Karen Barber works as a community carer. One morning in January 2020 when rushing to an early shift, she dashed to her local shops at Heathfield near Newton Abbot on her way to work to pick up some shopping. The next thing she knew it was about one week later.

Karen had parked in a layby adjacent to the shops and was just getting back into her car when a large lorry came alongside to turn right, but the driver misjudged the space and hit Karen, trapping her between the car door and the side of the lorry. Her lasting memory is how difficult it was to breathe as she crumpled to the floor like a ‘little old lady’.

The driver of the lorry was unaware of what had happened and continued his journey, but the accident was witnessed by a lady in the shop who immediately ran to help and called 999. Another witness, Andy, stayed by her side until paramedics arrived. Karen’s son, 14-year old Charlie, was also at the scene soon after the accident - he was heading for the bus to school. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he realised what had happened to his mum.

Devon’s Air Ambulance crew joined land ambulance paramedics at the scene and immediately recognised that Karen had suffered life-threatening internal injuries that would need emergency surgery. The aircrew decided it would be safer to transport Karen to the Major Trauma Centre at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth by road as there was a huge possibility that Karen could deteriorate further and could possibly require life-saving interventions before reaching the hospital; this would be best carried out in the back of a land ambulance as space would have been required.

Karen spent the following four days in Intensive Care and then a Trauma ward before being moved to a regular ward. Meeting her surgeon for the first time, she learned that she had suffered horrendous internal injuries; with most of her ribs broken ‘like pieces of Meccano’ and five fractures to her spine. The fragments of her ribs had lacerated several organs including her lungs, liver and kidneys. In a nine-hour operation, surgeons were able to stitch most of these but one of her lungs was so badly damaged that half of one lung had been cut away altogether. Karen ended up with eight metal plates in her spine and 67 staples in her back.

Support patients like Karen

Incredibly, Karen was discharged from hospital after just two weeks, but with a lengthy road to recovery ahead of her. It was over six months before Karen could sleep in her bed having been obliged by her injuries to sleep in an upright position in a chair downstairs. She is now walking again, just using a crutch if she goes out. But the impact on her lungs and liver have had longer term implications. Karen explains:

I now get really breathless and I know that my recovery will be long and slow. I was warned it was likely to be up to two years and I can quite see that now.

Fortunately, the driver of the lorry was located, and the company he was working for has accepted liability. This enabled Karen to access some much-needed physiotherapy and counselling for which she is most grateful.

“I was really struggling to get my head round what had happened. I just went out to work one morning and everything changed in an instant. My family have all been brilliant and my youngest son, Charlie, has been an absolute rock, along with my partner, Steve, who took time out from his job, as well as my mum, who had to come in every day to start with when Charlie went to school. Then came lockdown and I was still helpless; the whole situation really has been life-changing. I don’t remember much about the incident but I’d love to meet the guys who helped me that day, to say a very big thank you for everything they did.”

Two years on...

Karen still suffers some restriction on what she is able to do but she has made fantastic progress and is now able to walk without her stick and although she does get tired quite quickly, she is a little more mobile.

She explains:

I'm able to drive again now so I can manage to get myself to the gym three times a week which has been big part of my recovery as I have had to strengthen my muscles and be as agile as I can be. I married Steve in Cyprus this Summer which is something that my whole family could look forward to after everything that has happened.

"Steve has been a massive support to me throughout this whole process and as a thank you to Devon Air Ambulance, he even did a fundraiser himself, walking from Newton Abbot to Derriford hospital in Plymouth, following the route that I took when I was first taken there that day."

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