Kathryn Clarke, 38, from Isle of Wight talks about the night her life took a terrifying turn...
I was about to leave my friend’s shop to drive home, my husband Nic, 37, called.
‘Can you pick up a few bits for dinner?’ he asked, reeling off a list. It was a Saturday in February 2011, and I was heading back for an evening in with him and our daughters Zoe, 7, and Rebecca, 5.
After stopping at the shop, I gave him a quick call. ‘I’ll be home in 10 minutes,’ I said.Then I got back behind the wheel of the van we used for the furniture business Nic and I ran.It wasn’t a long trip, and one I must’ve made hundreds of times. But as I was driving along a country lane, a big bird of prey swooped down in front of the van.
Instinctively, I swerved to avoid it and lost control. Oh dear, I thought, as I realised I was careering towards a tree. My last thought before everything went black.
Coming round, I was in a bright hospital ward. I knew I’d been in an accident. But I couldn’t move or talk, I could just watch people come and go. Nic didn’t leave my side.
My first clear memory is Nic bringing Zoe and Rebecca to visit. While it was good to see them, it broke my heart I couldn’t hold them or tell them I loved them. On one visit, I saw my brother-in-law pick up Rebecca and felt a flash of jealousy. That’s my baby, I want to cuddle her, I thought. Hours, days and weeks passed.
One day, Nic gently explained I had pneumonia, and doctors were draining fluid from my lungs.My life was on the line. I’m not going to die, I thought. I wasn’t ready to give up, and I pulled through. But there was more.
‘They’re saying you won’t walk or talk again,’ Nic said. But I was determined. I had Nic and my daughters. I needed to keep fighting for them. ‘Mummy’s trying her best to get better,’ I wanted to tell them.
As time passed, I learned more about the accident. Bird spotters had witnessed my crash and called for help. I’d been taken by police helicopter to Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry. I’d suffered what’s known as a hangman’s fracture, a break to the vertebra in the top of the neck. I also had a bleed on my brain. The force of the impact had been so great, I’d almost been decapitated.
Over the next days, I underwent several life-saving operations. I had a titanium plate put in my neck to hold it to my skull. I’d been in a coma for 20 days before waking.
Doctors didn’t think I’d survive. But here I was, alive. Making progress, slowly but surely.
Over the next weeks, I began communicating by looking at an alphabet chart.
But it took so long to say even the simplest of things that I found it frustrating.
Nic was with me every day. He’d moisturise my skin for me daily. When he got to my feet, he’d squeeze them in the same pattern every time – eight squeezes, then three more, and one on its own. ‘It means I love you,’ he explained. ‘Eight letters, three words, one meaning.’ I understood and, one day, I pressed my toes into his palm, to say it back. Progress!
After four months, I was transferred to the Royal Leamington Spa Rehabilitation Hospital. There, they started using a hoist to get me into a wheelchair. It was difficult for me to hold my head up at first. But I got stronger.
Although they’d warned Nic I might never speak again, I began having speech therapy. And a month into my rehab, I croaked ‘hello’ to Nic. He was so surprised, I thought he was going to fall over! ‘It’s so good to hear your voice again,’ he said.
In May 2012, 15 months after the accident, I came home. I could sit in my wheelchair, speak and move my left arm.
Since then, I’ve continued to make progress. For a long time, I was being fed through a tube in my stomach, but now I can eat. I can stand unsupported for a few minutes, and I’m determined to be able to walk again unaided.
In March last year, after funding was cut for the physio, hydro and occupational therapy I’d been having, Nic and I launched the Kathryn Clarke Foundation. We’re raising money to pay for those treatments, and to help others who need support after suffering life-changing injuries.
We didn’t get a payout from my insurance, we’ve lost our home, and Nic had to close our business to become my full-time carer. We’re now living in a motorhome.
I’ve started writing a book about my experiences. It’s not been easy. But thanks to my own stubbornness and determination, and the support of my family, I’ve defied the odds. I can do more than doctors ever thought I would. I hope my story will inspire other people to realise that, if you put your mind to it, anything is possible.