Sinead's story: fear, hope and determination
Sinead O'Meara's life was turned upside down after a car accident, but she is making a remarkable recovery, writes Wayne O'Connor
It is five months since Sinead O'Meara was last at home. It is five months since she was able to go to college, meet her friends for a drink, or brush her own hair. For most of the past five months Sinead has been a prisoner trapped in her own body. Five months ago her life changed forever.
This time last year the 28-year-old, from Gortnahoe, Co Tipperary, had already made a life-changing decision to go to college and study social care.
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"I actually loved it. I couldn't believe how well I took to it. I was passing my exams, doing very well. I finally felt settled, where I needed to be."
Last March, a friend was helping Sinead get ready for a presentation in college in LIT, Thurles, the following day. She dropped her friend home and on the way back to Gortnahoe she took a detour to prolong her break from the books, to listen to some music in the car before finishing her presentation. She passed a woodland and saw animals off the side of the road.
"I can't remember the initial impact but I remember sitting there with my head buzzing, thinking 'what's going on? What's happening?'
"I didn't feel pain or anything. I looked and realised there was blood all over my blue jacket. There were pieces of animal beside me, a leg. I wasn't sure what type of animal, I thought it was deer.
"I could see my phone was only inches away from my hand so I tried to grab it, thinking I could get help. Nothing would move. My arm wouldn't move. I was still sitting upright but I couldn't grab the phone. I got really frustrated then because my arms would not move. I thought if I could kick my legs I would be okay because I could get out of the car. My legs wouldn't work and that is when my heart sank. I knew then I was in trouble."
Help soon arrived, first by way of passers by who looked at her with a sense of fear.
"I tried to shout but nothing would come out, only whispers. My voice was gone. I had a collapsed lung but I didn't know.
"When the guards came and a lady guard came over to me. I was asking everybody to get me out of the car. I asked her to stay with me because I thought I was going to die. She looked at me with the same fear as them. I thought 'why won't anybody stay with me?'"
Sinead had collided with three horses that had broken loose on to the road. Her car came upon them before she realised.
"I knew the guy on the fire brigade and asked him to stay with me and he did. He kept looking at me, just really deep in the face and reached up to my forehead and pulled off a gigantic lump of horse skin. That was actually covering my whole face. That is why no one could stay with me. They had looked at me thinking: 'Oh my God, this is her face'."
None of the blood was Sinead's but her injuries were serious, threatened her life and changed it forever. As well as the collapsed lung, her neck was broken in two places. She was tetraplegic - paralysed from the neck down. She was rushed to hospital in Kilkenny. Her father, Danny, had come to the scene and travelled with her in the ambulance. Her mother, Majella, and sister Claire (14) were waiting for them when they arrived at St Luke's Hospital.
She turned to her mother and said: "Mam, I have broken my neck. There is going to be good days and bad days. On the bad days I want you to beat me with that stick and get me back up again."
Already, Sinead was determined and knew her attitude would dictate any recovery.
A tube was put in to her chest to help her breath. She still carries a scar from it on her neck. Doctors stabilised her heart rate and she was transferred by ambulance to the Mater Hospital in Dublin for specialist care. Her heart rate dropped again significantly on the journey. Paramedics pumped her with adrenalin but Sinead was convinced she was going to die. When she arrived in Dublin she looked to the sky.
"I told myself: 'Take that in because this is the last time'."
She remembers doctors waiting for her as she was sent for an MRI scan to identify what damage had been caused by the accident. One of the vertebrae in her neck was severed and another badly damaged. She remembers her jaw clattering in the scanner as fear and shock overwhelmed her.
"I was in this machine, like a coffin, completely dark and I couldn't see or hear anybody. The fear completely took over my body - I was nearly convulsing with shock.
"The next thing I remember is waking up in intensive care. Then I realised I wasn't breathing for myself, that I was on life support. There was a big rush of false air filling my lungs and it was pumping me up and down. I could see my mother, the fear in her eyes. I wanted to comfort her, to say, 'it's alright, Mam', but when I spoke I had no voice and nothing would come out."
Sinead was told she could not expect to walk again. Doctors suspected her voice would come back but warned that many people with her injuries often live with machines to help them breathe and they may never regain the ability to swallow.
This is when she set her first goal in recovery.
"Every night in ICU I visualised a bottle of MiWadi and a bottle of sparkling water, I would be mixing them in my kitchen and drinking it back. And that was my only goal. Focusing on smaller goals has been a massive thing."
Four weeks after the accident, Sinead had been working with a team of nurses, spinal surgeons, physios and occupational therapists but it was her speech and language therapist who was getting most bombarded. She was tasked with helping Sinead swallow. Sinead badgered her to do a test to see if she would be able to drink alone. She failed the test but passed it two weeks later and got her MiWadi. Meanwhile, her breathing was getting better. She had been taken off life support, put on other machines to help her breathe and then eventually coaxed off them. Then she was to be allowed breathe on her own, initially for half an hour.
"It was absolute hell. It was a nightmare. I couldn't believe how hard it was for my own body to just breathe and have air. I thought I was going to die. It felt like somebody had put my head under water."
Her breathing gradually got better and eventually there was no need for machines to pump oxygen in and out of her body - but she still could not move. It had been 12 weeks since the accident and she still had not left bed.
"The doctors would come in every day and write the same thing: 'No movement.' I would keep looking at my legs and say 'Kick. Go on, just kick'. I would do the same thing with my arms and nothing would happen. I was getting frustrated. Eventually after so long my right hand flicked a little bit. It was such a small movement that I had to take a triple look. 'Did that just happen? It did'."
Sinead was moved from intensive care to the Mater's spinal injuries unit. Her progress increased. She was hoisted from her bed every morning into a wheelchair, a process that left her exhausted at first but one she soon became accustomed to.
Her mother was also instrumental. Majella has been home once since March, for a day last week. She stayed with Sinead every day and night, sleeping at the on-site accommodation provided by the Mater. "Medically, she wasn't supposed to be alive but you can't give up," Majella insists. "You only have two ways of going, up or down and you just need to get on with it."
The critical turning point in recovery came during a physio session in the gym when she sat up on her own for the first time.
"She [the physio] rang my Mam to come down to the gym and Mammy thought there was something wrong. She came in and I was sitting like I would have done before. I heard someone crying and looked up. Mammy was crying and it was the first time in the four months up to that point that she had cried.
"Then my physio cried and I realised, I am after doing something life-changing here. I shouldn't be doing this."
Since then Sinead has recovered more movement in her hands and legs. While she still cannot reach the back of her head to brush her hair, she can put on her own makeup, brush her teeth and feed herself. As she sits chatting in her wheelchair, her right leg kicks and flicks regularly. She was moved from the Mater to the National Rehabilitation Hospital 10 days ago as she goes into a new phase of her recovery. She marked the occasion with her mother.
"The day before we had to leave we got a half a pint down the road from the Mater. She wheeled me down."
"And it was lovely," Majella interjects. Sinead agrees. "I could lift it myself. I needed to know I could do it. Half a pint of ale. It was fantastic."
Five months ago, Sinead's life changed forever. Over the past five months she has slowly attempted to coax herself free of the most devastating injuries. Last week, she stood for the first time since March.
"There was no mechanical help to stand me, just the help of two physios and a trolley. That involved pushing my knees into a padding in front of me and they were pushing my bum muscles. I stood up."
This has given her hope and she is looking beyond standing now.
"In my head I know I need to start writing faster to take notes for college so I have started writing about what happened with the accident because it is getting me out and it exercises my hand.
"Whether I go back to college in a wheelchair or a standing frame I don't know.
"I loved my course and it breaks my heart that I cannot continue on with them this year because I met such a good group of people but I hope to be back in college by September next year."