(This article was originally published in the Jersey Evening Post on Thursday 25 April 2019, and is published here with their blessing)
“My oncologist got my family over and said, if this doesn’t work you’ve got two weeks. So we’re sending you home.”
Gary Quenault (57) falls silent, tears in his eyes as he recalls the harrowing moment, back in 2014, when his doctor gave him the gravest of news. He’d been fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma and leukaemia for nearly three years, but after the current course of chemo had finished, that would be it. They couldn’t give him anymore.
“It was totally mind-blowing,” Gary recalls, five years later and thankfully cancer free, as we chat over a coffee and a bacon roll. We’re at a cafe next to Le Riches Automobile Restorers in Trinity, where Gary’s Ford Escort Mk 1 Mexico was being valued after it was renovated by TV show, Car S.O.S. Gary’s owned his Mexico for 30 years, but it had been stuck in a shed in desperate need of a make over. So, as a surprise to his Dad following his recovery, Gary’s 35 year old son Graham asked the TV show to get involved.
“Once the cancer had cleared I just thought it’d be great if he could have that car to enjoy for the rest of his life,” Graham said.
It was 2011 when Gary first showed signs of illness. Bronchitis had turned into pneumonia, his spleen was swollen and was pressing on his kidneys. He lost four stone in weight and, following weeks of doctors appointments, Gary was hit with the bombshell. He had cancer. The leukaemia was juvenile, but the lymphoma was very aggressive.
The timing was horrendous, coming as it did just days before son Graham’s wedding, on Saturday 18 June 2011. The following Monday Gary flew to Bournemouth, where he’d spend most of the next three years fighting for his life.
“They hit it very aggressively,” Gary recalls. “I was in isolation for 14 weeks, because the chemo knocks your immune system out completely, knocks all your bloods out, all your bone marrow out, and then you’ve got to start again.”
Then, out of nowhere, a scan revealed a shadow on his lung. The doctors removed a 5cm lump which was diagnosed as Tuberculosis (TB). His chemotherapy was halted for six months while the TB could be treated.
The physical and mental toll on Gary was considerable. On odd days off treatment and out of isolation, Gary would go for walks around Bournemouth, or visit Sammy Miller’s motorbike museum, and Beaulieu to see the vintage cars. His wife Pauline and family were at home in Jersey, and he had nothing else to do. “Pauline came over when she could, but we were down to one wage – I don’t know how she managed financially.”
Gary went home approximately six times during the course of his treatment. One time, unwell from the effects of the treatment, and the mental anguish of what he was going through, Gary was in a particularly dark place. At home he didn’t recognise his children, while he thought his pet cats were trying to attack him.
It wasn’t just Gary who was suffering – his family were going through hell too. “It was hard,” son Graham (35) recalls. “You don’t know what to do with yourself. You miss him, you want to be there with him, and for him. You go to work and think, ‘he’s just sat in a hospital bed’. And you get back home and he’s still in a hospital bed.”
By early 2014 the cancer had stabilised. But in order to get rid of it completely, Gary’s oncologist suggested a treatment that had been trialled in Germany. “I was a guinea pig,” Gary says. “But that was the last resort, to get rid of it completely. Without that trial, I don’t think I would have got through it.”
But then, two weeks after the trial started, the doctors said Gary physically couldn’t take anymore. He was told to go home with his family. If the treatment didn’t work, he may only have two weeks to live.
“They left it six months before any more treatment, which gave it time to work,” Gary says. “When they did do a scan, in mid-2014, they said they couldn’t find any of the lymphoma – it was clear. And they said they’d never seen it go from aggressive to clear. Ever. In fact, top oncologists from New York and London have looked at my case, because they’d never seen it go from so aggressive, to gone.”
Finally clear from cancer, in 2015 Gary then had to have a double hip replacement, as the steroids he’d taken to counter the affect of the chemo, had turned his hip bones to ‘chalk’. Gary now has titanium plates in both hips, yet he’s now more mobile than ever. “We do a lot of walking now,” Gary enthuses. “Down from home in Samares to Gorey and back. Uphill kills me. Upstairs absolutely kills me!”
After his recovery, TV show Car S.O.S renovated his beloved Mexico. Gary and Graham had planned to work on the car themselves, but they estimated it would take 10 years to complete, maybe more, factoring in day jobs, and in Graham’s case, a young family to prioritise.
So in December 2017 Graham secretly wrote to Car SOS to put his Dad’s story forward. A year later the programme’s producer got in touch to say they’d love to take the car on. So, in January 2019 the show’s presenters, Tim Shaw and master mechanic Fuzz Townshend, came to the island to take the car from Graham’s workshop in town, where he’d hidden the car so that his Dad wouldn’t know when it had gone.
“They took the car to Birmingham and basically stripped it down to the chassis,” Graham says. “They cut all the old rot out, which was most of it. They put all new body panels, rebuilt the engine, new interior, new brakes, new suspension, new floor, new firewall, new inner wings, new outer wings, new everything.”
By February, the car was ready. Graham and his family had to somehow get an unsuspecting Gary to Beaulieu in Hampshire – the same place he used to visit on his days off from cancer treatment – for the big reveal. Packaged as a shopping trip for the girls, and a lads day out at Beaulieu to see some cars, Graham drove his Dad and brother-in-law Richie to Beaulieu for the big reveal. Already there was Gary’s wife Pauline, his Daughter Sarah, Graham’s wife Lian and their daughters, Marli and Baylee.
When they arrived Gary was met by Tim and Fuzz, who brought the restored Mexico out in front of him. “I was completely oblivious,” Gary confesses. “I didn’t believe for about three days that it was my car! It’s got the colours I wanted, it’s got a jersey number plate, which didn’t mean anything to me at first, but is the date the car was originally registered. It’s just unbelievable. My dream was to have the car on the road, to drive my granddaughters around, like my dad did with my kids, and their cousins.”
Now, after everything he’s been through, Gary’s dream has come true. The car is back on the island and, having taken a drive in it myself, I can confirm that its back to it’s best. It will be appearing at Jersey’s International Car show in June, and then, who knows.
“Now we can drive it,” Gary concludes. “Now we can enjoy it.”
After everything he’s been through, I think that’s the least Gary and his family deserve.
* You can see Gary and his Ford Mexico appearing on Car S.O.S. tonight at 8pm, on the National Geographic channel.