- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Brain-damaged and paralysed – I'd forgotten my life
Emily Snaith opened her eyes and stared at the people in the room. There was an older man and woman, plus some younger women. They were all tearfully staring at her, and they all looked distraught.
She had no idea who they were, why they were staring at her, where she was or how she'd got there.
But when she tried to ask them what was going on, her words came out in a jumble of nonsense.
Five days earlier, Emily, then 17, had been involved in a horrific car accident. As she sat trapped and unconscious, the car caught fire. An off-duty fireman dragged her free and she was rushed to hospital.
Since then, she'd been in a coma. Her family had been warned she probably wouldn't survive and, if she did, she'd be left brain damaged.
Struggling to understand what had happened, Emily tried to move. But she was paralysed - and terrified.
"I'd woken up in hospital, unable to move or speak, surrounded by people I didn't recognise who were all crying their eyes out," she recalls. "They kept talking about Emily - whoever she was."
The people around her bed were, in fact, her parents, her older sisters Lisa and Anna, and her twin, Liz.
Emily couldn't remember any of them. She'd suffered such severe head injuries, her memory had been wiped.
"The doctors didn't think I'd make it through the first night," she says. "Everyone was amazed when I woke up."
Emily may have come out of her coma, but she couldn't speak or move. She was a prisoner in her own body. And although she'd survived, she'd never be the same again.
"I knew what I wanted to say, and the words were there - but they wouldn't come out," she says. "When my family came to visit, I just stared at them blankly."
Emily's mum visited every day, talking to her daughter about her life to try to spark her memory.
"Slowly the fog started to clear," she says. "I remembered my name was Emily, and the lady who came to see me was my mum. It was like my life flashed in pictures in my mind."
Still struggling to form words, Emily stared at her mother's face, determined to do more than just smile. Eventually, she managed a slurred "hello".
It was a sign that, despite her horrific brain injury, Emily was recovering. So her doctors started her on a course of intensive physiotherapy to help her relearn how to talk and walk. It would be a painfully slow and frustrating recovery.
"I'd forgotten so much that people take for granted. I didn't know who my friends were, what holidays I'd been on, what my favourite songs were. I felt so lost," says Emily.
Emily's mum would show her photos from throughout her life to try to help her remember - but the memories were lost deep inside her damaged brain.
"I felt angry and scared. I worried I'd never remember the things that made up my life," she says tearfully.
Members of Emily's family stayed with her all day, only leaving at night for her to get some rest. But those were the toughest times. Terrified by the life ahead, Emily would pull the covers over her head so nurses didn't see her sobbing.
"There were times when I thought it would have been better if I'd died in the crash. I didn't know if I could cope with the person I'd become," she admits.
But cope she did. With speech therapy, Emily slowly learnt to communicate again, and her memories returned in bits and pieces.
"One day, I asked for a McDonald's and my dad brought one in," she recalls. "I was delighted - not because it tasted good, but because I'd remembered I liked them!
"Being able to communicate was a massive relief. I'd tried to write things down, but my letters were just a scrawl. I was often so frustrated, I'd shout and cry."
Emily's head injury meant signals from her brain to her legs were muddled. She couldn't remember how to walk. Over the following months, she had intensive physical therapy as nurses worked to strengthen her legs to get her walking again.
Every day, two nurses would hold her upright while a third manipulated her limbs to strengthen the muscles.
"At first, my legs hung limply as they worked on them - I couldn't feel anything," she says.
Gradually, after weeks of therapy, the feeling in her legs returned. The nurses then took her to the physio gym where, with a nurse on either side, she was helped to her feet. Gripping the support bar, she slowly lifted one leg, then the other. Dizzy and weak, she managed 10 paces.
"I was so proud of myself," she says. "Even though it was just a few steps, it felt like the best moment of my life."
It was a turning point. Each day, she grew stronger. Three months later, when she was walking properly again, Emily returned home to Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. There, her parents showed her newspaper reports of the crash. Emily still has no memories of it - and she's not sure she wants to remember.
"It's hard to read about something like that happening to you, but feel like you've had no part in it," she says. "On the other hand, I've thankfully never suffered from flashbacks or nightmares, and I've never needed any counselling."
Emily worked to regain her independence. "Walking to the shops or going for lunch with mates felt like big achievements," she says. "Simple things I'd taken for granted before."
But Emily was far from fully recovered. Her head injuries meant she suffered short-term memory loss. She'd forget who she'd met the day before or whether she'd done any shopping.
And because of her brain injury, alcohol was banned.
"I was at the age when nights out revolve around having a drink. I felt older than my mates, having to be sensible while they were carefree," she says. "I'd often go home early in tears."
But one night out didn't end so badly when Emily met Paul Dines, 23, a policeman, in a nightclub in August 2008.
"We swapped numbers and he called me the next day," Emily says.
They began dating and Emily told Paul about her accident.
"He was shocked at what I'd been through, and how well I'd recovered," she says. "I thought my memory loss might put guys off. I'd been brain damaged - that's a lot to take in. I was worried Paul would think he'd have to be my carer, not my boyfriend. But he's been amazing."
Three months later, Emily discovered she was eight weeks pregnant. This February, the couple bought a house and moved in together. And in April, Paul proposed.
"I didn't hesitate in saying yes," Emily smiles.
Baby Alfie arrived safely in June.
"I'd had a healthy pregnancy, but worried if I'd struggle to cope with a new baby because of my memory," says Emily, who's now a full-time mum. "I thought I might forget how many bottles he'd had, or when his nappy was changed. But so far it's been fine, and I have my family and Paul to help too."
Now 21, Emily and Paul are looking to set a wedding date - but for now, she's revelling in being a mum.
"I thought I might never talk or walk again, but soon I'll be teaching my son his first words and helping him take his first steps," she smiles.
"The car crash has made me a nicer, calmer person," she adds. "And I've realised I've got to make the most of every day. I know how easy it is to lose it all - I came so close. I'll never forget how precious life is or take anything for granted."