When she came around from a heavy dose of drugs in hospital, Rachel Matthews woke up to what she called “the black bin bag room” but believes was actually the trauma unit.
These liners were a precaution at a time when Covid-19 still ravaged NHS wards, but Rachel was there for a different reason entirely: a drunk delivery driver smashed head-on into her Jaguar the night before, trapping the serious injury solicitor and breaking her then five-year-old daughter Emmie’s arm.
“I have this memory,” says Rachel, 34. “Because I know that they (emergency staff) had to cut me out of the vehicle and I remember hearing the sound of whatever they use, a saw, and saying ‘You’re going to cut my legs off’.”
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. However, a year on from the crash Rachel is still in rehabilitation after numerous rounds of surgery on various lower body injuries and many months of often house-bound recovery.
It was the afternoon of Friday February 12 last year when witnesses saw Juri Pihlak, 41, “swerving across the central white line and bouncing off the curb” while travelling along the A63 between Newsholme and Osgodby, near Selby, a court heard during his sentencing in January.
As he tried to negotiate a bend he once again drifted into the opposite carriageway in his Mazda and hit Rachel’s car as she travelled home from collecting a prescription.
Pihlak, of Brayton near Selby, worked as a courier for a delivery firm and had two previous convictions for drink driving in 2007 and 2010.
On the day of the crash he claimed to have drunk “a couple of pints” but was estimated to have been between one and a half and two times over the legal alcohol limit. He pleaded guilty to two counts of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.
Judge Simon Hickey jailed him for three years and imposed a driving ban of six and a half years, telling him: “You should have been nowhere near a car.”
Rachel, of Hemingbrough near Selby, remembers little of the crash itself in detail. “I’ve never had any recollection of actually where the accident took place. I only know because other people have since told me,” she says.
“I remember seeing a black car coming around the bend, I couldn’t tell you which bend – I know now – and losing control and then just after that it’s all a bit of a blur.”
A lady who had been driving behind Rachel quickly retrieved Emmie, who was in a back passenger seat, from the car but Rachel had to be cut out.
“I think this lady’s husband sat with me but I don’t remember any of those conversations, anything that happened, I just had weird visions – I was also given some quite heavy drugs,” she laughs. “And then the next memory’s waking up in what I think must have been the trauma room – I call it the black bin bag room, because of Covid it was filled with like black bin liners.”
Rachel suffered an open fracture to her right femur, a fracture in her right foot, a fracture in her left talus and in some bones in her left foot, as well cartilage damage to her left knee.
“I’ve had lots of metalwork put in, lots of surgery to put things back together. I had bone loss in my right femur so I had to go back in April last year. What they do is they cement it, so I then had to have a bone graft. They took some bone out my left hip to put into my right femur so that it could sort of grow back together.”
She originally spent about two weeks in Leeds General Infirmary before being transferred to York and had three surgeries while first in hospital – one the night of the accident, another the following week and a third later – as they could not operate the injuries all at once because of swelling.
“It was pretty traumatic, hospital. I’ve got awful memories of it because I couldn’t do anything.
“I was completely non-weight bearing so I couldn’t leave my bed, so I was very reliant on nurses and healthcare assistants. It was Covid, so you couldn’t have any visitors. I got to see my husband and my daughter briefly, I think on the either the Saturday or Sunday, because they were also in hospital. So they wheeled me somewhere in my bed and we had 20 minutes but then after that it was obviously no contact, it was just video and telephone calls.”
Rachel did get psychological help, however, from a charity called Day One Trauma Support, and is hoping to volunteer with the organisation herself in future.
After hospital, Rachel came home with a hospital bed and various bits of NHS equipment to aid her recovery, but it was a struggle practically and psychologically.
“I couldn’t go upstairs for probably four months. I slept downstairs, I was completely wheelchair-bound because I had to keep both legs out.
“I had to have care from my husband, my parents, my friends. It was like a tag team event – someone always had to be with me around the clock. I couldn’t really do a lot with my daughter.”
Healthcare assistants from the NHS community team came out daily to help with tasks such as bed bathing.
After coming out of hospital following the further surgery in April, it wasn’t until June or July when she was able to start mobilising her right leg using crutches and couldn’t manage to bear weight on her left leg until mid-August.
The experience also had a big effect on Emmie, who is now six.
“She asked a lot of questions about why it happened, why he did it,” says Rachel. “She’d asked some awful questions like why we didn’t die. You just can’t imagine for a five-year-old what that’s like. People say she was very lucky because she only broke her arm compared to what could have happened. But psychologically, she didn’t like the fact that mummy wasn’t the same and couldn’t just take her to the shops or really do a lot with her.
“She wasn’t initially at school because of Covid, so she had spent a lot of time at home seeing me how I was and struggling. She’s made a few comments more recently where she says, ‘Did you have broken legs when that happened?’ It’s like she can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I guess for a five-year-old, it’s a long time to have your mum in the state that I was in.”
It changed the family dynamic, too, with husband Darran having to stay home more instead of going to work as a mechanic.
Now Rachel is working again at Wakefield-based Minster Law, on reduced hours, and she receives NHS physiotherapy once a week along with private sessions and goes to the gym often.
She also got back to driving quickly, knowing that it would be harder the longer she left it.
Rachel says she is very committed to her rehabilitation, but remains realistic.
“I’ve got a long way to go, I’ll probably never regain the same mobility that I had before the accident.”
For more information about the Day One Trauma Support charity, visit www.dayonetrauma.org.