to say, ‘Hi Keith, I love you Keith, goodnight Keith, see you tomorrow’.”
Four months on from the tragedy that cut short the life of one of the NRL’s most promising young stars, the words of the doctors at Royal North Shore are now etched into the memory of those closest to him.
“I’ll never forget those words,” Lafo said. “He came out and said, ‘Keith is no longer with us’. I will never forget that.
“As a parent, you never prepare your child for death. For us, it felt like he was by himself. He was going through something that he hadn’t thought of, nor contemplated that he’d ever have to go through.”
For Keith, life wasn’t complicated. The night before he died, the last time anyone in his family spoke to him, his most pressing concern was why he hadn’t been invited to his cousin’s 16th birthday party at Jamberoo water park.
“He was always a pest, Keith, teasing the girls or annoying his auntie,” Lafo said. “He was complaining about how he didn’t get an invite. When he was going upstairs, he just said, ‘Goodnight, I’ll see you guys later’.”
Sadly, he never did. The next morning, at 5.30am, Keith set off on the 90-minute trip from his home in Austral, in south-west Sydney, to Manly’s Narrabeen headquarters for training. It would be his last.
Later that morning, Keith’s father, Paul, received a phone call from Manly’s head of football John Bonasera that would change life as they knew it.
“It’s not common to get phone calls from Manly, but even when we did get the call I didn’t think it was too serious,” Paul admits.
The 20-year-old had collapsed and suffered a seizure following a pre-season training session. Paramedics rushed him to Northern Beaches Hospital, with former Manly player Matt Ballin in the ambulance relaying information back to the family.
The alarm bells began to ring louder when Ballin called the family, who were three kilometres away from the hospital at the time, to notify them that Keith was being urgently transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital.
“That’s when we thought something was seriously wrong,” Paul said.
Keith’s older brother, Jesse, a correctional officer at Silverwater prison, was equally surprised to receive a phone call while at work.
“My dad’s a pretty strong guy, but it sounded like he was crying on the phone,” Jesse said. “He told me to come to hospital now and bring my little sister with me.”
At that time, Titmuss was on life support. An ECMO machine had replaced the function of his heart and lungs.
“I felt like my head was spinning in the room. I couldn’t stop crying,” Lafo said. “The images of Keith from the moment he was born to when we last saw him just kept flashing by.”
Just as Jesse and his sister Zara arrived at Royal North Shore, alongside their parents and Manly coach Des Hasler, they were told their brother was gone.
“To outlive one of your children is one of the most saddest tragedies for a parent,” Hasler said.
“To say goodbye to your son in the morning at the breakfast table and never see him again is always going to be difficult to understand.”
One of the hardest things for the family to comprehend was how Keith had died despite showing no signs he was unwell in the days and weeks leading up to that fateful day, and why they hadn’t been given a chance to say goodbye.
“Why didn’t they give us the opportunity to say goodbye to him while he was still alive?” Lafo asked of the hospital. “Who made the decision to turn the life support machine off without consulting or asking Paul and I?”
The Herald contacted Royal North Shore to raise the family’s concerns last week, prompting the hospital’s director of medical services, Philip Hoyle, to contact Paul and Lafo to clarify the events that took place before their son was pronounced dead.
Doctors worked for hours to try to save Keith, trying everything to get his blood circulating, but it was not possible. His heart was not beating and he could not be put on a bypass machine.
The family has since been offered an opportunity to meet with relevant doctors in the coming weeks. The initial autopsy provided no reasons for sudden death, with the family now awaiting the coroner’s investigation to find out why their son’s heart gave out.
“I feel like we’re not able to rest easy until we understand why,” Lafo said.
The Herald was told Titmuss was placed on ECMO when he was transferred from Northern Beaches to Royal North Shore, but at no stage was he able to be stabilised. It is understood he died prior to ECMO being withdrawn, rather than dying because ECMO was switched off.
“Just the night before, we were having a good old laugh playing PlayStation,” Jesse said. “Twelve hours later, he’s not with us. That’s hard for me. Just how fast he passed on.”
Dr Roger Harris, a senior intensive care doctor at Royal North Shore Hospital, was not involved in Titmuss’ case but was working the night he died.
“Patients die in ICU everyday but a horrifically confronting death of a young patient so suddenly is devastating and intensely difficult for staff, as well as the entire community,” Dr Harris said.
“The hospital waiting room was filled with 50-odd people holding vigil for Keith. You could just sense the love and courage from the community. You just had to walk through level six and there was this young community of highly engaged people just wanting something.”
After he had died, hospital staff moved Titmuss to another room to allow the family to grieve by his side for a couple of hours before his body was taken to the hospital’s morgue.
While some in their position may hold resentment towards the Sea Eagles, the Titmuss family couldn’t speak highly enough of the club. Though he never made his NRL debut, the Sea Eagles have since added Titmuss to their honour roll as the club’s 623rd first-grader. The club’s junior teams and reserve grade side will also carry Keith’s initials on their jerseys in 2021.
“Des was just such a true leader,” Lafo said. “He and Matt Ballin, the type of support they gave us on that day was just perfect. We knew they were at arm’s reach, but they wouldn’t be in our faces. If we had questions I’d ask Des and he would go find answers.
“They were just solid, outstanding men. They were there when we arrived, and we walked out that night together. They were there for 12 hours with us.”
Very little was said in the car ride home. The family still in shock as the reality of life without Keith began to set in.
“When we saw our front door, knowing that Keith would never walk through that front door, it was so heartbreaking,” Lafo said as she shed tears re-telling the story.
“That night Zara didn’t want to sleep in her bed, so she slept with us. We just laid there looking at the ceiling with tears. We didn’t sleep that night.
“We still haven’t touched his room. It’s too hard to open his wardrobe and see his clothes. You just have images of him wearing those shirts. But that room thankfully still smells like him.”
There was a softness to Titmuss that very few would imagine judging by his imposing frame and physicality on a football field. But those close to him, like Canterbury youngster Matt Doorey, saw Titmuss for what he really was.
“If you met him, you’d think he was this big scary dude,” Doorey, who went to school with Titmuss at Westfields Sports High, said.
“Deep down he was such a kind person. Even when he played against his friends, he wouldn’t try and smash you. He’d look after you.”
Titmuss cared for others, even from a young age. In the aftermath of his tragic passing, many stories have been told. None summed him up better than when he purposely tripped himself over as a 10-year-old at training to help his teammate, who had been threatened by his father if he failed to make the tackle on Titmuss.
A decade later, Titmuss was on the verge of achieving a lifelong dream. He had just been elevated to Manly’s 30-man NRL squad and his coach had already begun planning his debut in the upcoming season.
“He was at the stage of making his progression to the NRL, that’s why we retired his number, 623,” Hasler said.
“That was where he was at. A good young player with great leg speed, and he had a bit of skill in him. He was on his way to the NRL. He would’ve been in the mix to make his debut later this year.”
When word of Keith’s death began to make its way around rugby league circles, his friends at several clubs in the NRL were in shock.
“[Wests Tigers prop] Stefano Utoikamanu rang me and told me Keith had died,” Doorey recalled. “I didn’t take it seriously at all. I thought someone was f—— around. Two minutes later my manager rang me and told me the same thing. I couldn’t believe it.”
The family has taken solace in knowing Keith left this world doing what he always wanted to do.
“A week before he passed we had a gym session and he told me, ‘I’m feeling good this year’,” Jesse said of his little brother. “He had done three or four pre-seasons with the NRL but he said, ‘This is the first pre-season I feel ready to go’. It gave me goosebumps hearing that from him.
“That was his dream. Unfortunately, he passed away trying to live out his dream. There was nothing more he would have loved to do. Just thinking about Manly honouring him with that jersey really warms your heart, knowing that his dreams and aspirations were given to him even though he’d already passed away.”
The Titmuss family were overwhelmed by the support from the rugby league community, with NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo visiting the family in hospital just hours after Titmuss had died.
But in their darkest hour, it was a card sent to them by Manly godfather Ken Arthurson which resonated the most.
“I just came back from shopping and Paul said, ‘Read this card’,” Lafo said.
“I went, ‘Wow, Ken Arthurson’. This is too much of a great surprise and honour to receive something so special from him in his own handwriting. Even Keith would have been amazed. We showed everyone and anyone.”
“Keith loved Manly. He never spoke poorly about the training schedule or anything like that. And I knew he was happy with where he was because this guy would travel an hour and a half or two hours each way every day to go to training.”
There was no bigger supporter of Keith’s rugby league career than Jesse, who even ran the water for his brother’s under-15 team to give him advice on the field. Not that Keith always appreciated the constant chirping from behind the play.
As they got older they became inseparable, often meeting up in the kitchen for a midnight Milo following a long night on the PlayStation. Now, there’s an emptiness that will never be filled.
“It’s hard going on with life. It’s just quiet.”
Keith’s brother, Jesse Titmuss
“Keith was my best mate,” Jesse said. “Everyday I would come home and the first person I would speak to was Keith. When I got engaged with my fiance, the first person I told was Keith. When I found out we were having a son, he was the first person I told.
“He was pretty special to me. It’s hard going on with life. It’s just quiet. The house is quiet. Sometimes you just want to talk to him or vent to him. It’s tough living without him knowing I won’t ever get that chance again.”
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Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald