This is my story about my Dad, Alan H McGahan and the last nine weeks of his life in this ever changing world.
Our story starts back in January when the world was normal. I couldn’t even pronounce Covid 19, let alone spell it. My father and step mum had spent a wonderful Christmas and New Year in Dubai with my family. The perfect time was had by all and precious memories were made for which we are all very grateful.
Alan Howard McGahan lived a very full and exciting life. It was not without its challenges. I don’t think that he would mind my saying he was a bit of a ‘Hell-raiser’ in his younger years. He was a total workaholic, a charger and a very busy man.
My father left home and school aged fifteen and set about a very varied career, he did just about everything! He was a boxer, snooker player, chef, door to door vacuum cleaner salesman, a racing driver, a movie stunt man, car salesman and used car buyer to name a few. He did, however, become a being very successful entrepreneur building a large Automotive Group and Property Portfolio.
Those that knew Alan will remember him as a ‘Bull of a man’. Very strong, both physically and mentally. A leader and a mentor with a very solid loyal base of friends and work colleagues. My father didn’t have much of an education like a lot of kids born in the 40’s but developed a ferocious appetite for knowledge. He ended up extraordinarily well read, extremely well informed and to most appeared to know something about almost everything. Later on in life he became very well measured, balanced, pragmatic and very, very good at giving advice. He used to say to me “My advice is free and if my mistakes help save you making the same mistakes son then my job is done”!
On arriving home from Dubai after New Year, Dad had a small diabetic blister on his foot, after three days of treatment this unfortunately turned into Septicaemia, resulting in his admission to hospital and an urgent transfer to St George’s Hospital for surgery. It turned out that Dad had to have part of his foot amputated with the loss of 3 toes.
My stepmother (who has been with my father for 29 years) knew more about my father’s health and his own well being than he did. She read up on every condition he’d ever had and was never afraid to hold doctors to account or question them. In my view, she kept him alive years ago when he faced a life threatening illness. This is one very, devoted lady. My Dad was her life and she was his. In many ways a marriage made in heaven.
It was clear that this was not going to be a quick recovery and that he would be in hospital for some time. He was admitted on the 22nd of Jan and got home (albeit for only 8 days ) on the 18th of March before his last stint of three days - a long time for anyone to have to stare at four walls on their back.
Between Kate and I we saw him every day. In fact Kate didn’t miss a single day. Needless to say Dad fought like a lion. He breezed the amputation and he did not complain once, not even when they took the dressing off. I was there and even that did not phase him. I remember he and I looking at one another, words failed us. It’s a very odd thing to look at, your brain needs a minute to compute.
One day your foot is there, the next a chunk has gone. I couldn’t find the words, so I said “Doesn’t look too bad Dad” his reply was “Oh! really it doesn’t look too good from where I am lying and it’s a good job that it is not your foot!’
The nurses all loved Dad and they were constantly surprised at his pain threshold. He only took the morphine when absolutely necessary and even then he still loved to have a joke or two with them. On their rounds he would says things like “Oh! coming round to stick me with more holes, I am not a dartboard you know!” My son rang him the morning after the surgery and he said ‘How’re you doing Grandad??” Dad’s reply, “Not too good boy. It appears that I have lost a few toes, so if you see any lying around..... and I think that my Flipflop wearing days may be over’!! We all fell about laughing. Alan returned to Epsom Hospital in the middle of February. He was not a great one for visitors when ill so we limited visits, frankly by that time he was getting fed up.
Not long after being moved he was in another battle. Dad developed osteomyelitis, a serious bone illness. I lost count of how many different types of antibiotics they tried on him to beat the infection.
He had first class treatment and they seemed to get on top of the infection eventually. After six weeks of being in hospital Dad then had another set back, he contracted Pneumonia- you couldn’t make it up! Now it really was all hands to the pump to keep him safe. All visits were stopped apart from me and Kate. He was now very poorly and we were all very worried. Even then at no time did he seem worried though, or ever thought he wouldn’t beat this thing.
He would say to me,” Son, don’t look so worried, I will be fine. “and you know what, somehow, he managed to brush that aside too.. His strength and sheer bloody mindedness never ceased to amaze me, when that man put his mind to something he would usually succeed.
I left Dad after one of my daily visits, it was a good day he looked strong and I felt we were heading in the right direction, I found myself driving the car and humming the Harry Chapin song, “The Cats in the Cradle..” in that song Harry sings-
“And as he grew he’d say "I'm gonna be like you, dad" “You know I'm gonna be like you".
At 50 years of age he still could make me feel so immensely proud. Every now and again that ridiculous child like feeling would come across me - “My Dad is a super hero, nothing can beat him, he will be here forever”. I think I needed to tell myself that, quite often.
As time went on, Dad was becoming more restless and sometimes the only topic of conversation was “when am I going home?” Trying to change the subject was very difficult. He could drive you mad, another thing my father was, persistent. His goal was to get home, so he just fought and fought. Finally after eight weeks his wish came true, he was going home.
It wasn’t just his hard work that paid off, he had Kate. My stepmother had overseen his care meticulously, she did not leave his side other than to go home to prepare food for him or to replenish supplies, for the entire period of his stay in hospital. Stoic, really is an understatement.
She had willed him on both physically and mentally to get better- not once did he have a chance of thinking he wouldn’t pull through and get home. Kate would tell him everyday day, “Alan do as they ask”, “sit up, please try and eat and don’t lie back your lungs need space to fill” Her man was coming home, come what may!
I have never seen anything like it, her care, grit and determination. She’s an extraordinary woman.
On the first night that he came home he sat on his sofa, drinking a Johnnie Walker Black Label and got to finally sleep in his own bed. The attached picture was taken a couple of weeks ago. I think he says it all.
Sadly on Thursday 26th of March Dad was re-admitted into Epsom General, short of breath and with suspected Covid 19. I had left the UK the week before. Dad and I have been business partners for almost 25 years - I have an office in Dubai and I had business that needed to be taken care of. Dad had been telling me to go for weeks. “Business comes first son, you have got to get on, I am not going anywhere " Atta boy!”
But something didn't feel right this time. I wasn’t so sure. He was older and obviously not as strong as he was in his fifties so I decided that I couldn’t leave him. A week or so before his death the time seemed to me to be right, he appeared to be out of the woods, happy and strong that he was going home, so I boarded a fight to Dubai.
It is one of my biggest regrets.
On the Thursday evening I got a call from Kate to say that Dad was very short of breath and was struggling to breathe. He needed oxygen and she was taking him back to Epsom General. I was in Dubai and in partial lock down, all airports in the UAE had closed. My worst nightmare had begun. I was stuck and something in my gut told me that this wasn’t going to end well.
I spoke to Dad several times over that weekend, he had an oxygen mask on so it wasn’t easy. He was alone. Kate, after all this time, was separated from him and understandably beside herself with worry. Every now and again Dad would pick up his mobile, but he was getting weaker and the noises and messages I was hearing were, well, harrowing to say the least. In one of the last calls I had with him he conjured up enough strength to shout down the phone at me, in typical ‘Alan fashion’ asking me to get him out! He also shouted at the nurse to get his wheelchair, he was checking out! The last time I called him on Sunday he answered, I could hear him breathing but he did not speak to me, I told him I loved him and I was going to get him home. That was the last time that I spoke to him and the last time that he picked up his phone. Kate found the phone later that night where he had dropped it, on his tummy, under the covers.
I tried to do all I could to get him home with private medical care, and in my mind if I could get him out I would free up an NHS bed. We found a company that agreed to nurse Dad at home we were so close, we almost got there. We even got permission to take him home on the Sunday, but sadly he deteriorated so very quickly after that. He wasn’t strong enough to be moved. My one job for my
Dad, the last job, I couldn’t make happen...I have struggled with that every day since.
The last few days of my father’s life have been the most traumatic experience. For me, the feeling of uselessness and total helplessness is a feeling I have never experienced before and one that really does make me feel physically sick.
As for the rest of my family and any family that has to go through what we have just gone through, it is just truly harrowing and beyond cruel. To be separated from your loved ones whilst at home or abroad when that someone is dying in hospital alone is something that was unthinkable only a few weeks ago.
I have nothing but total admiration for the team of nurses and doctors that looked after my father. They are some of the most dedicated and committed people one could ever imagine meeting, but something had stuck in my mind that had moved me and bothered me and in truth is the reason I find myself writing this this story.
My Dad's nurses and doctors weren’t equipped properly with PPE... It is as simple as that!When Kate got that awful call on Sunday night to go to the hospital, it wasn’t so that she could be let in and be with Dad. It was for her to speak to the doctor face to face at the hospital door whilst I assume he delivers the bad news that her husband wasn’t going to make it.
However, Kate did not wait at the door for the doctor to come she just walked straight in.In Kate’s mind, if Dad had the virus then so did she, she had been at the hospital every day for the last six weeks and if she didn’t have it, she simply didn’t care. She was going to him and nothing would stop her. The nurse in charge, graciously gave Kate permission to stay, on the understanding that she remained at Dad’s side at all times.
I got to meet the Doctor and the nurses on the ward. They were all lovely, Kate had me on Skype.
Many things occurred to me the following day when I was trying to piece everything together. It dawned on me that the doctor I spoke to had no protection, the nurses had a mask but none appeared to be completely equipped. In fact, neither was Kate, she was offered a thin plastic apron, and told to wear her reading glasses and given a pair of gloves to wear.
I spoke to the Doctor in the first few minutes of Kate’s arrival (on skype ) a few things stuck with me. His clear, but matter of fact attitude, (precisely what you need in times like this) and how candid he was. He told me my father was critical and that they were seriously short staffed. Many colleagues were self isolating and some had tested positive for COVID 19. Dad was still getting the right care.
There were only two doctors on call and they were both of the same opinion, ventilators and resuscitation were now not an option for my father and in fact the ventilator would be cruel.
They had no ICU equipment available anyhow and there was now no chance of Dad pulling through. He also told me that no one in Dads condition would be going home that night.
In his words “there is no miracle cure for Covid 19”.
They are now at the stage where they would make Dad as comfortable as possible, but he would be gone in two hours. He said that they could almost time perfectly how long a patient has to live when they reach Dads stage.
An awful lot to take in over 5 minute conversation.
My face pricked and I had that dream like feeling- this can’t be happening! The doctor was in fact wrong when it came to my Dad.. he lasted the whole night and into the morning, this was Alan we were dealing with, he never did anything he was told.
Shortly after Kate then went to my father - I was with her albeit on the phone on Skype. I was introduced to two lovely nurses, they told me they had been looking after my Dad, they told me not to worry and said it in such a lovely way. I asked them why they didn’t have on proper protective gear, I couldn’t think of what else to say, Her answer will stay with me for the rest of my life.. “This is what we have, we make do."
They had 3 ply paper masks which honestly looked like they were days old, gloves that looked as though they were the ones from a petrol station and again a piny not even hospital scrubs, let alone a full virus suit with hood and goggles.
When I asked them were they not scared and that they almost certainly would catch the virus, their answer was simply,
“Either we have had it, got it, will get it, or we are immune “
She said someone had to be here to look after these people. It was clear to me some would not be going home or unlike Dad, will ever see a loved one again. It was their job to make everyone In that room comfortable and if the end comes to be there holding their patients hands until the very end. At least they would die with their dignity intact.
This is something that I never imagined I would ever hear or see in my life time.
I am determined to try and help this ridiculous situation. You can’t have people dealing with the sick, the infected and dying and not have the proper protective equipment. You just can’t! What more motivation does one need.
A few months ago my father and I invested in a well being business in Southampton. Cannagrow Biosciences, run by a man, who is now my business partner and surprisingly has become a very good friend in a relatively short period of time. He too, has been through something similar with his Dad, we have a good working relationship and always seem to be on the same page. I told Dave of my experience a day or two later over the phone, I could hear him choking up, which in turn made me choke up! We both decided there and then that we have to help with this crisis.
As it happened we had decided a few weeks before Dad’s death that in the interim we should change production at our factory into hand sanitiser. There was a severe shortage of good quality sanitiser and Dave thought he could manufacturer some. This has meant that we could keep the business going, not let any staff go, in fact we would hire people too. We are currently in the process of perfecting the formula arranging bottle supply and changing some of the equipment in the factory, but will be supplying good quantities of hand sanitiser to those that need it from the NHS, to chemists, to local nursing homes by end of April.
After my experience on that dreadful night, Dave and I both agreed we would focus all our attentions, use every resource, every connection here and abroad to source as much correct PPE as we could for our front line workers. It was our mission.
Sure the catalyst for this was Dad and his nurses but it has become so clear to us now that bus drivers to supermarket staff and so many other front line workers also fall into this high risk category and don’t have adequate PPE.
This is a virus, and any public worker should have proper protective clothing in order to protect themselves from it, especially if they are there to help us.
In the last couple of weeks we have sourced and funded literally tons of PPE. I am so pleased that our first shipments arrive later week. We want to do all that we can to get these packages to our hospitals, but it’s nowhere near enough - we have to do a lot more.
A day or two after Dad died I had the grim job of informing my business partners and work colleagues, all of whom knew Alan and were all fond of him.
I also vented my frustration in what I had seen and how badly equipped the nurses and doctors were. The following day I got a call from my other business partner Chris Cleverly.
He asked if I would be interested in setting up a charity that works on getting the right PPE to the front line staff in the NHS and any other job that requires PPE, what could I say other than “bloody right I do!!” before I knew it “Mask our Heroes” was born.
I am immensely proud of what we have achieved in such a small period of time. Everyone has worked tirelessly to get this happening and now we are ready to launch and I take comfort in that
Alan would be so proud of everyone, I can hear him say.. ” Atta boy! “
We hope that the nation will get behind this charity and do everything possible to support Mask our Heroes.
I want to finish on a lighter note - you see some good did come out of the last couple of months.I have had some wonderful times and shall cherish memories of time spent with my Dad. Myself, Kate and Dad have spent hours and hours in his room at Epsom General. He loved telling stories of his old motor racing days, I even got to hear some new ones. He was without doubt the funniest person I have ever met when he told a story and one of the best raconteurs on the planet.
I learned things about the Irish side of my family that I previously did not know. Things about My grandmother and grandfather (whom I never met) and of Dad’s childhood that I had never heard before. There were some truly special and hilarious moments.
Alan was a husband, a father and a grandfather. He was an uncle, a great uncle. He was a good friend to all. He was a titan in business with a formidable reputation. He was in partnership with the same man for nearly fifty years, he also happened to be one of the most popular, decent and well respected men I have ever met. He was also our family’s rock.
To me....He was by best mate and I was privileged to call him Dad.