THE British family of the first suspected Nolotil victim have recalled their heartbreaking experience amid a growing campaign to crackdown on the ‘lethal’ painkiller.
When James Hanley, 72, decided to move to Spain in 2016, he was dreaming of retirement in the sun.
But within a year he would be dead, after taking Nolotil to numb his pain following successful cancer treatment.
His story would go on to serve as a leading case study for a campaign to ban the drug, launched by medical legal expert Cristina del Campo.
James, a former ferry steward, ‘had very good friends in Spain’ and went to visit them often before deciding to leave Ipswich in search of the expat dream.
“He thought it was a great opportunity to spend the rest of his days living in Spain,” his nephew, Daniel Preston, told the Olive Press.
“He embraced it and threw himself into the local community. He seemed to be having a good time out there.”
James was ‘living his best life’ in Javea, Alicante, getting a ‘nice’ apartment, adopting a stray cat and enjoying local restaurants.
Just months into his retirement dream, the ‘bubbly’ expat, received the shocking news he was suffering from rectal cancer.
But James didn’t let this stop him: “He was quite positive that it was a temporary problem, a small tumour that shouldn’t have been life threatening. His prognosis was good. It seemed quite routine at the time,” says Daniel.
After removing the tumour, James was given Nolotil, also known as Metamizol, to combat the pain of his cancer treatment.
All seemed well, until just days later ‘he couldn’t breathe’.
Back in the UK, concerned family members urged James to see a doctor and he was immediately hospitalised.
Unable to fly due to a phobia, James’s sister, Bridget, asked Daniel to fly out to Spain.
Accompanied by his siblings, Daniel touched down in Alicante ‘not really sure’ what was wrong with his uncle.
The rapidly progressing illness was soon revealed to be a form of sepsis known as Fournier Gangrene, an aggressive, flesh-eating disease affecting the groin and genitals.
“I remember at one point the bedsheets fell away and exposed his body. It was horrific, this flesh eating bug had ripped through his body and was eating away at him.
“It still haunts me now. It was so graphic,” Daniel said.
Despite the severity of his illness, Daniel believes his uncle was unaware of his condition.
He said: “He was still positive and upbeat, that was his character. But he couldn’t see what was going on.
“He was having operations everyday to remove the dead or infectious tissues. He called it cleaning.”
As more and more of his tissues were removed, it became difficult for James’s body to sustain itself.
“It was clear to me that there was no stopping it, it was too aggressive. And sure enough, we went home due to work commitments and a few days later he was gone,” said Daniel.
For James’ sister, Bridget, the news came as a terrible shock.
“When he left, I said ‘I don’t think I’ll ever see you again’, but I didn’t think he would die. I didn’t mean it literally,” she told the Olive Press.
The care worker, who stayed in Essex due to a fear of flying, said it was ‘absolutely awful’ to not be able to be there for her ‘beloved’ brother.
“It was a terrible time because I couldn’t do anything. He was so caring and loving. He would do anything for anybody. He was such a good brother.
“‘I think about him every single day. If he hadn’t gone there it would never have happened, he would have been looked after in England.”
After James passed away, his funeral had to be arranged within two days, leaving the family ‘shocked’ and ‘bewildered’.
In spite of their heartbreak, they wore bright clothes to honour his ‘always happy’ attitude.
It wasn’t until this bittersweet occasion that the family began to question James’s untimely death.
“We just thought it was a really unfortunate case at first and we didn’t think too much about it,” said Daniel.
“It wasn’t until the funeral that I realised something more was going on.”
At the service, he reunited with Cristina del Campo, a medical translator who was ‘adamant’ that something wasn’t right with James’s case.
She said: “After James died they told me he also had sepsis amongst other things, I had heard that word recently, in relation to the death of an Irish woman.
“I started looking into it and I began to see a pattern, everyone who died had taken Nolotil. Many had sepsis and Fournier Gangrene.”
It is thought the drug reduces patients’ white blood cell count, leaving them vulnerable to infection.
The condition, known as agranulocytosis, is believed to be a result of genetic differences in Northern European populations.
A 2009 study conducted in Costa del Sol Hospital, Marbella, concluded: “??Dipyrone-related agranulocytosis is an adverse effect more frequent in [the] British population, and its use must be avoided.”
Cristina has now been fighting against Nolotil for the past seven years with her campaign group the Association for Drug Affected People (ADAF).
The Olive Press has also been urging officials to restrict the use of Nolotil and relaunched their ‘Kill The Drug’ campaign last week.
It aims to compel health workers to stick to a 2018 directive which restricted the prescription of Nolotil for ‘short term use’, with ‘significant consideration’ of patients’ backgrounds, including genetic vulnerability to dangerous side effects.
When asked for comment, one company that supplies metamizole in Spain, Boehringer Ingelheim, said: “Nolotil (metamizole) has a well-established safety profile and has been used by patients for almost 60 years.
“Agranulocystosis is a very rare, adverse reaction that has been known for decades and is well-described in the medicine package information.”
Nonetheless, British expats continue to die after taking the drug.
In December last year, a 42-year-old father died in Alicante after taking Nolotil for a shoulder injury.
“When I heard that I said I can’t believe they’re still using it over there. It’s crazy. It’s just crazy,” Bridget told the Olive Press.
Despite the 2018 directive, the Olive Press has received dozens of reports of Brits being given the dangerous medicine.
Currently, expats’ only recourse is to make a complaint or report the incident to the ADAF.
That’s why we are calling for tougher regulations and for health professionals to pledge their commitment to saving the lives of expats in Spain.
However, this can never bring back loved ones needlessly lost to a painkiller shown to have no greater effect than ibuprofen.
Bridget said: “‘My only consolation is that I know he wanted to go over there. He wanted to sit and have his coffee by the beach in the morning and that’s exactly what he did.”