I never think, `what if...?'; A Family Affair
Monday 12 April 1999
I'd done my last inspection and I was walking back down the lane to leave. What was strange was, I remember feeling that something evil and vile was rushing towards me, and I turned round and took three steps and - bang!
The next thing, I was looking at my right hand. I could see that it was sort of closed and bloody, but I could move it. Then I thought, there's only one logical explanation for this blast; I must have trodden on something that the de-miners didn't find in the clear lane. I was really surprised at that point, 'cause it was so hard to believe that the previous day the whole team had been running up and down that lane; you'd have thought that someone would have put their foot on it.
Then I turned over and thought, "prepare yourself, your lower leg will be missing". I knew it had to be, because I couldn't feel anything, and I looked down and sure enough it was missing, and there was just a finger of yellow bone and ragged flesh.
I shouted my casualty report to my back-up team on the road, but I wanted to know what had injured me, so I shuffled back to the hole, which wasn't far to go. It was a very deep hole. That's the thing that surprised me - how deep the hole was.
I knew that I'd have about a minute and a half before the pain set in, because the body produces endorphins so you don't feel anything for the first minute or so. I knew that to have these injuries was really life- threatening and I can remember thinking, well, do I regret any of this? And the answer was no.
Then the de-miners started to come in and they put me into the helicopter. We were just very lucky that an agency in the area had a helicopter, and that we had radio frequency.
I asked them not to give me morphine. I was afraid that it would reduce my ability to concentrate, and I wouldn't be able to control my environment. The worst thing was feeling that I was dying, knowing there wasn't anything I could do about it; but I certainly wasn't going to moan. I can remember thinking, "I've done the very best I could; I believe I'm dying, but I'm not giving up." I couldn't give up. That's the worst failure - not trying your best - but undoubtedly it would have been much, much easier just to go to sleep.
They flew me to hospital and from there I was airlifted to Johannesburg. Colin Mitchell, my boss, who's an amazing man, rang my parents and said, "Chris has been injured; we don't know how bad he is. As soon as we know we'll let you know." And they just had to wait.
The next day I rang them and just told them exactly what happened: "I was walking in a cleared area. My lower leg's blown off, right hand's been amputated. I'll be fine. I'm just going to stay here and get better." I said to my mum, "Look, I really don't want anyone to come out. I'm in a good hospital; all I can do now is just lie here and get better." I spoke to them every day and we'd have a bit of a laugh, so they knew I was OK. It was senseless anyone coming out.
I don't resent anything and I don't feel bitter in any way, because basically life's great and life's what we make it. I decided I'd never think, "what if...?" Because the fact is, I can do nothing about it. The other thing was never ever to say, "why me?" Because "why me?" is such a loser's attitude, and that's really assuming the role of victim. I was incredibly independent, and I have to accept help now, and that makes life much richer. I really think that's one thing that's been good for me. Shit happens. The important thing is not to let it stick.
We weren't really worried when Chris said he was going to work for the Halo Trust. We knew he'd play it by the book. He took his own safety and the safety of his men as paramount. I don't think we were ever really worried, just proud of him, proud that he would want to do such a humanitarian job.
Then one evening in March 1995 Colin Mitchell, who was Chris's boss and head of the Halo Trust, telephoned. He said that Chris had had an accident in the minefield - they didn't know how it had happened, as he'd been working in a cleared area - and that it was serious; so serious that he hoped he would reach the hospital alive.
Looking back I can remember thinking "Please God, let him live." But, strangely, I was very calm. I didn't panic at all. Colin said Chris was being airlifted to Johannesburg and that he would ring me as soon as the plane landed. And he did. He said that Chris had arrived at the hospital, that he was stable, that he'd lost a leg, and that his hand was badly damaged. Later they had to amputate it.
I can remember thinking, "I can't believe we went through all that terrible worry with the kidnapping, only for this to happen."
In fact the kidnapping caused us more panic and worry than this did, because then we hadn't known where he was or what was happening. At least with this we knew what was going on.
And, of course, I knew my son. I knew he was fit. He was the fittest person I'd ever met, so I thought physically he would be able to cope, and I also knew that he was very strong mentally, and that he would cope mentally too. And sure enough at 6am the next morning Chris rang from his bed and he just sounded like his usual self: "Hi Mum, don't worry about me; I'm fine. I won't be able to run for a bit. Don't come out to see me, there's no point."
The South Africa surgeon and doctors were very kind. Chris had to have four more amputations on his leg - salami chops he called them. They rang me to tell me what was happening. One day they rang to say he was out of danger, out of the trauma unit. At that point we lived again. Until then we'd felt as though our lives had been on hold.
Funnily enough it didn't enter my head to go to South Africa to visit him, and I know people thought that was strange, but I knew my son and he wouldn't have wanted me to go; and yet I don't think you'd ever find a mother and son closer. I knew that once the recovery period was started, he'd be looking forward to making a new life, and I thought he'd be absolutely OK. We notched up lot of phone calls, but it was normal chat. We'd always chatted on the phone and this was no different.
I spoke to the hospital psychiatrist and asked him about shock; what was Chris's mental state? And he said that Chris was as sane as he or I was. Perhaps I should have been worried at that point!
As soon as he got to Roehampton Hospital his sister, father and I rushed off to see him. None of us was sad, no one was saying "oh dear, this is terrible". Chris showed us his stumps - exhibit 1 and exhibit 2, and we were fine, but we are a positive family. We've never viewed ourselves as losers. We've always been close, and none of us has ever been pessimistic.
Chris always did charity work - even as a boy he had a social conscience. That was something his father and I instilled in him. For years I was a guider, and then I ran the village youth club, and I was a volunteer at the local spastics society and Chris used to come with me. He's always been a caring person; and right was right, and wrong was wrong. He's not someone who believes in fudges.
Chris is not a victim. He chose to do that work and accepts that, and I think the same. All the accident did to Chris was make him more of what he was before, so it accentuated his good points. I hope he doesn't do anything else to cause me grief!
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