‘His life deserves to stand for something’

Kerry McPhails late husband Jim McPhail
Kerry McPhails late husband Jim McPhail
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Silence helps nobody and changes nothing,’ says Kerry McPhail. ‘Talking about it can’t hurt Jim now and I no longer care if it hurts me.’

For a long time Kerry and her adored husband Jim didn’t talk to strangers about the hepatitis C which was to rob him of his life and her of a soul-mate.

Kerry McPhail

Kerry McPhail

But since Jim’s death on December 4, 2007, Kerry is determined that the ‘silent killer’ shouldn’t be allowed to claim more lives.

After fighting heroin addiction, Jim didn’t know he’d have another battle to face. He was clean from the drugs and on the verge of marrying Kerry when he was diagnosed with hepatitis C.

If detected early enough, the virus can be treated and the patient cured. But for Jim – and Kerry – it was too late.

Now she’s turned their incredible love story into a book. James with a Silent C is a tribute to the man who made her knees weak every time she saw him. It also raises awareness of the disease which left her a widow at the age of 39.

More than 250,000 people in the UK have been infected with hepatitis C, yet eight out of 10 of them don’t know they have it – and Jim was one of those.

The book charts his life through the grinding poverty of his childhood in Scotland, to his spiral into drug use and out the other side, via rehab.

Sadly, it ends with his death – but Kerry says she never set out to write a tragedy.

‘His life was an absolute triumph,’ she explains. ‘For someone to be where he was after he’d been at his lowest point on drugs – few people make it out of that.

‘Fewer still fall in love and live the life we did. His whole life wasn’t a tragedy and if his life goes on to save other lives it will have been worth it.’

Jim was born in Anderston, a poor district of Glasgow on the north bank of the River Clyde. Children there were taught that their lives would never amount to much and expectations for the future were low.

When Jim was 11, his dad Hugh died from cancer. His struggle and death was to leave a lasting impression on the young lad but grieving wasn’t allowed.

When Jim’s mum Margaret re-married, the family hoped for her sake that she’d found happiness. But step-dad, Davie, had a drink problem and was prone to violence. When Davie accidentally set fire to the family home, Jim ran into the burning building to try and save him but it was too late and he died.

Against this backdrop, Jim had already started dabbling in drugs and by the time he was 17, he’d had his first hit of heroin.

When he was given the drug for the first time he almost over-dosed. He told Kerry how he’d returned home in the early hours of the morning, frightened and desperate to talk to Margaret. When he found out she’d gone to bed he thought she didn’t care about him. Years later, Margaret revealed she used to sit up all night, waiting for him to come in.

‘He felt that he didn’t fit in,’ says Kerry, taking a deep breath. ‘He felt in pain all the time. He had never been able to grieve as a child. If you are not allowed to miss someone that pain has to go somewhere.

‘Once you’re in that circle, all your friends and your lifestyle revolve around drugs. If he’d had my childhood, that would never have happened to him in a million years.

‘Addiction is never about drugs, drink, food, or whatever the person uses. It’s always about the underlying causes.’

There were two reasons Jim finally decided to get clean. A run-in with a notorious Glasgow gang had left him terrified and, as he approached 30, he realised he’d seen drug addiction claim the lives of too many friends.

Jim broke away from everything he’d ever known when he moved to Hampshire to spend two years in a rehabilitation centre.

He wasn’t allowed any contact with his friends and could only receive letters from his mum. But after the near-misses he’d experienced while on heroin, Jim was ready to give it up.

‘When he got clean he had nothing,’ says Kerry, from Southsea. ‘He was living in a little bedsit. He had no idea that his life was going to turn out OK.

‘If ever a man deserved a chance in life it was him. We met and fell so in love. We really were soul-mates. It was his courage and optimism that kept me going in my darkest moments.’

Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different when they met on January 13, 1992, at an arts centre in Southsea.

Within three weeks he’d told her about his past – and rather than run a mile she ran head-long into his arms.

‘I took one look at him and I knew that was the man I was going to marry. I know it sounds crazy but I really did. He was an amazing man, there was something magnetic about him. The funny thing was, we’d worked in the same building but until that day our paths hadn’t collided.

‘He was very open and honest with me from the start. He had been clear of addiction for two years and I remember being amazed at his strength.

‘I wasn’t from a background where I knew anything about heroin addiction. I thought once you were a heroin addict that was it, so it was a real eye-opener.

‘He taught me about looking at the person behind the label. The more I knew about him, and the more I learned about what he went through and what caused the addiction, I saw he had phenomenal strength.

‘I was as guilty of it myself before I met Jim but people attach labels, like junkie, and it’s like they are written off.’

After finally finding happiness, Jim was dealt the cruelest card when he was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1996.

His flu-like symptoms had at first been dismissed as irritable bowel syndrome. At the time, not a lot was known about the virus. When a blood test revealed he had it, he was told he might have 10 years left and the couple were catapulted into hospital appointments and treatment programmes.

They were married on April 26, 1997, still optimistic that Jim could be treated. But sadly, the diagnosis had come too late.

‘It can go undetected for so long,’ says 43-year-old Kerry. ‘One in seven people have got the virus and don’t realise. It affects an enormous amount of people – there are 170 million people with it in the world but most of them have no idea they’ve got it.

‘If it is detected early, it can be cured. Hepatitis C has a reputation for being a drug user’s illness and the majority of cases are contracted through shared needles. But the other group of people affected are those who had NHS blood transfusions prior to 1991, which is when they started testing blood for it.

‘Jim only shared a needle once or twice in his life and he also had a blood transfusion prior to 1991. There’s no way of telling what caused it.’

She adds: ‘I think Jim was frightened of talking openly about it and then people reacting badly to him. He was worried people would start on me.

‘I think it’s my biggest regret that I didn’t talk openly about it. There seems to be massive reluctance to talk about hep C. I think there can be a double stigma – former addicts have great guilt if they are then diagnosed with it.’

A simple blood test at the doctors’ surgery is all it takes to tell you if you have the virus. Those who have it can be treated and cured but there is no UK screening programme.

Jim was waiting for a liver transplant when he passed away at the age of 56.

‘The book is a tribute to Jim and the second major thing in my heart after that is raising awareness of hepatitis C to save lives,’ says Kerry.

‘I want people to really understand that someone they see as a worthless junkie is anything but. Jim could have continued but he chose to take responsibility and move his life forward.

‘He did feel ashamed of his drug use but anyone who knew him would have felt proud of all he had become.’

She adds: ‘My knees would buckle every time I saw him. I loved him so much. We were so in love with each other.

‘He fought so hard, his life deserves to stand for something.’

BUY THE BOOK

All Kerry McPhail’s proceeds from her book, James with a Silent C, will be donated to the British Liver Trust.

The trust raises awareness of hepatitis C and promotes the need for early detection.

Jim had always wanted to see his own work published and Kerry says he’d be delighted with what she’s done.

‘It was so in my heart how much he’d wanted to be a writer and have his own book. I thought the next best thing to writing your own book is to have a book written about you.

‘I want to reach 170 million people worldwide, which is ridiculously ambitious, but that’s the amount of people who have hep C and I just want to reach as many of them as I can.’

James with a Silent C is published by Linen Press and is available to buy at a discounted price of £8.99 from linenpressbooks.co.uk

FACTFILE

The hepatitis C virus infects the cells in the liver, causing inflammation and fibrosis. In people with chronic, long-term, hepatitis C infection, that continues to spread.

Over time – usually many years – this can lead to cirrhosis.

As the hepatitis C virus can take many years to make itself known, sufferers could be living with it for many years without realising it.

Up to one in three people with the virus are likely to develop cirrhosis within 20 to 30 years. Other people will live with mild liver problems.

To find out more about hepatitis C, and the support available, log onto britishlivertrust.org.uk or hepctrust.org.uk