True journalists cannot turn their back on a good story, even when they are the story. At the age of 57, former BBC Athens correspondent Malcolm Brabant's journalistic instinct remains intact although a serious health issue has kept him off the job for two years now.
“It was such a good story,” he jokes during a telephone interview in explanation of his decision to write a book about his experience. “I promise you though, it isn’t an enjoyable read,” he says.
In “Malcolm Is a Little Unwell,” which is now out in e-book format, the award-winning journalist outlines his catastrophic descent into psychosis after receiving a yellow fever vaccination in April 2011. Brabant received a dose of Stamaril at an Athens clinic ahead of a planned Unicef working trip to Ivory Coast in West Africa.
Within hours of having the jab, Brabant’s temperature rose to 40C. It took doctors two weeks to get the fever down. As soon as he felt better he returned to his home in Drafi, eastern Attica, and that was when the psychotic episodes started.
“He was unrecognizable,” his wife Trine Villemann says. Brabant explains he told her he was the Messiah, he tried to use his “powers” to make his Kindle fly and even wrote to his employers at the BBC telling them that he was ready to forgive them their sins. Watching the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, he says, he burst in tears and saluted at the sight of men in uniforms. “The worst was still to come,” Brabant says, adding that his family has “no history of madness.”
His family left Greece and moved to England in search of specialized help, but treatment at a psychiatric clinic in Ipswich yielded no results. Villemann then thought that the calm environment of her native Denmark would be good for her husband’s health. It was New Year’s Eve when, in a hospital room in Copenhagen, Brabant tied a belt around his neck, thinking he was the devil. “I had to destroy myself to save the world,” he now says.
Brabant has been out of hospital since July and doctors say he should be able to make full recovery. But the past still haunts him. “I find it painful to read my own book,” he admits. He suffers from memory gaps, but his wife helps him to remember things. She also launched a legal battle against French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, the manufacturer of the controversial vaccine.
The company denies there is any link between Stamaril and psychotic episodes but it refuses to release the results of its investigation into the case. “We have asked them to share the results, but they simply won’t do that,” Villemann says. In a recent letter sent to The Daily Telegraph, the firm said that “less than 10 cases relating mental disorders, including Mr Brabant’s, have been reported. None of them have resulted in a complaint.”
“For two years we have struggled to find out what happened and the company knew all along that there were more such cases out there?” she asks. “For us there is a clear link between my husband’s illness and the vaccine, but this is like the big pharmaceutical firms and the little people.”
The couple had a very important motive in overcoming all this, their 12-year-old son, Lukas. “He was forced to grow up. He saw me slip into madness. He was unhappy about leaving Greece. It was where he grew up, where he made all his friends,” says Brabant.
Brabant, still in “very ordered, almost dull Denmark,” too misses Greece. “It’s like losing a friend. I miss the chaos. I miss the people, my job, I miss a lot of things,” he says.
“We lost two years trying to get our time back. We have survived a terrible ordeal and now we’re fighting back. At least this demonstrates how strong we are.”