Health: When life imitates Ambridge: Vanessa Whitburn, editor of The Archers, tells Rob Stepney how her near-fatal car crash changed her views on life and the series

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Each year in Britain accidents on the road cause 4,000 deaths and 40,000 serious injuries. Not many as badly hurt as Vanessa Whitburn live to describe the experience.

Driving to the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham one morning in February, her car was hit at speed from the side. The crash broke every rib on the right side of Vanessa's body. Both lungs were punctured and one collapsed. Her spleen was so damaged that it had to be removed. Her liver was badly torn and her pelvis was broken in two places.

'I'm thinking of having that first X-ray printed on a T-shirt,' she says. 'One of the hospital staff told me they normally saw such injuries only at post-mortem. I have to be proud of pulling through. What else can you do with an experience so awful?

'I was unconscious for the first half hour after the smash, and then in a curious limbo. From coming round to being operated on I remember as being about an hour. In fact, it was eight or nine. But during that time I never thought I was close to death. There was little pain. Perhaps it is only agony that convinces you you're going to die,' she says.

'I knew the operation was serious, but as I was falling asleep I told myself I'd survive. I just had to put enough energy into it, enough to match other people's skills.'

Vanessa's confidence supported the will to live in those first vital hours. So too did the presence of family and friends. Immediately after the accident, the BBC sent a car to bring Vanessa's mother from Devon. Her brother, sister and close friends were also at her bedside within a few hours.

'There is a force greater than the individual, and a power in other people wishing you well and praying. I really believe it contributes,' Vanessa says.

The extent of public sympathy at news of her critical condition far exceeded anything she might have expected. Longstanding Archers listeners have been challenged by recent storylines about abortion, alcoholism and imprisonment and Vanessa had become a target for personal criticism. But three van loads of flowers arrived at the hospital, ample evidence that public affection outweighed hostility.

This knowledge contributed to Vanessa's recovery, and the sensitive treatement she received in intensive care played a crucial part. 'To help myself get better, I needed to know about every X-ray and every tube, what they did and how I could help. The staff realised that and told me.

'There were two abdominal drains, a chest drain, tubes to provide intravenous feeding. I used to be squeamish about my body. In that context I came to see it as just a piece of plumbing. I remember there was a male nurse who had clearly been taught to be particularly attentive to the modesty of his women patients. But that sort of thing ceased to bother me.

'I was confident about the physical side. Psychologically, it was more difficult. Suddenly life is taken out of your control. As a person used to handling my own life, accepting this dependence was especially hard.'

She was helped by the way the trauma unit worked. 'Despite the common image, there is a calm in intensive care as nurses and doctors glide around doing their jobs. There is also structure. You can identify the people responsible for you, and that security means an enormous amount. I felt all the time that I was being helped to get better, and that made me give all I had. It's a nurturing environment.'

But it was also a demanding one. 'They got me out of bed when I was still attached to half a dozen tubes and drains. Two days after the operation I was sitting and within three days walking to the door and back on a Zimmer frame, with nurses carrying bottles behind me,' she says.

Along with dependence on people, intensive care brings a reliance on machines. Vanessa remembers the moment of relief when the ventilator tube was removed and she could once again breathe unaided. But in other respects, the weaning from medical assistance was not so welcome. 'I was scared every time anything else was unplugged, particularly if it was a line delivering a painkiller,' she remembers.

In the long period of recuperation, the practical concern of others has continued to be valuable. 'I had one really good piece of advice from a woman who wrote about her own bad accident. She told me not to look at how far I had to go but at how far I'd come. Try to sense that achievement, she wrote. I did, and it gave me confidence.

'Gradually the independence came back. But I remember the first time I walked to the village shops. I've stopped taking the ability to do that sort of thing for granted. I feel more grateful for all that works. I have more sympathy than before for those who are seriously ill, and more awareness of the reality of disability.'

Vanessa is due to return to work next week. Almost four months after the accident, she still has a slight limp. She takes analgesics and is sometimes woken at night by pain. There is an impressive 11- inch scar on her abdomen, and a slight bruise on her head. Apart from the absent spleen, which may mean taking antibiotics for life, remaining signs of the physical trauma will fade. But what about the long-term psychological effects?

'There is no waking at night in a cold sweat, perhaps because I can't remember the accident itself. And I don't think there will be a lasting psychological scar. I'm now driving again, though not long distances. But one thing I can't do is watch or listen to crashes. Several weeks ago I wobbled into a cinema and saw a car smash during a film trailer. I almost jumped out of my seat.'

It was an extreme irony that her near-fatal crash preceded by only a couple of days the broadcast of The Archers episode in which the character Mark Hebden died when his car ran into a tree.

'By that time, I was listening to the programme again. We had used a realistic mix of skid noises and windscreen smashes and I was proud of the result, technically and dramatically. I couldn't bear to hear that particular episode.'

Vanessa's experience has led her to a renewed questioning of the responsibilities of a drama producer. From the reaction to Mark's death, it was clear that many listeners bereaved by accidents found the programme's portrayal of the grief of his wife, Shula, unacceptably harrowing.

'The fact that you can disturb people so much raises ethical dilemmas for everyone involved. Suddenly a piece of drama we'd produced was unbearable to me - I've thought about that a great deal.

'With strong drama your aim is to encourage empathy and not to blight people's lives. I hope that the way we're pulling Shula through has something to offer. Sometimes you hit a raw nerve. But I still believe drama has to go for broke on this. It can't just be about everyday joys and idiosyncracies and not the big moments.'

A greater awareness of the power of fiction to evoke real pain is one lasting effect of her accident. Vanessa has also been left with an enduring respect for intensive care in general, and for the work of the South Birmingham Trauma Unit which treated her in particular.

From the start, when an anaesthetist is sent to the accident site, continuity of care is key to the unit's response to major injury. 'I saw the same team throughout the first week of intensive care, and I've seen my surgeon, Keith Porter, at each return visit since then, giving an immense feeling of security. I'm now a great supporter of the idea that specialised skills should be concentrated in a trauma unit, and of the people who cared for me. So it was distressing to know even when I was being looked after in the unit that it might be forced to close.

'When I really felt vulnerable, able to do absolutely nothing for myself, the nurse who gave me blanket baths and washed my hair was saying with tears in her eyes that she didn't know whether she would have a job in a few months' time. For God's sake, these people save lives. Tax us and keep them.'

(Photograph omitted)

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