The day a couple of beers changed my life forever


Whilst working on our #KeepingBedsSafe drink driving campaign, a member of our Corporate Communications team told us her story.  Here, Helen Hutchinson shares her own personal experience of how a drink driver changed her life.

I remember the exact date, even though it was 24 years ago – Monday 27 November 1995 – it was the day a couple of beers changed my life forever.

I was a 17-year-old girl studying for my A Levels. I felt like the world was my oyster. After my exams I was all set take a year out before going to university, to go travelling around Australia with my best friend Caroline. However, it wasn’t to be.

That day, I’d just finished one of my mock exams and my friend had invited me out that evening. He was a couple of years older and had a car and we went to a pub in the nearby town to play some pool.

We didn’t stay out late, and he had a few bottles of lager, but said they were only small, probably less than a couple of pints, so he said he’d be fine to drive. I trusted him, so I got in the car.

But I never got home that night.

On the way back to my village, he lost control on a bend and the little white Peugeot turned upside down, crashing into a telegraph pole. My immediate reaction as the car was spinning was to stick my right leg out and down, as if I was trying to slam on the brakes even though I was in the passenger seat. I was having driving lessons at the time and it was just instinctual.

Unfortunately it turned out to be the worst possible thing to do, as part of the engine was dislodged in the collision and fell onto my leg. My left leg, which remained bent, was ok.

The next thing I knew, I was stuck in the passenger seat of the upside down car, disorientated and couldn’t work out why I couldn’t get out. The adrenalin was pumping and at that point I didn’t feel any pain. James, who was uninjured, managed to pull me out of the wreckage and I was left lying in the road, in a pool of petrol which was seeping out of the car.

I knew that I had to get up and move to the grass verge, but as I attempted to lift myself up, it felt like I was lifting the whole ground with my leg and then the most almighty pain took over me.

Thankfully some passers-by stopped to help and a young lad got out of one of the vehicles. I will never forget him screaming about my leg and what it looked like, then I started to drift in and out of consciousness.

I vaguely remember being in an ambulance and then I woke up a couple of days later in hospital. My mum and dad were by my bedside and they explained that my right tibia had broken and torn through my skin. I then realised what the boy who had stopped to help was screaming about – he could see my flesh and bones.

To patch me up, the wonderful doctors put metal plates into my leg to keep the bone in place. A plastic surgeon then took a large skin graft from my left thigh and lay it over the flesh to try and close up the big open wound on my right leg. I learned that I’d lost four pints of blood, more than half the total amount of blood in my body, and I needed a blood transfusion.

I was told I’d be in hospital for about a month with the hope that I’d be back home in time for Christmas. In my naivety I thought that would be it and my life would go back to normal.

I had no idea of the consequences of that fateful day.

I had no idea that I would get constant infections as the wound was open and meant it was easy for bacteria in the air to get to the bone. That I would undergo various operations during the next year, where the doctors would have to remove the metalwork bit by bit to work out where the infection was coming from, and then shave bone from my hip and put it in place of the bone that had been lost in the break.

I had no idea that I would initially be in a wheel chair and then be dependent on crutches for 18 months. That I’d have to learn to walk again and I’d suffer panic attacks when the physio was weaning me off crutches, as I thought everyone was looking at me when I was limping. That those panic attacks would sometimes come back to haunt me.

I had no idea I’d have to learn how to walk again and just how hard I would have to work at physiotherapy after being told that I would never be able to walk without a limp again. Even to this day I’m a bit lopsided.

I had no idea every time the phone went and I wasn’t in the house my mum would panic, as she said that night she got the phone call that changed our lives. That I would never say goodbye to our family home I’d lived in all my life. We were in the process of moving when the accident happened and I was in hospital when we moved and didn’t realise that evening I would never see my bedroom again.

To make matters even worse, I had no idea that I would never be able to play the sports I adored. I was in nearly every team at school, including tennis, badminton, hockey, rounders and netball, but I would have to accept that my bone would be too weak for me to play high impact sports ever again.

I had no idea I would have to defer my A Levels and not go travelling with my best friend – something we’d been so excited about planning. That I would start to feel depressed as everyone around me went off to university or went travelling, while I was stuck at home still studying for my A Levels and temping in an insurance company.

I had no idea that I would never be able to wear a pair of shorts again or anything which doesn’t cover my ankles, because of the dent in my leg and scars that run from my knee to my ankle, which is quite hard going in the summer. Or that on holiday, or in the swimming pool I would have to put up with questions from children such as “did a shark take a bite out of your leg?” or watch adults look at it quizzically trying to work out what happened to it.

I had no idea that this would have a big impact on my confidence, especially when I was younger and my body image was more important to me then. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to accept it and understand it’s a part of me now.

I had no idea that I would be in constant pain for the next 13 years, having been told by my GP that my ankle had arthritis, from the way it had to compensate for my bent leg. It actually turned out that it wasn’t arthritis after all but infection caused by metal wire attaching antibiotic beads that had been left in my leg, ironically to fight off one of my many infections at source, which ended up with bone growing around it. As a result, the beads had stopped working and my whole right tibia had become infected to the core.

I had no idea this would ruin the end of my honeymoon in 2008, when I ran down some steps and later learnt the impact had caused the infection to seep out into my ankle and into my blood stream, and that I also had a couple of stray infected antibiotic beads lodged in my ankle.

I had no idea that I would end up in A&E, after being misdiagnosed by a GP who insisted for eight weeks I’d just sprained my ankle on honeymoon, even though I begged him to help me as I couldn’t walk, had to crawl up my stairs and thought I was losing my mind as the infection took over me.

Thankfully my very good friend Michele was so insistent there was more to it, as I was so ill, and persuaded me to bypass my GP and go straight to A&E. There it was discovered my infection levels had spiralled dangerously high, and the doctors explained I was on the verge of sepsis and if I’d left it any longer. I could have died.      

I had no idea I would spend another month in hospital on antibiotic drips and be transferred from Bedford to a specialist infection unit at the Nuffield Hospital in Oxfordshire. Or that I’d be told before I went under anaesthetic that the surgeons were not sure of the extent of the infection, as it had gone on for so many years and was so ingrained in the bone.

Worst case scenario, I could wake up with my leg amputated, but it was most likely I would have a leg brace fitted which I would have to wear for 18 months, and by some miracle I could wake up with them being able to secure the bone with more shaving from my hip.

I remember looking at an x-ray asking if the white bits were the bad bits and was told no they are the good bits, my bone and ankle were black in the pictures, apart from a few specs of white.

The doctors were able to work miracles and were absolutely amazing. It took a nine-hour operation to clean out the infection out and painstakingly removevall the wire and beads, including the stray ones in my ankle, then fill in the gaps with bone shavings, again from my hip.

I had no idea of how painful a procedure this would be, requiring more time to recover and would require further physio. Or that I would have to be hooked up to antibiotic drips for the next couple of months, which made it difficult to work.

Thankfully – and miraculously – since my last operation in 2009, I have been infection free. I still suffer from a stiff ankle, which I know one day will turn into arthritis. I often have pain in my hip where the bone graft was harvested, but compared to the pain I was in, it’s nothing I can’t handle.

To this day, I am still self-conscious about the clothes I wear, as I don’t like drawing attention to the dent in my leg or want people to see it.

It has made me thankful I’m still here today and has made me think twice about getting in the car with someone who may have had “only one or two drinks”.

The driver was breathalysed by the roadside, and his reading was over the legal limit. He was arrested and taken to a police station where a blood test was taken, but by then it was within tolerance, and he wasn’t prosecuted for drink driving.

I do believe, however, and so did the police officer who dealt with the case, that if it wasn’t for the alcohol he’d had that evening, he would never have crashed the car and affected the rest of my life.

He walked away with barely a scratch and got six penalty points on his licence for driving without due care and attention. It became very difficult for us to remain friends, as I blamed him for what had happened to me. He found it very difficult to see me, as I was a constant reminder of the consequences of his actions.

I also blamed myself and felt so guilty for getting in the car with him, but I mistakenly thought as he’d had less than two pints he’d be ok. How wrong I was.

I wanted to tell my story, especially with the festive party season in full swing, to highlight that even a small amount of alcohol can impair your judgement, especially when driving which requires split second decisions and this can end up having lifelong consequences, not just for the driver who has been drinking, but for their passengers, and their families.

If my story makes just one person think twice about having a drink and getting behind the wheel, or for a passenger to think about getting in the car with someone who has had alcohol, then it will have served its purpose.

At the end of the day, I was lucky. I survived. I know others haven’t. Please don’t take the risk, it’s just not worth it. For the sake of a few drinks you could end up ending, or seriously affecting a life – yours or someone else’s.    

Helen Hutchinson   

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