When Debs Paterson was in a head-on car crash, doctors weren't sure they could save her. Ten months later, her scars are healing - but she's changed for ever

I don't remember it at all. I remember leaving the conference, turning off the M1 towards Cambridge. I remember a roundabout, thinking I'd gone the wrong way. The crash happened some 60 miles later. Nothing.

Apparently we were screaming, so we must have been conscious as they cut us out of the car. It was a head-on - a suburban street I know quite well. The police have called it an accident, nobody's fault. The other lady walked away, but her car could have been full of kids. Ours crushed in on us, no airbags. Sophie was probably wearing her glasses when her head hit the dashboard. Carnage.

Once cut free we were taken to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. Sophie's injuries were mostly to her face - her left eye was badly damaged and deeply cut. Mine were more serious - ruptured liver, collapsed lung, broken rib, broken pelvis, torn knee ligament, fractured cheekbone and jaw, and quite extensive facial and general laceration and bruising. When I first came to, I couldn't speak because of the tubes, couldn't see because of the swelling, could feel a neck brace, came in and out of awareness of worried doctors, casualty beeps - clichéd television dialogue about surgery and accidents and hoping for the best.

My family live overseas, but Sophie's dad had contacted our church in Cambridge. They posted a message online immediately to get together to pray, while a friend tracked down my family to say I was going into surgery: brain damage and paralysis unknown, situation grave.

My uncle describes trying to identify me - relying on a familiar pattern of moles on my neck, because I was swollen beyond recognition. I was bleeding to death from a lacerated liver and taken to surgery. Some time during the night, a call from the theatre nurse went out saying that I was unlikely to be alive in half an hour. One of the top liver surgeons, Mr Gibbs (my new hero) had been on call and was operating, but they couldn't stem the bleeding. Then, half an hour later, the surgeon himself called back to say they had managed to pack the liver, and I should be stable through the night.

As I came round to this new and horrible reality of Intensive Care and quite terrible pain and fear, hearing that friends were praying was a genuine balm. I felt as though I was in a huge storm with no umbrella, but was safe because a crowd of people were holding up theirs over me. In and out of consciousness, unable to communicate, I was trapped in my own corpse. And there is a remarkable clarity there as to what will and what won't sustain you: in the isolation of those moments where you feel something go wrong and don't know if it will be one thing too many, or if the doctors will be able to fix it; the moment when it occurred to me that I was wearing a neck brace and might therefore be paralysed, but couldn't ask. Those moments were wild. The resounding realisation that even with a loving family, incredible friends, achievements, accolades, adventures - in the end it's only me, myself and God.

After the tubes and sedation were gone came sleeplessness and the realisation that the quick steps to get out of the emergency room would be succeeded by the long wait of traction. After three sleepless nights, high on morphine, feeling the pain, insanity sets in. My hips are in traction. They tell me I will lie flat on my back for eight weeks at least. I can't cope with another 12 hours. I can't breathe without the mask. I am desperate to roll over. I want the stitches out of my face. My feet are cold. I start tripping on morphine - dreams of medieval battles and Art Deco sea storms, set to lyrical, satirical marching-band war songs. The pain is intense, and I am desperate for distraction, for TV, for sleep, for some escape.

Two weeks and a day before the accident I met a boy. One of those instantaneous things where you look up and get hooked. We met up a handful of times in those two weeks, but three days before the crash he told me that he'd like to give "us" a shot. I told him I liked the idea, but didn't want to rush into it - that I'd keep him posted. When he first visited, he didn't recognise me. A nurse had to point me out. He described the cards, read their messages, went for dinner with my mum, then left. I didn't know if I would see him again. Couldn't blame him if I didn't.

That's been the biggest surprise of this whole thing. All the things I thought I knew but didn't. When I saw my face for the first time - in a reflective ceiling in a lift - I knew my life would never be the same, that these scars would redefine me. But in fact redefinition came not from that, but from the experience of love beyond anything I'd ever understood before. I learnt that scars are not failures, they are externalised success stories of injuries that have healed. That brokenness doesn't have to mean bitterness - it can mean a reassignment of where you find your substance...

Working in the entertainment industry, it's easy to learn that people take you at face value. I have worked as a presenter, director, editor and producer on different projects and you learn the importance of a good first impression. I felt sure everything would change because I looked different. But it's not been true - because the shell doesn't count nearly so much as the content. And I never understood that, to my shame, until now. It was almost eight weeks before a single day went without friends coming to visit - mostly travelling from London. My mum dropped everything to stay near the hospital. And the boy kept coming.

My life pre-crash was a havoc of work and play: film-making, fundraising, travelling, madcap adventures, overworked weekends and partying. Lying on my back for those weeks was something I could not conceive of. That lifestyle is great and a privilege, but in the end it doesn't save you. In the end, your legacy is written in people.

Hospital wasn't the end. Finally starting the long process of learning to walk and finding out what would and would not heal, was in many ways the hardest thing of all. The structure disappeared - rather than waiting until the traction came off, it was a case of working on physio without knowing whether I would ever be able to run for a Tube; of realising that if my voice was going to come back it would have weeks ago; of being a totally different person - inside and out. I had five months of wheelchairs, physio and crutches, and all the time a fairly bleak prognosis. I am only now, 10 months on, starting to feel normal again. The limp is still there, although I can run for the Tube.

What has become clear is that the quick fix is not the only way through all of this. There is immense value in being shaped by the wait. I have seen little miracles - my hips straightening out before our eyes, my vocal cords un-paralysing themselves overnight. I don't hate the scars on my face and body. But I've also learnt to wait - to let the frustration drive me through; and without that waiting, without having to "be here now" in a bad place, hoping for a better one, and letting that change the way I thought of myself, I would have been the poorer.

There are life experiences that you wouldn't choose, but wouldn't swap. This has been one. I don't understand why we survived. But I know something about what matters now. I know life is written in people, and people are more than the sum of their parts. I know that church is not a building, and family more than blood. I know that love is not earnt - it's an incredible gift.

About a month ago, Bernie asked me to marry him. The plan is to get hitched on the anniversary of the crash. I can't wait.This is borrowed time now, and I'm loving every minute.

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