Appeal to help paralysed West Lothian veteran hit by mystery bug abroad

Derek Bennet lies seriously ill in a Cyprus hospital.
Derek Bennet lies seriously ill in a Cyprus hospital.
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FRANTIC family and friends are trying to fly home a former paratrooper from West Lothian after he was struck down by a mystery bug abroad.

Retired warrant officer Derek Bennett, known as Benny, has spent more than a month in a Northern Cyprus hospital paralysed from the neck down.

An online fundraising page has been launched to raise £29,000 to evacuate the ex-Royal Scots Dragoon Guard back to his home in Kirknewton and specialist care.

Victoria Guthrie launched the appeal for the 66-year-old – best friend of her dad Geoff who died of a heart attack when she was just nine.

“Benny’s always been there – he’s like an honorary stepdad,” said the 29-year-old. “He even walked me down the aisle at my wedding.

“We just need to get him home,” added Mrs Guthrie, of Currie. “He’ll probably need an operation and the Western General has a specialist unit.”

Mr Bennett fell ill on September 15 while on a holiday with family and friends, including Victoria’s mum Yvonne Troy.

Previously based in Northern Cyprus, Mr Bennett makes regular visits from his home in Kirknewton.

“He’d been for a walk up the mountain in the morning like he always does and later at dinner had a really sore back, said Mrs Guthrie.

“It came on very quickly. He went to the accident and emergency and they gave him some painkillers and sent him away but it just got progressively worse.

“He had a really, really high fever and really erratic blood pressure – they’re not 100 per cent sure what caused it and kept asking if he’d been bitten by a rat or snake on his walk.”

Another theory is that the paralysis might be linked to successive back injuries from his time with the Paras.

Mr Bennett spent two-and-a-half weeks in intensive care while friends and family are now keeping a bedside vigil and taking turns to help feed him.

“He can talk but he’s really out of breath,” said Mrs Guthrie. “He’s very quiet.”

Communicating with Turkish-speaking medics is complicating matters further, with German found to be the only common language.

“Everybody has been amazing over there,” said an emotional Mrs Guthrie. “But we can’t seem to get any answers, even to simple questions you take for granted.

“He’s lost a ridiculous amount of muscle – the weight is just dropping off him.”

Doctors in Northern Cyprus believe Mr Bennett contracted a virulent infection which attacked his central nervous system – but are at a loss as to the cause.

“Although he is out of the intensive care unit, there are still many unanswered questions and the exact infection has not been identified,” said Mrs Guthrie.

“As a result of this infection and of severe spinal damage, Benny has been left paralysed from the neck down.”

And the superfit father-of-two is finding his illness all the more difficult to come to terms with given his active lifestyle.

“As an ex serving member of the Paras and lifelong fitness fanatic, his lack of movement is devastating,” said Mrs Guthrie.

Mr Bennett served in Northern Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Israel, Germany and the Gulf during 25 years with the regiment.

As a physical training instructor, he put fellow Paras through their paces to make sure they made the grade.

He was even awarded the UN’s Peacekeeping medal for his 1974 Cyprus tour – in addition to long service and good conduct recognition.

“The doctors in Cyprus have been brilliant and although they have done everything they can, the language barrier and the absence of family and friends means it is essential that we get Benny back home to the UK,” said Mrs Guthrie.

“Once home, he will need an operation on his back to repair multiple collapsed and splintered discs and will have to start an intense physio 
journey.

“As you can imagine we are desperate to get him home but the only way to do this is with a medical flight.

“His current medical bills have already had a tremendous impact on his life savings and a medical flight home will cost in excess of £29,000.”

Mrs Guthrie has contacted armed forces charities in the hope they can help, while family and friends are also chipping in.

“Any donations, no matter how small, will go a long way to help us make this happen and would be greatly appreciated,” she said.

The fundraising page set up by Mrs Guthrie has already reached £8,000 in a matter of days.

“It’s been overwhelming,” she said. “So many people have donated including some from the army.”

Family and friends have now rallied round in a frantic bid to raise the money needed to medivac Mr Bennet home.

Victoria’s brother-in-law, Steven Guthrie, 34, from Balerno, said: “We’re all doing our best to do as much as we can.

“It’s a really difficult situation, not least the language barrier. Victoria’s got a six-month-old child so she’s trying to look after a baby and support her mum and stepdad as well.”

Anyone wishing to make a donation can do so here.

andy.shipley@edinburghnews.com