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Byline: HAMISH McLean

HAMISH McLean may live in New Zealand but he has Scottish roots. He also has achondroplasia, despite having two parents of normal height.

His life story has been documented along with five other children with differing disabilities in the inspirational Channel 4 series Born To Be Different. Here, GRAHAM KEAL talks to his dad Alastair about how life has turned out with Hamish

ALASTAIR and Claire McLean remember the emotions they felt when son Hamish was born with achondroplasia, or dwarfism as it's better known.

They felt a rush of joy, and overwhelming relief. Until that moment, they knew Hamish had some abnormality, but had no idea whether he would be doomed to desperate ill health or premature death.

"When Claire went into labour, we didn't really know what the result would be," said Alastair.

"At the end of it all, when Hamish popped out, bright pink and yelling and looking absolutely healthy, it was great, and such a relief." Now the family's story is brought up to date in two new editions of Born To Be Different, the fourth entry in a Channel 4 series that has been following Hamish and five other children with vastly varied disabilities since birth.

Hamish, who turned nine in January, is "bright as a button and fit as a flea" as dad Alastair proudly proclaims, and quite the most boyish boy you could imagine.

He loves tearing around on his bike, dangling Tarzan-like on a rope-swing over the water near the family's home in Auckland, New Zealand, and standing on a small table to play table tennis with best friend Fraser.

"We've always said our job is to give him confidence to be who he is and be proud of himself," said mum Claire in the programme.

They live in New Zealand, but Alastair's father is Scottish and the place he still regards as the family home is a house beside Loch Long in Argyll.

It was his great grandfather, a merchant in Greenock and Glasgow, who decided to move there to buy a permanent home where the family used to take their holidays.

But as the son of a Colonel in the Royal Artillery, Alastair grew up in postings all over the UK, which they left behind when Hamish was three-and-half.

Alastair admits in the weeks before his son was born, it was a dark and anxious time for him and Claire.

He said: "We went to have the scan at about 22 weeks and they said we should go back because the placenta was in a funny place.

"So at about 26 weeks they did another scan, and it went very quiet.We were told the baby's limbs weren't right, so they packed us off to King's College Hospital, London." Claire was examined there by Professor Kypros Nicolaiedes, a world authority on foetal medicine and pre-natal surgery, whose work was documented in the BBC1 series Life Before Birth, in 2002.

Alastair said: "Kypros is a fantastic man, but we didn't get any certain answers. They didn't really know what it was, so it was not an easy time.

"They took lots of scans, but they don't usually see achondroplasia in the womb.

"All we knew was that both arms and legs were shorter than they should be, and that the trunk looked peculiar. They thought it might have been something called Asphyxiating Thoracic Dystrophy, which is usually fatal." Once healthy Hamish had come into the world, both Alastair and Claire were determined not to wrap him in cotton wool, but to encourage him to do everything any boy would do.

And they've done a brilliant job.

But that's not to say there aren't problems, anxieties, and difficult decisions ahead as Hamish grows older and as the discrepancy in height between himself and other children grows greater.

"The great thing about a TV programme is that it's easy to look like a good, confident parent for five minutes on film, but there's plenty of times when it's difficult," said Alastair.

"On the other hand, we're very lucky. Hamish has a great attitude." He also has a great bunch of school friends whom he's known for five years and who know and accept him.

Best friend Fraser, asked to describe Hamish for the camera, thinks for a minute and says sweetly: "Er... blond hair... That's about it." But that could all change as the family contemplates another move, this time from their lovely home in Auckland toWanaka, South Island - some 900 miles away - where Alastair is setting up a property business.

Hamish wants to play with children his own age, not his own size, so leaving his friends will not be easy.

"It is a difficult decision, I can't pretend it's not," admitted Alastair, 51.

"The schools are very good, and Hamish is doing so well, particularly this year. In a strange way, the 900 miles between Auckland and South Island seems a more difficult move than the one from the UK." Another big decision comes up in programme two, when Hamish gets a visit from Ben Cheam, who also has achondroplasia, but who grew 10 inches after a series of leglengthening operations.

Metal pins are inserted into the calves to break the bones, which are stretched as they heal, then broken again repeatedly to create extra growth.

For Ben, it means he can drive a normal car and socialise more easily.

For Hamish, the visit prompted mixed feelings.

Alastair said: "He's realised he's not going to be six foot two, whereas he often used to say, 'I am short now, dad, but I'm going to be like you one day, aren't I?' "Also, people's legs who have the operations are pretty frightening, with lots of scars.

"But Ben says he would do it all again." Medical opinion has shifted on the best age to do the operation, with the late teens now seen as the ideal time, which means Hamish can decide for himself whether he wants to go ahead.

Neither Alastair nor Claire has a family history of achondroplasia. It's just a chance mutation, a chromosomal abnormality, and experts reckon it affects about one in 40,000.

If Hamish goes on to have children with a woman of normal stature, there's a 50 per cent chance the child will be normal stature, too.

For the present though, Hamish has been facing problems that any boy might face if cameras come when he'd rather be doing burn-ups on his BMX.

Alastair said: "It's not easy when filming interrupts three busy lives and you have to do something five times for the camera, but Hamish was pretty good this time. It didn't take too much bribery." That's a real boy for you.

Born to Be Different: Turning Eight will air on C4 tonight at 9pm, followed by Turning Nine on Tuesday May 5, 9pm..


ON THE UP: Hamish is a happy child, who loves to climb trees and tear around on his BMX at home in Auckland, New Zealand NICE CATCH: Alastair and Hamish enjoy a spot of fishing
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 28, 2009
Next Article:SWINE FLU IS HERE; 2 Scots cases are confirmed, 7 more feared to have virus.

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