When the coronavirus closed down Europe’s borders, retired firefighter Les Monkman found himself stuck in Spain with only a few days left of his life-saving medication.
As a Type I Diabetic, 70-year-old Les relies on insulin injections several times a day. Unable to get a straight answer from the British Embassy about travelling back to the UK and with no access to his usual prescription at home, Les was getting desperate.
“It was getting quite close to the bone,” says Les. “My immediate threat was by next Wednesday I will have run out of insulin. By Wednesday evening I’ll be in a coma, and by Thursday I’ll be dead. It was very scary. Europe was closing down and I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get any more, it’s not exactly as simple as buying aspirin. Plus they were telling us not to go to hospital because of the virus, but if I couldn’t find insulin soon, I would turn into an emergency, and would have no choice but to go where the virus was.”
Les joined Blackpool Fire Brigade in the 70s as a teenager and spent eight happy years working as a firefighter in the centre of Blackpool. But he had to retire on medical grounds upon discovering he had Diabetes (as governance around being fit enough to work with the disease was different then to what it is now). Despite having left so long ago, he says he never forgot the training he received, and when faced with an emergency that threatened his own survival, his old instincts kicked in.
“I know it sounds a little daft, but my fire service training sorted me out,” he says. “When faced with an emergency or an incident, the worst thing you can do is panic. No one was helping me, I was getting the same automated message from the embassy, so I had to work it out for myself. I had to put on my metaphorical BA kit and complete the rescue. Except in this case, the rescue was me.”
Les managed to find a local to act as translator with a doctor, who said that although he couldn’t issue a prescription as he wasn’t a national, he could write to a local pharmacy and explain the situation so Les could buy some insulin.
“That made me happy and meant I could relax because I wasn’t going to die,” says Les. “I didn’t know when I would be able to go home, but at least I knew I would be going home.”
Having resolved his health emergency, Les settled into life in lockdown. But like many British nationals, says he felt abandoned by his own government.
“All we ever got was a stock answer from a machine telling us to speak to our airline, while our airline told us to speak to our embassy,” says Les. “I even went and knocked on their door because I was desperate to just speak to another human, but it was locked because of the virus. To be critical, it felt like we were just abandoned. That’s why I appealed to the BBC, hoping coverage would put pressure on the government with repatriation flights. But it bore no fruit whatsoever.”
Having appeared in a BBC article may not have helped him with returning home, but it did put Les on the Charity’s radar. We wrote to him at the only address we had for him, his home address in Blackpool. A relative opened his post and told Les we were trying to get in touch to see if there was anything we could do.
“To hear from the Charity when I felt like I had no one on my side was just absolutely wonderful. To have someone call me from my old fire service world, which is still so close to my heart despite leaving 40 years ago, well… I could fill up again just thinking about it.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Les. “I emailed back to say I’d received the letter and [Welfare Caseworker] Irene Ramsden got in touch with me, offering to ring me each week to check in and see how I was. It was absolutely fantastic. First of all, someone in England was caring about me. But to have someone call me from my old fire service world, which is still so close to my heart despite leaving 40 years ago, well… I could fill up again just thinking about it.
“ It was a wonderful feeling, to have someone on my side who knew what was going on. And it was just lovely to have someone to talk to again. To hear from the Charity when I felt like I had no one on my side was just absolutely wonderful. And Irene has been tremendous, keeping in contact with me like she promised. I don’t know any of you personally, but I just love you all. You’ve made me feel cared for, and like I haven’t been forgotten. I’ve got a lump in my throat now just talking about it.”
Les says when he was in the brigade (which would later become Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service) he was an avid supporter of the then-Benevolent Fund, and recalls holding a kissing booth at the end of Blackpool Pier in his fire uniform to raise funds. But he says he never expected he would ever be supported by The Fire Fighters Charity.
“My time in the fire service was some of the happiest in my life and I was heartbroken to have to have left it. And now, all these years later, when I was in need, my fire training saved me and The Fire Fighters Charity was there for me. It’s such a special feeling and I am so grateful. It’s a wonderful thing you do for people.
“When Irene asked if she could contact me each week, it was the biggest yes I’ve ever given. All it is an email or a phone call, but really, it’s a connection. For me, at this particular moment in my life, that connection means everything to me. It’s been wonderful to talk to you about it, it’s made my week. I’m going to be skipping when I get off the phone. because you’re real, you’re not a machine. And you care about me. Whenever I do make it back to the UK, I’m taking you all out for lunch.”
We’re here to support all serving and retired members of the UK’s fire and rescue services, as well as your loved ones. Even if you left the fire service a long time ago, like Les, we may still be able to help you. If you completed five years service (or two if you were made redundant) or had to leave on medical reason (after any time period) you’re a beneficiary for life. That means we’ll never forget you, just like we never forgot about Les.
If something is affecting your welfare, don’t suffer in silence. Call us on 0800 389 8820 or make an enquiry via our website.
Want to find out more?
Here’s some recommended reading if you’d like to find out more
- Could you benefit from Welfare support during the coronavirus?
- It’s good to talk, especially during lockdown
- “I worry there are people in need who don’t know about the Charity”
One last thing
We can’t be there for people like Les without people like you. Every year our amazing supporters, donors and fundraisers come together to raise the £10m we need to operate our services in support of the entire UK fire services community.
This year, however, the coronavirus pandemic has brought our traditional fundraising to a halt, with the cancellation or postponement of countless events and challenges. Furthermore, the Charity does not meet the criteria outlined by Government in regards to grant support.
In all, we estimate that we may raise only around 50% of our usual fundraising income during this period, which means that we may have to curtail our ambitions and plans for the future, unless we can find an alternate way to raise that income.
If you can afford to donate to the Charity, we’d really appreciate it. And so would the people who rely on us.