Two years ago, I received a call from my mother in law. Little did I know then that this 10- minute conversation would change lives and might even end up changing laws around medicinal use of cannabis in the UK and beyond.
Jean is a community car driver and told me about someone she had recently driven to hospital. That passenger was a lady called Julia, whose grandson Deryn Blackwell had made a remarkable recovery from not one but two rare forms of cancer.
As they chatted, Julia let slip that her daughter, Deryn’s mother Callie, would like to write a book about their experiences but had no idea where to start.
‘Oh well we should definitely put her in touch with my daughter-in-law Karen,’ said Jean boldly. ‘She is an author and journalist and has already written her first book.’
My heart sank as Jean relayed the conversation to me. If I had a pound for everyone I’ve met who has told me that I should write a book about their life, I would seriously never need to work again. However, as I hung up to continue perusing the Sunday papers, I decided I had nothing to lose by doing a little further research.
I could see that Deryn’s unique story had already created headlines in the UK – ITN News, The Daily Mail and The Mirror were just a few of the media which had covered the story of this boy in 7 billion, so called because he was the only person alive known to have conquered both Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and the even rarer Langerhans Cell Sarcoma.
More than that, Deryn had somehow come through over 300 painful and debilitating medical procedures, four failed bone marrow transplants and all of this while still smiling, cracking inappropriate jokes, holding audiences at his hospital bedside with his heroes from stage and screen and continuing with his GCSE studies.
I decided this plucky teenager’s story merited a meeting with his equally inspirational mum at the very least so the next time I left my home in France for the UK, we arranged to meet for a pub lunch and a chat near Callie and Deryn’s hometown in Norfolk.
Callie Blackwell & Karen Hockney
Five hours later, nursing glasses of flat Perrier, I was agog as Callie continued to relay the incredible story of Deryn’s fight back from the brink of certain death to good health. While everyone around her, from the medics who treated Deryn to close family and friends, believed his recovery was nothing short of a miracle, Callie knew better.
As her 14-year-old son lay dying in a hospice, having already accepted his destiny and no longer fighting the inevitable, Callie and her husband Simon took the momentous decision – after huge amounts of soul searching and painstaking research – to secretly administer cannabis tincture and oil to Deryn in a bid to control his pain and make him less anxious.
What they saw unfold was their painfully thin and frail teenage son who had lost his zest for life slowly but surely fight his way back to full health. His recuperation was hailed by medics and media alike but Callie felt uncomfortable knowing that she had broken the law to make Deryn well again. She faced the prospect of a heavy prison sentence as well as the possibility of losing her children to social services if the truth behind his return to health ever became public.
But all the while, she was tormented by an even greater fear – that by not speaking out, she was changing nothing. With the prospect of other children suffering a similar fate to Deryn uppermost in her mind, Callie’s view was that if their story could help others in a similar situation, that was good enough reason to risk speaking out.
And what if the UK laws on the use of medicinal cannabis could be overhauled to allow those suffering immense pain the dignity of palliative care without the horrendous side effects of morphine? It felt to her and to me that afternoon like staying silent was simply no longer an option.
I took a deep breath and asked Callie if she would like to write the true story, warts, law-breaking and all, with me. So began almost two years of us working together via Skype and email with occasional meetings in between as we laid bare the remarkable story of her son Deryn, The Boy in 7 Billion.
Front cover and reviews
The book was published in April 2017 by Mirror Books, preceded by a media campaign which quite simply took our breath away (thanks to the incredible efforts of Midas PR.)
Deryn and Callie’s appearance on ITV’s This Morning with an emotional Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield went viral and was watched an incredible 2.5 million times on the show’s Facebook page, with thousands of shares and comments praising Callie, a former nightclub bouncer, for the decision she made to do quite simply whatever it took to save her son’s life.
The book was serialised in the Mail on Sunday – cue another 17,000 shares and an overwhelmingly positive comments section from readers who were quick to praise her courage in taking such an unconventional decision.
Other articles followed in the Mirror, Metro, The Sun, Daily Express and even the New York Post, Lad Bible and Unilad, confirming what we always hoped...that people from all walks of life, across all social stratas and generations were genuinely amazed and delighted by this boy’s recovery and hence the role that cannabis played in it.
There is so much more to the book than what I’ve written here. As I proof read into the early hours for the third time the night before our print deadline, I was amazed to find myself shedding tears once again at its raw and unbridled power and the limitless courage, grace and dignity Deryn, Callie, Simon and Deryn’s little brother Dylan displayed throughout the darkest of times.
Callie, Karen and Deryn
Our fight to legalise medicinal cannabis continues. Callie knows it will be a tough campaign to win over the hearts and minds of those with the clout and power to make changes. But when you read the book, you will see that this amazing lady is no quitter. In fact, she is already passing on so much knowledge to other parents in a similar position and empowering them. So please, please read this book and voice your support in whatever way you can. Change is coming, the world is ready to listen and with Callie and Deryn’s voices at the heart of this campaign, it can only be a matter of time as they are not in the habit of losing.
The Boy in 7 Billion by Callie Blackwell & Karen Hockney is published by Mirror Books and is available in all good bookshops and on Amazon.co.uk.