Friday, 3 March 2017

My Tribute to Veteran & Guinea Pig, Dr Sandy Saunders

Dr Arthur Courtney Saunders, a veteran and member of the Guinea Pig Club, sadly passed away on 26th February 2017, aged 94.

He was known to all as Sandy. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet Sandy in person, but I was honoured to speak with him on the telephone last year, and our conversation shall remain with me forever.

In November 2016, my debut novel, The Beauty Shop was released. I wrote it because I wanted to share with the world the remarkable story of the Guinea Pig Club - a club formed by injured servicemen who required the care of New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

It is a remarkable piece of history not only because of the pioneering plastic surgery McIndoe undertook but in everything else that he did. In many ways, he quite literally gave his all in helping 649 young men overcome the most horrific, debilitating injuries and set them back on the path to life; to living whole lives.

One of the 'guinea pigs' was a young man called Sandy Saunders, a man who was to become so inspired by the work of this remarkable surgeon that he too would train to become a doctor, and spend the rest of his working life in medical practice. As a GP, he was highly respected by all who knew him, and he spent his life giving back, helping others as he too had once been helped.

Sandy Saunders back row, 3rd from left
Sandy's own story was remarkable. Having witnessed the beginning of the war as a civilian, including the bombings in his hometown of Liverpool, he received his call-up at the age of 21 in 1943. Sandy joined the Army as an officer, but later, having been so inspired by D-Day, the glider pilots and Pegasus Bridge, he volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment. Unfortunately, on the 27th September 1945, while undertaking a training flight, he was attempting to land his Tiger Moth at RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire when he became caught in crosswinds. The engine stalled and the aircraft plummeted. Sandy recalls waking up, trapped in the midst of an inferno. Tragically, his navigator was killed. Despite his injuries, Sandy somehow managed to unbuckle his harness and clamber out of the aircraft, after which he collapsed on the ground. Later, having regained consciousness in hospital, he soon learned he had forty percent burns to his hands, face and legs.

Bandaged from head to toe, it would be three months before he would see himself in a mirror. Recalling that moment, he told me how it shocked him. He was horrified and felt as if all was lost and slipped into depression. But, by chance, he was later referred to Archibald McIndoe who quickly assessed him, saw what needed to be done, and very promptly arranged for him to be admitted for surgery. It was a new beginning for Sandy. Archie, as many called him, performed a series of operations, significantly improving Sandy's hands, face and legs. During this time, Sandy learned to adapt, to cope with his injuries, and he became very interested in Archie's work.

While a new life dawned, he spent the rest of his life devoted to his work and his family, but memories of war, and more importantly, his accident, never left him. He explained how he often had nightmares, reliving the crash, reliving the guilt he carried over the death of his friend and navigator. He said to me, 'Well, it's rather like being the driver of a car and having a crash which kills your passenger. You'd feel guilty, wouldn't you?' That has stayed with me ever since and yes, I'm quite sure I would feel guilty. His words were so emotive, and have made me question many things in life since our chat.

Sandy Saunders 2016
He ended the call with the news that he was having major surgery soon and he may nor survive. I immediately thought the worst, and he asked me to pray for him. I said I would, and I certainly did. Fortunately, he did survive the operation but later received the news that he was terminally ill. Sadly, he passed away at home with his wife by his side, just as he had wished, on 26th February 2017.

Something else I recall from our chat was how warm he was, how friendly and caring still, even taking the time to ask about my family and me and giving me some advice at one stage. He never ceased caring about people, about life and about the things that mattered.

He was an active member of the Guinea Pig Club throughout his life, and he began and led the campaign to have a permanent memorial to the club, to honour all 649 members. This was unveiled in November 2016 at the National Memorial Arboretum, by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. The memorial bears an inscription, penned by Sandy himself, and reads: Out of the flames came inspiration.

In many ways, Sandy reminded me of Sir Archibald McIndoe, and I am truly blessed and honoured to have spoken with this dear gentleman, something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

For Sandy Saunders, a man who rose from the ashes to live a life filled with love and compassion, beating the machine of war in all its inhumanity, spending his life giving back to the people. He never tired of telling his story, realising how important it was for people to understand and to learn from it. Thank you for your service. Blue skies, Sir. Rest well.

Dr Sandy Saunders (1922 -2017)

Sir Archibald McIndoe top centre
Several weeks ago, Sandy took to the skies for one last flight.