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As the infected blood public inquiry is set to conclude, our reporter reflects on his friendship with campaigners Su Gorman and her husband Steve Dymond, from Broadstairs

As the final report from the contaminated blood inquiry is set to be released tomorrow, reporter Chris Britcher reflects on his friendship with a couple whose lives were devastated by the scandal – neither of whom would survive to see justice finally delivered…

In the week before Christmas 2018, I received an email from Su Gorman. Her husband, Steve Dymond, had been admitted to hospital and was in a serious condition.

Steve Dymond at his home in Broadstairs
Steve Dymond at his home in Broadstairs

I sent them both my best wishes and hoped this would just be the latest in Steve’s long-running battles with ill health but that, as before, he would soon be on the mend. We had, just weeks before, collaborated on the latest of many articles together.

On December 23, she passed on the news that he had died. She was by his side, as she had been throughout their long marriage. I felt sick to my stomach. He had become what he always feared: another victim, the latest statistic.

It brought the curtain down on a partnership which had seen them go from silently suffering when I first met them to loudly shouting about the contaminated blood scandal – one of the modern era’s most shocking medical blunders. In an agonising twist, Su too would not live to see the outcome of the public inquiry.

But their role in tirelessly raising awareness, of bravely putting their own struggles and challenges in the spotlight, should not be underestimated.

It would be too strong to say if it were not for them the inquiry which has now concluded would not have happened. But they were an integral part of the wave of pressure which was continuously applied which finally made the government sit up and act.

Steve Dymond and his wife Su Gorman
Steve Dymond and his wife Su Gorman

I first met Steve Dymond on a warm, sunny day in the summer of 2015.

He and Su had invited me to their home in Broadstairs, a modest bungalow on a quiet street which they then shared with Su’s mother.

Arriving at their door I faced a challenge. They had never spoken about Steve’s condition and were very unsure whether they wanted to. I, on the other hand, knew very little of the medical scandal to which he had been exposed.

We cannot have imagined the chain of events which, together, we would set in motion.

He had contacted the local Kent newspaper I worked for with a view to discussing his plight in highlighting the struggles of a community for whom publicity was in short supply.

Steve Dymond was highly educated and had a successful career until it was derailed by his ill health
Steve Dymond was highly educated and had a successful career until it was derailed by his ill health

Steve was a mild haemophiliac, a hereditary condition which sees sufferers not have the ability for their blood to naturally clot sufficiently. This means when they bleed it is difficult for them to stop, with the obvious potential dangers.

His mother had not told him he was likely to have the condition due to the stigma attached to it. He only discovered he had it during a routine tooth extraction at the age of 12.

The best course of action, the NHS then believed, was to treat haemophiliacs with a blood product called Factor VIII - something of a wonder treatment at the time. Administered to assist with blood clotting during, for example, medical procedures, it would be the root cause of what would become the contaminated blood scandal.

In short, the NHS ordered in supplies from the US where the blood used in the product had been sourced from a wide variety of sources - among them prisoners and drug addicts, anyone willing to be paid to give blood. The result? Any disease they carried was then exported in the product and pumped into the systems of haemophiliacs in the UK.

Even when suspicions the blood was contaminated were raised, the treatment was, say campaigners, allowed to continue.

Blood sourced from the likes of prisoners and drug addicts was used to treat patients - particularly haemophiliacs
Blood sourced from the likes of prisoners and drug addicts was used to treat patients - particularly haemophiliacs

Thousands found themselves infected with a debilitating – or life-limiting – condition, So far, more than 2,400 have died as a consequence. And that number continues to grow.

Steve had Factor VIII on a number of occasions. He had no idea he was playing Russian roulette each time. He believes it was at some point during his time at university in the mid-1970s he received a dose which would, ultimately, forever change the course of his life and, indeed, shorten it.

To cut a very long story very short, he found himself fatigued, plagued by ‘brain fog’ and generally feeling unwell and unlike himself.

He was eventually diagnosed many years later with hepatitis C. It was a virus most prevalent to drug users who shared needles. It can cause serious damage to the liver. But there was also the fear he had been infected with HIV, as many others were, or even Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) – all courtesy of Factor VIII.

Fearing for their own health, Steve and Su opted not to have children. They lived a frugal lifestyle – Steve being forced to retire due to ill health in his mid-40s. When we met, he was in his late 50s.

A public inquiry in recent years has sought to finally satisfy victims of the scandal
A public inquiry in recent years has sought to finally satisfy victims of the scandal

But on that summer’s day, he was about to let the world in on what he and Su had been through.

The biggest hurdle faced was not just the health issues Steve had been left with, but his emotional baggage.

His brother, Howard – who was also a haemophiliac – had died at the age of 15. He had suffered a post-operative haemorrhage. He was cremated on the day of Steve’s 13th birthday.

Steve was left devastated. It was a scar which never healed – still bringing him to the verge of tears when he discussed it.

“In April 2015, we were attending the funeral of Mike Dorricot, a leading member of the TaintedBlood campaign group,” recalled Su last year. “Steve said that day he had never spoken about it [his condition] and never would.

Steve Dymond in 2016
Steve Dymond in 2016

“Press coverage of the scandal at that time was negligible. In general, the press struggled to believe it wasn’t just an unfortunate accident or had been frightened into silence by threats from the medical profession.

“Steve was not enthusiastic about the idea of speaking out. But the feeling we owed something to Mike and the others who had gone before him, was strong.

“As we discussed it, he said if he was to agree to it, it would probably be an anonymous interview with no photograph.”

Which is how I found myself on their doorstep and being ushered into their home.

Steve was a proud man who held himself in a proud manner. Slim and tall, he was imposing and came to the door wearing a dark suit with a tie in the colours of the TaintedBlood campaign group. His voice carried a remarkable clarity – no doubt a consequence of his days as a teacher of Russian in London between 1979 and 1987. He had gone on to write the first GCSE paper in the subject.

Steve Dymond and his wife, Su Gorman, had to shelve plans for children as a consequence of his treatment
Steve Dymond and his wife, Su Gorman, had to shelve plans for children as a consequence of his treatment

He was friendly but, understandably, guarded.

As we settled down to chat, Steve prepared a pot of coffee the strength of which was enough to keep an elephant up for a week. It would become a recurring joke over the coming years.

Recalled Su: “All his life Steve was very selective about who he let get to know him and as the chat continued, you were clearly one of them. At the end of three hours you took your leave promising to send a draft of the article for us to fact-check. It was something we’d never heard of - and at a time when many of the few interviews that were being published had factual mistakes which were causing distress and arguments in the TaintedBlood community.”

Fortunately, they gave it the thumbs up. Mission trust was underway. Yet they need not have worried. The case was so compelling - so, in my opinion, clear cut - that I remember leaving their home being amazed this wasn’t a story creating nationwide outrage. I was also desperately keen to ensure Steve’s emergence as a victim to the wider public was done to a level he was both happy and comfortable with. He had agreed to be both named and pictured for the article. It was a big step.

Such was the wealth of material they had provided me, I produced a follow-up the next week.

That article, of all the press we did, meant the most to me.

“That second article,” remembered Sue, “of all the press we and I, without Steve, have done, meant the most to me.

“During that long chat the subject of our childlessness as a result of Steve’s infection came up and apparently I welled up - the only emotion I’ve ever shown to the press.

“With reference to our grief and loss, the article so delicately sketched and for an instant breathed life into the children we planned, finally allowing our ghost babies to rest in peace. It freed us from the sense of failure and inadequacy and allowed us at last to move on.

“Until that article, the loss of the possibility to have children we lived as a personal failure.”

Over the coming months we would meet frequently – and rarely a week went by when Steve wasn’t on the phone. His appetite to further heighten awareness and the positive reaction of the articles in the affected community, gave him a new focus.

The press struggled to believe it wasn’t just an unfortunate accident or had been frightened into silence by threats from the medical profession.

I remember them asking me if I had any objection to them speaking to other media organisations. How could I possibly? This was bigger than one newspaper’s exclusive. I urged them to get the message out far and wide.

On one of my subsequent visits to their home I met another Kent man who had been infected. He had got both Hepatitis C and HIV as a result of Factor VIII. He had been infected with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic as a teenager. The way in which these people coped with the cards life had dealt them – through absolutely no fault of their own but a trust in ‘the establishment’ – astonished me.

Steve and Su’s story started spreading far and wide.

But more importantly, their efforts – combined with many others – were beginning to make a difference. It was raised in Parliament; more and more victims were speaking out.

In 2017, former health secretary Andy Burnham stood up in the House of Commons and described it as “a criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”. It was a watershed moment.

Andy Burnham’s comments to the Commons was a turning point. Picture: Gary Browne
Andy Burnham’s comments to the Commons was a turning point. Picture: Gary Browne

Only in recent years - first by David Cameron and then Theresa May - has the government apologised to the victims. Payments to those caught up in the scandal had been paltry and paid through means-tested charitable trusts.

The campaign group, and Steve himself, wanted more. They wanted a public inquiry and, yes, they wanted compensation in keeping with the life-limiting illnesses they had been handed, for them and their families.

Steve’s health had seen him forced to retire in his mid-40s. That bungalow in Broadstairs was not theirs – it was Su’s mother’s. Financial security had been denied them too.

Over time, Steve and Su became synonymous with the scandal, appearing on national TV and in various newspapers. Their stoicism, their openess, their desperation to see justice for all caught up in the scandal endeared them to many other journalists.

Yet all the while they were being elevated into the spotlight, Steve’s health was declining. Hepatitis C had caused extensive damage to his liver. When a breakthrough treatment finally became available it, remarkably, worked in just a handful of months.

Steve passed way at the QEQM Hospital in Margate
Steve passed way at the QEQM Hospital in Margate

But in a cruel twist, no sooner had the Hepatitis C gone, it was discovered that it had caused such extensive damage he now had cancer of the liver.

It didn’t stop him.

Meanwhile, Su was becoming more involved too. She was fiercely protective of Steve and equally as resolute in the campaigners' renewed push for a public inquiry. She became the press secretary of TaintedBlood.

The public inquiry was seen as a platform for truth. An opportunity for the affected community – both those directly infected and their families – to emerge from the shadows and have their voices heard. For the most senior government figures to explain their actions; for truth to come out.

When we had that first meeting back in the summer of 2015, it seemed an almost unobtainable goal. That first meeting had taken place not long after a public inquiry confined to Scotland – the Penrose Inquiry – which victims felt was the very epitome of establishment pushback. Described as a “whitewash”, it concluded very little and left campaigners deflated.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the public inquiry. Picture: Alan Langley
Former Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the public inquiry. Picture: Alan Langley

Before that, in 2009, a privately-funded investigation had been set up. However, its lack of official clout meant witnesses did not have to attend and documents remained undisclosed. The Archer Report concluded “some of those who gave evidence to us suspected that there was an exercise in suppressing evidence of negligence or misconduct”. The truth still remained elusive.

But as pressure – spearheaded by the TaintedBlood campaign group within which Steve and Su were now hugely active – mounted, in July 2017, the government confirmed a public inquiry would take place.

With Sir Brian Langstaff as its chair, preliminary hearings started in September 2018.

Steve’s health, however, had forced him to miss it.

Writing in an article he penned for KentOnline, he spoke of his hopes for when statements from those affected would be heard in April 2019: “The one consolation with this further delay is I can hope to have recovered enough health and strength to participate fully. We have to believe that I will still be amongst the survivors.”

Cruelly, it was not to be.

He died on December 23, 2018, at the QEQM Hospital in Margate. He was 62.

It was just four months before those witness statements were due to be heard. It would not, however, deny his voice being heard.

His wife Su appeared and gave a lengthy statement – wearing Steve’s tie – and played an audio clip of her late husband. He had made it to the inquiry in spirit, if not in person.

Steve Dymond's grave in Devon. He died on December 23, 2018
Steve Dymond's grave in Devon. He died on December 23, 2018

Following his passing, Su found herself forced to move out of Kent – settling instead in Devon, close to where Steve is now buried.

She remained hugely active in the campaign. Yet, last summer she too died from heart failure. She was 68. Her death came just weeks after our last correspondence.

The conclusion of the five-day inquest into Steve’s death heard how he had died of liver failure caused by hepatitis acquired from contaminated blood. That it was listed as a key cause was, said Su, “a victory”.

She added: “To this day people say to me Steve is still here, campaigning with us. So many people tell me they wish they’d met him and so many are glad they did.

“His satisfaction in his campaign contribution was split between recovering the ability to contribute to society which the scandal denied him and the friendship of so many interesting people in the journalists he met.

“But Steve never doubted the power of the local press which set him on his way.”

Steve's parting gift...Tintin's Snowy...a dog with a bone
Steve's parting gift...Tintin's Snowy...a dog with a bone

A few months after Steve’s passing, I met up with Su for a coffee before she left Kent for Devon. It was the last time I’d ever see her.

She passed me a small present Steve had bought for me just before he died. Fittingly, it was small model of reporter Tintin’s dog Snowy. I was, she said, like a “dog with a bone” when it came to championing their plight.

It has sat proudly next to my desk ever since.

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