A story of survival amid the pain

I’ve never had a response to a story like the one I had this past week, to the tale about Alex Dan – my uncle, who made history by undergoing the first lung transplant in Europe in a bid to save his life after he accidentally drank weedkiller.

The whole story is so tragic it really doesn’t bear thinking about and it was very difficult to write, but I wanted to, to mark the occasion, as it was 50 years last Monday that he died.

Alex Dan, who was 15 and from Breasclete, had drunk paraquat from an unmarked lemonade bottle, thinking it was coke.

I knew that a lot of people in the community would remember it but I was taken aback by how strong the response was. Thank you to everyone who has shared the story, commented, sent messages and spoke to me in the street.

I know the rest of the family – my father and Alex Dan’s other brothers and sisters – have taken comfort from it, too. They have also learned things about Alex Dan that they didn’t previously know, which has been great.

For example, one woman had commented on Facebook: “Alex Dan was in my chanter class.”

I passed this on to my dad, a lifelong piping fan, who said: “I didn’t know he was learning the chanter…!” So that’s a precious new memory right there.

Many people wrote about how well they remembered the event – and how much it was drummed into them afterwards never to drink out of unmarked bottles.

The comment that got me the most was one from Dolina Mackenzie. “Oh my word I remember him so well, very cheery cheeky chap, always on the go when us kids were messing about at the peats. Such fun times, fondly remembered xx”

It’s not just memorable because it was so tragic, the transplant ultimately failing to save his life. It’s also memorable because it was so incredibly public.

Alex Dan

As one of my aunties, Mary Ann, said: “It was never a private story. It was always a public story.”

Alex Dan’s whole story was played out in the newspapers and I’ve just had a final look at them today and put them all back in the folder.

I’ve had them for a few weeks and will return them in a few days to my aunty Chirsty Mairi for safe keeping in my Shen’s old Communions case. I don’t know how many cuttings there are – there might be a hundred – and they show just how big a story this was at the time.

The fate of the wee boy from Breasclete was news all over the world, even as far away as New Zealand, and sat on the front pages beside stories of Elizabeth Taylor buying a new diamond (setting a new world record at £127,000), the Duke of Edinburgh saying something inappropriate on a foreign tour and a deadly explosion in a London tower block of flats. 

Looking through them, these felt like ageless newspaper pages. It could have been yesterday.

It’s been a painful story to tell and a lot of people have messaged me to say how moved they were by it, how the tears flowed. So, in order to make folk (including myself) feel a little bit better, I wanted to look at some of the good things that happened around that time – because they did happen.

For a start, my father graduated from medical school five weeks after his brother died. 

The newspapers carried this story as a follow-up at the time and it was nice to see that my granny had kept these cuttings too. There were three cuttings in her file – all with the same picture of my dad on the right, my Shen Finlay in the middle and my uncle Kenny on the left. They are all smiling and looking slightly embarrassed at having their photo taken.

“Alex Dan’s brother graduates as a doctor,” says one.

“Transplant boy’s brother capped,” says another. 

“As Alex Dan’s brother graduates… Smiles from the Smiths,” says the third.

My father, the newly qualified Dr John Smith, is quoted as saying: “The family have recovered reasonably well from the anxiety which we all suffered.

“I am very glad that my father and brother managed to the ceremony. Unfortunately, however, my mother was unable to get away.

“I am going to begin work at the Belford Hospital, Fort William, shortly, but I have no real plans for the future. I would prefer to go into the hospital service for a while – rather than into a private practice.”

The article ends with a quote from my grandfather. 

“I am very proud of John. He has done exceptionally well.”

I asked my dad what he remembered of graduation day. 

He told me he remembered going to a restaurant with his father, Kenny and a brother-in-law. Whiskies were ordered and Grace was said before the drams. The brother-in-law couldn’t get over this and my father laughed as he told me about it.

There’s another, truly amazing, story too – about one Calum MacMillan’s brush with death. 

Calum, from Garrabost, drank paraquat at the same time as Alex Dan and lived to tell the tale.

He too drank it from an unmarked bottle, thinking it was coke. 

On that terrible month in May 1968, Calum MacMillan was 11. 

He is now 61 and we – myself, my father and a few aunts and uncles – met him for coffee last Wednesday. It was lovely to meet him and incredible to hear his story of survival.

When you consider that a single drop of paraquat was enough to kill a person – and that a teaspoon could kill 20 – it’s something of a miracle that he is still alive. 

That is largely down to the fact that his mother had had the presence of mind to give him salt water immediately afterwards, to make him throw up the poison.

It had happened at home, in Point.

SIDEBOARD

Calum’s father had brought in a bottle of the paraquat weedkiller and left it sitting in the hall.

Calum recalled: “It was on a sideboard on the way out. I was going out to play football. The bodach had put the bottle and the newspapers on the sideboard.

“It was a lemonade bottle with no label. It was a little bit down and I thought, ‘aha, somebody’s been at this…’”

He “peeped” towards the kitchen to make sure nobody was watching, then sneaked a swig. “It wasn’t unpleasant,” he said. “It felt like coke with no gas.”

He told his mother, who was heavily pregnant with her second baby: “The coke is flat”. 

One can only imagine her dread as she asked: “Dè coke, a’ ghràidh?”

The coke in the hall, he told her. 

Right away, Calum’s mother gave him the salt water.

“I can see it, brown in the sink,” he said.

He was meant to be playing football that night. 

“I spewed it up, brushed my teeth, got rid of that salty water and mach a seo.”

That was on the Monday “but through the course of the week I started getting a sore throat”.

He took some Dequadin lozenges for the sore throat but thought no more of it.

However, on the Saturday night, Calum’s father was at an AA meeting, which was being taken by Dr Greig, who had been looking after Alex Dan.

“They were talking about Alex Dan and the way things had happened,” recalled Calum.

“My father piped up and said, ‘Och, my son took that last Monday. It didn’t do him any harm apart from a sort throat. He was playing football that night’.”

Calum said: “Dr Greig didn’t want to raise alarm bells because he knew the nature of the stuff was deadly. He didn’t say a word but on Sunday morning – I was watching the telly – two guys knocked the door. They said, ‘Is Calum Junior in?’”

PYJAMAS

“‘Yes, he’s in there watching the telly’. ‘Well,’ they said, ‘he’s coming with us’.

“I said, ‘I can’t come like this, I’m in my pyjamas!’

“They said, ‘You’re coming now’. They wouldn’t let me change. I was whisked away.”

The medics took Calum straight to the Lewis Hospital. 

Once there, they took a blood test and found there were traces of the paraquat in his blood. At the time it was known as the ‘hit and run’ poison because its effects only became manifest with time. 

“I did get worse,” he said. “My gullet was all screwed up. I couldn’t swallow a thing.”

He spent eight days in hospital, where he was put through a whole range of treatments.

“All I know is I was taking an injection every four hours. They would wake me up.

“I couldn’t swallow. My gullet and my throat were all burnt. I was fed through a tube. To this day I can feel the pipes in my nose. When I did start eating, it was all semolina and ice cream.”

At the same time, his mother was admitted to maternity and Calum’s brother, Donnie, was born.

Calum pulled through but he believes that Dr Greig never knew which of the treatments had saved him, as well as his mother’s obvious presence of mind.

He was discharged from hospital on May 18.

Meeting Calum ‘Weedkiller’ MacMillan – 50 years after his brush with death. From left to right, me, Chirsty Mairi, my father John, Calum, Mary Ann and Kenny.

He remembered the anniversary this year while on holiday in Menorca.

“It was 50 years. It’s a big milestone, considering my parents were told, ‘There’s no hope for him. There’s no antidote.’ But they said, ‘We’ll try whatever’ – and Dr Greig went to his grave not knowing what it was (that worked).”

It’s a story that has followed Calum his whole life.

He told us about being in a doctor’s surgery, many years later, and being asked, with a hand outstretched: “You wouldn’t be Calum Weedkiller would you….?

“Well put it there. I’ve heard so much about you…”

Calum, an engineer, told us: “Since I got out of hospital, I’ve had no follow up. I’ve never been ill, touch wood. I’m nearly 62 and I haven’t missed a day’s work.”

He is also the proud parent of two boys and a girl.

One of his sons, also Calum, is the minister at Rosskeen Free Church – and his wife is expecting a baby later this month.

It will be Calum’s first granddchild and it was lovely to meet him and hear this story.

All best wishes to the MacMillan family – and especially to the expectant Shen!

Katie

Comments 3

  1. I remember this so well. I was in the maternity ward with Calum’s mum and 2 others. She told us the story and how Calum was recovering. When I read your article about Alex Dan, I immediately remembered Calum and wondered how he had got on, healthwise, over the years. Good to hear that he had no problems afterwards.

  2. Interesting story of Calum Macmillan. His mother’s prompt treatment worked. Knew Dr Greig in Lewis Hospital when doing my general nurse training. Tell your father that I send greetings to him and sister Kirsty Mairi, Kenny etc. Leg Maclean whom I know here remembers your dad (mac Niall na h-oidhche) Your uncle Alex Dan had twinkle and engaging smile. We remember your grandparents fondly, in the gospel.

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