Woman who was told she may never walk again welcomes miracle baby

Woman who was told she may never walk again after a horrific motorbike accident that almost killed her reveals how she defied the odds by falling pregnant with a miracle baby just a year later

  • Lucy Leonelli had a traumatic motorbike accident on her commute in California
  • After regaining her ability to walk, she was able to get married ten months later 
  • She told how the birth of her son made her feel like the world’s luckiest person

‘Pregnant’. I don’t know how long I have been sitting in my office bathroom staring at that single word flashing in front of my eyes, my hands shaking on the handle of the blue and white stick.

I feel a deep pulling sensation in my stomach and I’m not sure if it’s excitement or fear; probably both. After everything that’s happened over the last two years, I am going to have a baby, a miracle baby. I just can’t believe it.

I cast my mind back to my last visit to the doctor, when we had discussed the results of my fertility test.

‘We can’t be sure,’ she had told me, ‘But unfortunately the results aren’t good. You will likely find it very difficult to get pregnant, and if it does happen for you there will be a lot of associated risks.’

Lucy Leonelli who recently gave birth, revealed that she experienced a traumatic motorbike accident that made her future uncertain just months before. Pictured: Lucy and baby Fox

Lucy explained that she didn’t tell her parents when she passed her motorcycle test because they would worry about her being vulnerable on the road. Pictured: The accident wreckage

Risks. I breathe deeply, suddenly feeling very vulnerable, not just for me – I’m used to feeling vulnerable now – but for the new life growing inside me.

When I finally passed my motorcycle test two short years ago, I kept it a secret from my parents for a long time. They’d rather not know, they’d told me when I started taking lessons, worried about how vulnerable I would be with only a few layers of leather and plastic between my body and the other flying hunks of metal on the road. Turns out they were right.

The crash is etched into my mind so deeply I only have to close my eyes to conjure it back; visceral, sharp, steel-on-steel; metal bending, shredding, smashing into my body. I remember the rich assault of smells as I lay bleeding on the road – metal, wet concrete, oil – but not the pain. For some reason my mind has blocked that part out.

Next thing I remember, I was in hospital, with doctors running and shouting.

‘Female. 31. High-speed motorcycle collision. Significant blood loss. Multiple fractures. Likely pelvis, back, neck, wrist. Deformed shoulder.’

Oh well, I thought, as I lay on the gurney unable to move, it’s been a good life. It felt impossibly real, and yet somehow like a dream, as if I had woken up in a scene from somebody else’s life.

Lucy recalls drifting in and out of consciousness after the accident, as she struggled to respond to medics through a breathing tube. Pictured: Lucy and her husband Mat

Doctors explained that they were unsure if Lucy would regain her ability to walk and they would have to wait to see the extent of her nerve damage. Pictured: Lucy and Mat

For days I drifted in and out of consciousness, capturing fragments of information from surgeons and nurses as I struggled to respond through my breathing tubes. I had survived eight surgeries, torn open my groin, been given a colostomy and broken my neck, sacrum, arm, shoulder and pelvis in multiple places. I was very lucky to be alive.

I remember feeling as if my mind had disconnected from my physical body, as if I had woken up inside an avatar I hadn’t yet learned to communicate with. The doctors weren’t sure if I would walk again, what the extent of the nerve damage would be. We just had to wait.

It was as if someone had hit the pause button. I didn’t have to worry about work, remember birthdays or respond to texts. No one expected anything of me, and all I had to focus on was getting through each day in intensive care; it was strangely peaceful.

Lucy said Mat was followed around her hospital ward in California, as medics asked how he would be paying for her treatment. Pictured: Lucy at home in a hospital bed

Of course it wasn’t exactly peaceful for my mum Caroline, 65, who flew out to California – where I worked at the time – from her home in Bristol, nor for my now husband Mat, 30, a management consultant, who was literally followed around the ward with a card machine: ‘How would you like to pay your first $3,000 insurance deductible, cash or card?’ Oh, America.

I had a neck brace, a body full of screws and a giant rod pinning my hips in place. At night the nurses would wake me every two hours to turn me over. It took five of them to do it, a torturous dance that consumed my back, neck, shoulder and hips in pain.

‘She prefers it when you go really slow, and talk her through what you’re doing,’ I would hear my husband’s voice instructing in the middle of the night. I wondered when he slept, when he ate.

A month later, still pierced with an external fixator – a frame to keep my broken bones stable – I was transferred home. Confined to a hospital bed, I spent three weeks studying every nook and cranny of the living room ceiling. My mum and husband spent their days injecting me with blood thinners, rolling me every two hours, treating my incision wounds and draining my various bags of waste as I waited for surgery to remove the giant fixator.

Lucy admits her recovery seemed hopeless, but in less than four weeks of being transferred to a physical rehab centre she was able to walk across the room with the aid of a cane. Pictured: Lucy with her husband Mat and best friend Kate

After surgery and more recovery in hospital, I was transferred to a physical rehab centre for a month to relearn how to use my body.

Each day brought a different agony: foot-straightening devices; trying and failing to retrain my bladder; learning to self-catheterise; constant ‘zings’ from my damaged nerves that shot through my body like electric shocks; and endless urinary infections.

I learned to walk again on the parallel bars, holding all of my weight in my arms, drenched in sweat as I tried to remember what it felt like to propel myself forward using the seemingly dead limbs that hung from my waist. It seemed hopeless, but in less than four weeks I could walk across the room with the aid of only a cane.

Everything was made more bearable by my fellow patients, many of them on journeys far more difficult than my own. I was both inspired and humbled by how readily they adapted to losing the freedoms most of us take for granted.

Lucy (pictured) was injured on her morning commute, after being hit by a woman who had fallen asleep at the wheel 

Over the next six months, one by one, each of my bodily attachments was shed – my catheter, neck brace, wheelchair, dressings, cane, internal fixators, leg brace, and finally, my colostomy bag. This last one came just in time for my wedding day, just ten months after the accident, when, contrary to everything doctors had predicted, I walked down the aisle steadied only by the arm of my beaming dad.

It was around this time that I got to watch the CCTV footage of my accident.

The lady who hit me, on my morning commute, had fallen asleep, slumped on the steering wheel, after a night shift and swerved into my lane. I didn’t cry when I saw it happen, as I watched myself spin over and over again in the air. I didn’t cry when I saw myself land on my head, the rest of my body crumpling in a heap around me. 

But I did cry when I watched my husband, who had been right behind me on his motorbike, collapse onto his knees after the ambulance had taken me away, a stranger holding him in his arms, rocking him back and forward as he wept. I did cry then. I cried with my whole body.

Lucy (pictured) and Mat believed that becoming parents would be a long and painful process in their new circumstances

Although the accident was an enormous ordeal for me, it was just as bad, if not worse, for those closest to me. My husband most of all.

Perhaps that’s why, in the months afterwards, we both became determined to make the most of the time and freedom we had.

And so, just a year later, as the trivial stresses of every day life started to creep back in, a vivid sense of our own mortality lead to my agreeing a 12-month sabbatical with my company, a headhunting firm. We planned to travel the 50 states and write about it – a follow up to my earlier book, FOMO, in which I spent a year living with various communities and subcultures around the UK.

We had accepted, sadly, that trying to start a family would be a long and painful process in our new circumstances. We told ourselves this trip would be our final hurrah before parenthood. We’d got as far as the early planning stages when I started to feel nauseas every day for no apparent reason, so I took that pregnancy test in the office bathroom, and everything changed.

Lucy had a series of doctors’ appointments after discovering that she was pregnant, concerned if her body would be able to handle the weight of a baby. Pictured: Lucy and other physical therapy patients

‘Pregnant’.

I looked back at the stick in my hand. Suddenly all our options melted away to reveal just one way ahead. I felt utterly powerless, but this didn’t seem to panic me as it always had before. I’ve always been bad at closing doors – I have terrible FOMO that something amazing might be happening on the other side – but for the first time in my life, I was happy to close them. I was no longer paralysed by choice. I had a clear path to walk. I was going to be a mum.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. The next few months passed in a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments. 

Their biggest worry was the huge mass of scar tissue in my body, and how my reformed pelvis would handle the added weight of a baby. I was glad to have insisted on my last surgery to remove the metal bars and screws, but was unsure how my bones would cope without that added support.

Lucy (pictured) who was classified as ‘high risk’, revealed that she had very complications throughout her pregnancy but she felt vulnerable

I was classified as ‘high risk’ and had regular check-ups, as well as appointments with surgeons to plan their route into my body, navigating around the tapestry of scars across my torso. I had meetings with my orthopaedic surgeon, my urologist and my colorectal surgeon, who all agreed a natural birth would be impossible because of a deep perineal laceration that would likely reopen – requiring a second colostomy that they wouldn’t be able to reverse.

But my miraculous body seemed to take everything in its stride. I had very few complications, and felt in tune with my body in a way I hadn’t done before the accident; a gratitude that everything just seemed to work, outweighing the ever-present anxiety that things could go wrong at any time.

I’d always expected to feel powerful during pregnancy, but in truth I was startled by how vulnerable it made me. The feminist in me hated that I just couldn’t do the same things I used to, that I’d have to ask for help with a heavy suitcase, for example. It was a real dent in my pride, just as I was starting to get my body back again after the accident. I couldn’t help wondering if I was right to put my body through this so soon after a major trauma.

Having had 11 surgeries over the previous two years, Lucy told herself that her C-section would be a walk in the park. Pictured: Mat and Lucy

The planned C-section meant we got to choose the day of our baby’s arrival within a short window. We decided to pick a date that would mean our baby’s 18th birthday would be on a Saturday, so on October 17th last year, at 7am, we headed to the hospital.

‘One baby please,’ my husband said when we arrived at the labour ward. ‘Ah, you must be our 9am C-section,’ the nurse beamed. ‘Let’s get you ready.’

Having clocked up 11 surgeries over the previous two years, I cockily asked for a clear drape for the surgery, ‘so I could watch it all happen’. It will be a walk in the park, I told myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I failed to remember, foolishly, is that I had been asleep for all of the other surgeries, and hadn’t had to watch them rifle around my intestines like they were doing the washing up inside my stomach.

Explaining her experience of giving birth, Lucy admits she had never felt so overwhelmed and had tears streaming down her face. Pictured: Lucy and Mat with baby Fox

It was the most intense two hours of my life, as the magnificent (all-female) team of surgeons, anaesthetists, technicians and nurses carefully navigated their way around my scar tissue, releasing lesions here and unsticking tissue there. I focused intently on my husband whose attempt at steely composure failed to mask his fear and queasiness, both of us wondering when the torture would end.

And then the miracle happened.

‘It’s a boy!’ Matt spluttered as the surgeon held up a tiny human in front of the clear drape, like baby Simba in the Lion King.

I held my breath and stared, tears streaming down my face. I have never felt so overwhelmed.

He was perfect, absolutely perfect. I only realised in that moment that I had utterly convinced myself something would be wrong with him. How could such a shattered body produce something so utterly perfect, a tiny person with a little button nose and tiny, tiny hands?

Lucy revealed that the past two years of life have scattered her body in a total of 15 scars, with each a reminder of a step in her journey. Pictured: Lucy and baby Fox

‘Is he a Fox?’ I asked my husband, after he had been placed on my chest while the surgeons sewed me back up.

We had planned to call him Fox – but only if he looked like the kind of baby who could carry off a cool name.

‘I think he is,’ Matt said, his smile wide.

Four days later, I was on my way home with baby Fox sleeping in my arms. Breathing in the stillness of the morning and beaming at a passer-by in her wheelchair, I remembered my time in rehab and the lessons I learned in simplicity, in gratitude, and in finding the joy of each small moment. I soaked up the sensations, feeling as if I could burst with happiness.

The tribulations of the last two years have scattered a total of 15 scars across my body, each a reminder of another step in my journey back to where I am today.

Lucy explained that she feels like the luckiest person in the world. Pictured: Lucy and baby Fox

The final scar marks the birth of baby Fox, now four months old, and my rebirth as a mum – a mum who is alive, a mum with a story to tell, a mum who might just be the luckiest person in the world.

Not long ago I found a small pot of gold powder on our dining room table, alongside a card from my husband. The card explained that, in Japanese culture, when a precious piece of pottery is broken it is fixed with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, and the breaks are duly recognised as part of the object’s history. The practice is called Kintsugi, and the result makes the fixed piece even more beautiful than it was before.

‘Which is exactly what your scars do to you’, the note said. I am grateful for each and every one of them.

Lucy’s book, FOMO; A Year of Not Missing Out, is available for pre-order from http://unbound.com/books/fomo

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