Lesley Saunders will find out tomorrow if she has been crowned Headway volunteer of the year for improving the lives of people with brain injuries and their families. Catherine Scott meets her.
Brian Saunders was returning home from a charity fund-raiser when he was hit by a van as he crossed the road close to his Howden home.
The loving 54-year-old father of two suffered severe brain injury and sadly, after seven months, he died following complications.
His widow, Lesley, was concerned about the lack of intensive rehabilitation facilities which might have helped her husband.
For the last 15 years since Brian’s death, Lesley has been campaigning for better services for people in the region affected by brain injury and has been running the Hull & East Riding branch of Headway on a voluntary basis for the past eight years.
And tomorrow she will find out if she has been named Headway’s Volunteer of the Year. She is one of just three finalists from across the country who will travel to The Dorchester Hotel, London for the annual awards ceremony run by the brain injury association.
“I was amazed when I found out as I didn’t even know I’d been nominated,” says the 68-year-old grandmother-of-one.
“I went to the awards last year as a guest and got to meet James Cracknell, who is vice president of Headway. It means a lot to be nominated but it also makes you reflect on whether or not what you have tried to do has really made a difference and I’m not sure, although people say I have helped them.”
Brian was returning home from a Masons fund-raising event which was raising money to repair a window at York Minster.
“He had just been dropped off when he turned to wave at a friend and he stepped into the road. He was immediately struck by the wing mirror of a passing Transit van,” explains Lesley.
Completely by coincidence one of Brian and Lesley’s daughters, Alison, who was 25 at the time, happened to be travelling in a car just two back from the accident.
“The car in front of her stopped and she thought there must have been an accident. She had a rug in the back of her car and she thought she might be able to help but when she got there she found it was her dad lying in the road.
“She came rushing home to tell me that Brian had had an accident and I went with her. There was a lot of blood and I had to calm down the driver of the van. A GP arrived from the local surgery and then the paramedics.”
Brian was rushed unconscious to hospital, with Lesley and Alison following behind the ambulance.
“I have no idea how Alison drove after the shock she suffered seeing her dad like that.”
Given the seriousness of the impact, he was immediately put in a high-dependency unit where he was placed in an induced coma.
Although he was brought out of the coma within a few days, the impact had left Brian with diffuse brain damage and he was unable to communicate with his family. He remained in hospital for three months before being transferred to a rehabilitation ward.
“He did make it home for Christmas which was pretty traumatic. Alison and her sister Catherine were home to help me.
“But Brian didn’t sleep when we did so Catherine and I took the night shift while Alison tried to get some sleep to be able to drive him back to hospital on Boxing Day.”
The rehabilitation ward was insufficiently staffed to enable appropriate rehabilitation to take place. Sadly, in February 1998, unforeseen complications resulted in Brian’s death.
While Brian was in hospital, Lesley became an individual member of Headway. Due to spending nearly every day at the hospital with Brian, she was unable to attend any meetings of the local branch which was, unfortunately, struggling to gain any momentum and the meetings eventually stopped.
Motivated by the lack of support available to people affected by brain injury, Lesley began campaigning to improve services. She fund raised and supported the opening of a dedicated brain injury rehabilitation unit in Goole and subsequently fought in vain to prevent its closure in 2003. As a result of publicity generated at that time she was appointed by the local NHS PCT to serve as a people’s champion for brain injury alongside senior clinicians and develop a new care pathway for patients and the provision of rehabilitation beds.
However, these plans were dropped when the PCTs underwent re-organisation, so Lesley now feels frustrated by her achievements.
“You achieve something and then it ends up closing or being dropped. There needs to be more done to help people with brain injuries and their families. I’d like to see dedicated pathways of care for every sufferer and I would also like to see primary school children taught about the brain and what happens when it is damaged.”
In 2005, after two years of planning, Headway Hull & East Riding was launched, with Lesley the driving force behind its formation. She was appointed as the secretary of the branch, a position she still holds today along with running a telephone support line for local people. For eight years, Lesley has organised monthly support meetings, group outings, and social events.
In addition, she campaigns for better services, represents Headway at a local and national level, and works tirelessly to support members new and old.
Most recently, Lesley organised a special one-day conference for professionals working in the field of brain injury. More than 80 health and social care professionals attended the event in October at The Octagon, Hull, to learn more about the impact a brain injury can have on individuals and their families. It’s success means another is planned for March 2014.
“Lesley’s care, compassion and dedication know no bounds,” said Rebecca Dixon, vice chairperson of Headway Hull and East Riding and the person who nominated Lesley for the award.. “She works so hard for people affected by brain injury and is so passionate about improving services.
“Whether it’s organising events like our recent conference, or whether she’s sitting on a panel of experts demanding more is done to help vulnerable people affected by brain injury, Lesley gives everything she has.
“The way in which she uses her personal experience is also inspiring. She provides a huge amount of support to survivors of brain injury when they return home from hospital or rehabilitation units. Patients who have recently been discharged will ring her with their fears for the future and families who often have nowhere else to turn will rely on Lesley for advice on how to cope. “She is truly deserving of recognition and we’re all very proud of her.”
For more on Headway Hull & East Riding, visit www.headwayhero.org.uk.
For more about brain injuries, visit www.headway.org.uk
Each year, the Headway annual awards celebrate the exceptional efforts of survivors of brain injury, and those caring for and supporting them. Lesley will find out if she’s to be named volunteer of the year at a glittering ceremony in The Dorchester Hotel, London, where awards for the achiever, carer, and campaigner of the year will also be handed out, alongside the Stephen McAleese “outstanding contribution to Headway” award.
It is estimated that across the UK there are well over 500,000 people of working age living with permanent disabilities as a result of head injury
Approximately half of deaths in people under 40 are due to head injuries.