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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

Vodka Blinds Kiwi, Whiskey Shows Him the Light

Desperate doctors used Johnnie Walker Black Label to save the sight of a hard-drinking diabetic. He's stayed sober since.

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Denis Duthie, with his "hero" Photo via

By Bryan Le

11/30/12

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Solving a problem caused by alcohol with even more alcohol doesn't sound like the most responsible course of action. But for one diabetic New Zealander who went blind after drinking vodka, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. Catering tutor Denis Duthie, 65, was knocking back some Red Square Russian vodka—a gift from his students—in celebration of his parents' 50th wedding anniversary back in June. Suddenly, everything 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,” he says. “I was fumbling around the bedroom for the light switch but...I'd just gone completely blind.” Awaking to an equally black morning, he realized this wasn't something he could just sleep off, so headed to the nearest hospital.

Things got worse. A doctor actually told Duthie's wife to say her last goodbyes before her husband was wheeled off into urgent surgery. When the first incision was made into Duthie's stomach, the stink of nail polish remover came out. "They asked me if I'd been drinking that and I said, 'Jesus no,'” continues Duthie. “They didn't know what was going on." The suspected cause was formaldehyde poisoning—something that happens to people who drink highly poisonous methanol. The official medical solution? Ethanol—the form of alcohol that humans can drink without going blind and dying—dilutes the body's reception of methanol, preventing it from metabolizing too much methanol into formaldehyde. But the hospital had run out of medical ethanol—so a registrar rushed to buy a replacement from a local store: "Johnnie Walker Black Label. It was good whiskey, yeah,” Duthie recalls. After having it dripped into his stomach via a tube through his nose, Duthie's sight was restored. As it turns out, his condition was caused by the vodka mixing with diabetes meds in his body. Duthie decided to tell his story to warn other diabetics: “If you're a diabetic, take it easy,” he says. He hasn't had a drink since.

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