'˜I was sitting in the car with all my skin gone': Alan Reid CEO of the Blackpool-based charity Disability First
As a young man, Alan Reid found himself seconds from death as he was dragged from the burning wreckage of his car moments before it was engulfed in flames.
The effects of the horrific motorway crash changed his life forever – but it was the start of a long journey that has seen him transform the lives of disabled people across the Fylde coast.
It is one that took the talented musician from fearing he would never see again to masterminding a successful bid for almost Â£1m to support the work of Disability First.
He is chief executive of the charity –which is celebrating its 25th birthday – and has made it his life’s work to help others living with disabilities.
Now 58, he recalls how as a 20-year-old he was living the dream – a musician by night and working as an extra on TV sets by day – when the accident rocked his world.
Having shot a scene for Brideshead Revisited alongside Jeremy Irons, he was on his way back to his Blackpool home from the old Granada studios in Manchester.
On the M6, near Preston, he was in the middle lane when his car stalled. Two cars swerved to avoid him. The third, a Volvo estate, ploughed into his Mini, splicing the petrol tank, driving him into the central barrier. Both cars went up in flames.
“Two of the people that pulled over along with the driver at the back hauled me out of the car,” he said.
“You have literally seconds before it all goes up.
“I was dragged across the motorway, sitting in someone’s car, all my skin gone. You get the initial pain then it goes past that.
“It’s an amazing thing, shock. I thought I’d be out of hospital in no time. I’ve got out of the car, I’m still here, no broken bones.
“With third degree burns your fluid runs out all the time, there’s nothing to stop it. My head went up like a balloon. My eyes shut within half an hour. I didn’t know if I’d see again.
“The sister said you’ll be in and out of hospital for the next five years. You won’t look the same and you won’t be able to do some of the things you could.
“To call it a bombshell would put it too lightly. It was like the world had collapsed.”
He had eight operations under general anaesthetic and as many more under local anaesthetic over the years that followed. His hands – crucial to his music – were saved by the skill of a surgeon.
“The nurses brought me out of myself,” Alan said.
“They would send me off to chat to patients who were fed up. It was like a war zone. You made friends in adversity. I lost friends in there too. It made me realise I wanted to help people. I started getting on with life again.”
He learned to ignore or deflect stares and questions.
“I think that’s when the sick jokes started,” he said. “Do you smoke? Only on the M6...”
He resumed his music but said the public could be a “challenge” due to his new appearance.
“My wife, family and friends got me through,” Alan added. “It’s only occasionally now that people make the odd comment.
“(Falkands War veteran) Simon Weston changed perceptions – a year after my accident he was on telly and everything he said resonated with me, I relived it all, the dressings, the pain, the morphine, skin grafts.”
Now he throws himself into his work, initially inspired by what he saw in the old Royal Preston Hospital and Sharoe Green burns unit after his accident.
Alan signed up as a volunteer with the charity in 1988 and became volunteer coordinator a year later. He joined staff as the manager, and last year became chief executive.
Disability First supports disabled people, families and carers across the Fylde and further afield. Specialist asbestos cancer services span Lancashire and will soon cover Cumbria.
Last week’s party marks the date Lancashire Disability Information Federation saved the charity from closure. Alan played a key role in that fightback.
The charity helped him fight back too.
“I’d find it hard to retire,” he admitted. “Coming here is my therapy, my tonic, my elixir. Here people see me for who I am. They accept me.”
The charity-led Access Fylde Coast project has more than Â£800,000 to come over the next few years from the Coastal Communities Fund. It is taking on five key workers to see it through.
Its aim, Alan said, is to get disabled people “off Planet Disability, a totally separate community, and into the main community”.
He accepts others sometimes see his work as “worthy but dull” – but said it is important for people to appreciate the daily struggles those with disabilities face.
He has had his share of stares – and people asking: “What the hell happened to you?”. That’s preferable, though, to “Oh, poor you. You’re so brave.”
He said: “My wife Carol’s brave.
“She took me on. She saw the real me.”
The pair now work together at the charity.
Alan added: “We have three fantastic kids. When their friends came around, they would ask ‘what happened to your dad?’ and they’d say ‘oh, he got burnt in a fire’. OK. Mystery over. I’d like to see children educated about disability earlier.
“That would reduce negative perceptions.”
Charity trustee Brian Carney, a sales and marketing executive until multiple sclerosis changed his life, said: “This charity would not be in the position it is today without Alan, his drive and passion to take the charity forward. The problem is he never stops.
“They all worry I’m going to burn myself out,” Alan laughs.
“I tell them I’ve done that already.”