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My leg shattered ‘like a bag of crisps’: Rachel, 49, shares inspiring recovery from devastating car crash

Rachel Thompson is embarking on a charity challenge in recognition of her recovery.
Rachel Thompson is embarking on a charity challenge in recognition of her recovery.

After 11 hours in surgery, Rachel Thompson spent the next three months in hospital, unable to leave her bed.

She had been walking with a colleague when a driver passed out at the wheel, mounting the pavement and striking her from behind.

As she lay trapped underneath the vehicle, with two punctured lungs and a raft of broken bones, she felt lucky to be alive.

But now, following extensive treatment and a long road to recovery, the 49-year-old is planning to celebrate her journey with a mammoth charity challenge.

‘Everything started going through my head’

Rachel, a health improvement officer with Aberdeen City Health & Social Care Partnership, had just finished up a quick walk and was preparing to head into a meeting on June 13, 2014.

“I’d been in Edinburgh at an event the day before, so I was absolutely pooped,” she said.

“I thought ‘Can I be bothered with this?’ but I’m a champion for promoting good health, so I went ‘Stuff it, let’s do it’.

“It was a beautiful day, and national Big Fit Walk Day – it also happened to be Friday the 13th, which didn’t resonate at the time.”

After finishing her route, Rachel was standing on the pavement on Park Street, Aberdeen, about to cross the road to her Frederick Street workplace, when she felt a “dunt” in the back of her legs.

“Everything started going through my head – it was a really surreal situation,” she said.

“I got hit to the floor and the car turned me, so the wheels went over my chest.

“I got dragged along the road a tiny bit, but I could see, if the car hadn’t stopped, my neck would have been snapped.

“When it all came to a halt there was nobody around me, everyone was concentrating on the driver – a woman who had passed out at the wheel of her car and mounted the pavement.

“I just remember thinking ‘What the hell is going on’ and trying to get some attention.

“I couldn’t tell you how long I was under the car for.”

Several passers-by worked together to lift the vehicle and free Rachel, who was trapped underneath.

While they were told off by ambulance staff for doing so – and NHS guidance states you must not move anyone who may have a spinal injury – she maintains she “would have snuffed it” if not for their actions.

She was rushed to hospital with four broken ribs, both lungs punctured, a broken pelvis and collarbone, and a shattered leg with the bone “like a bag of crisps”.

‘You’ve got to accept you’re not going to be able to do things the same again’

It took surgeons around 11 hours to stabilise Rachel, who then spent a day in intensive care, followed by two more in the high dependency unit.

From there, she spent five weeks in the orthopaedic ward at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

“I had something like 180 staples in either side, with the scars up my legs where I’d had the surgery,” she said.

“They had to make a decision on what size screws and everything to put in.

“With the injury on my right-hand side, the head of the femur was like a bag of crisps – it was crushed.

“They weren’t sure if the screws were long enough, and things like that, so I wasn’t allowed to move at all for nine weeks.

“I had to do everything in the bed – I wasn’t even allowed to sit on a toilet – because they didn’t want the metal work to move.”

After the operation, Rachel’s bones were being monitored for signs they were calcifying and healing.

But a fortnight later, she had to go under the knife again as progress was slow.

Overall she spent five weeks in ARI, before moving to the orthopaedic rehab unit at Woodend Hospital then heading back home to Portlethen.

Rachel said: “There were various things they taught you once you were able to leave your bed – like how to transfer into a wheelchair.

“It was the last two-and-a-bit weeks when I had to learn to walk again.

“I got out of hospital mainly in a wheelchair, but using a Zimmer frame around the house.

“The hardest part was getting back to my life.

“Even making a cup of tea while walking around with a Zimmer frame is an absolute nightmare – it’s a brilliant aid, but it’s still difficult.

“And you have to realise you still have limitations, and accept you’re not going to be able to do things the same again.”

‘It was very hard to overcome’

Alongside her work to return to full fitness physically, Rachel also needed time to recover mentally.

After the crash, she was left suffering with PTSD and depression.

“It made me more aware of the type of people that are on the roads now,” she said.

“It was really hard to overcome – you become very aware of the risks around you when you’ve suffered something like that.

“Now I’m quite good at walking down the street on my own with the dog, but I would never have done that before.”

Rachel went to a specialist in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and an emerging type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).

“If you think of trauma in the brain, it’s not a physical mass but it gets stuck in your short-term processing,” she said.

“And the days I had that done, it was almost like I had bricks lifted off my shoulders to help me.”

Return to fitness

Rachel added: “I was always very physically active – I liked my spin classes and keeping fit – and I still do like to be physically active.

Rachel tried stand-up paddleboarding for the first time over Easter.
Rachel tried stand-up paddleboarding for the first time over Easter.

“It’s only been since November I’ve actually gone back to the gym, and a couple of years ago I started doing Pilates because I’m actually wonky now.

“I’m about two centimetres shorter on my right-hand side, because of the healing.”

As part of her return to fitness, Rachel joined a stand-up paddleboarding session at Rubislaw Quarry on Easter Sunday.

The sport is an offshoot of surfing and has been rapidly growing in popularity in recent years.

Rachel said: “The Pilates made me think I could maybe do stand-up paddleboarding as it’s all about core strength.

“And this gave me the shove to getting back to the gym, so it’s been a good all-rounder for me getting back into shape.”

‘Your world collapses’

In August, Rachel will embark upon a four-day, 60-mile trip down the Caledonian Canal.

Setting off from the foot of Ben Nevis, she will pass through Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour before arriving in Inverness – wild camping each night of her adventure.

She is also gathering donations for local charity Street Friends Helping The Homeless, acknowledging how “truly blessed” she has been by the kindness of friends, family and co-workers – something others may not have experienced.

“Knowing what happened to me, if I hadn’t had the support from my social network and workplace, or that mental health support, or the need for too many adaptations at home after hospital, I could have been one of those people that lives on the street.

“That’s how it happens – your world collapses.

“So I knew I wanted to do something to help with poverty and people who sometimes don’t have a choice and don’t get heard.

“People who are living on the street don’t have a voice, often, so this is a chance to raise awareness and try and get a bit of empathy.

“It just takes one thing – one day – to change your life.”