Alcohol doesn’t tend to make you see more clearly, but in Denis Duthie’s case a bottle of whisky literally saved his sight.
The 65-year-old Taranaki man suddenly went blind when vodka he had been drinking reacted with his diabetes medication. He regained his sight only after hospital staff administered expensive whisky.
Mr Duthie, a catering tutor at New Plymouth’s Western Institute of Technology, had been celebrating his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in June by having a few vodkas from a bottle his students had given him as a present.
When he walked into a bedroom in his home everything suddenly went black.
“I thought it had got dark and I’d missed out on a bit of time but it was only about half-past-three in the afternoon. I was fumbling around the bedroom for the light switch but … I’d just gone completely blind.”
He thought he’d sleep it off, but the next morning he still couldn’t see a thing, so went to Taranaki Base Hospital.
“I don’t remember much after I arrived in hospital. They put me onto the trolley and into the theatre straight away.
“I know the doctor told my wife to say goodbye because they didn’t think I’d be coming out again.”
The surgeon later told him a strong smell like nail polish remover had come out of the incision in his stomach.
“They asked me if I’d been drinking that and I said ‘Jesus no’. They didn’t know what was going on.”
The doctor thought he might have formaldehyde poisoning, which is associated with ingesting methanol and can be treated by administering ethanol – the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.
There wasn’t enough medical ethanol available in the hospital, so the registrar nipped down to the local bottle store and picked up a bottle of whisky.
“Johnnie Walker Black Label. It was good whisky, yeah.”
They dripped the whisky – which retails for about $55 a bottle – into his stomach through a tube, and hoped for the best.
“I woke up five days later and I could see as soon as I could open my eyes,” Mr Duthie said.
He was feeling “good as gold” and was most impressed by the hospital’s improvised treatment.
“I thought it was pretty bloody good – I’m alive. The hospital was absolutely awesome. Couldn’t have been better.”
Auckland City Hospital intensive care medicine specialist Tony Smith said administering ethanol was a well-established treatment for methanol poisoning.
It worked because the ethanol competed with the methanol and prevented it from being metabolised into harmful formaldehyde, which can cause blindness.
“There are two potential ways of doing it: one is to give intravenous ethanol through a drip, but that is not available in all hospitals. There is also nothing wrong with supplying that alcohol via the gastro-intestinal tract, which is what they’ve chosen to do in this circumstance, and that’s a well established treatment. If the patient’s awake they can just drink it.”
Dr Smith said methanol poisoning could be caused by home-brewed alcohol which had not been made using the standard process.
Mr Duthie was told his condition had been caused by the vodka reacting with his diabetes medication.
He had decided to speak about his ordeal to warn other diabetics: “If you’re a diabetic, take it easy,” he said.
He hadn’t touched alcohol since being released from hospital.