The cost of caring for Linda: Caroline Grist meets the mother awarded pounds 1.5m after a tragic accident during childbirth which means she will never see her son

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A LARGE television screen flickers in the corner of the family living room. 'People think we're going to spend, spend, spend, but it's not going to change anything,' says Stephen Withington. 'We can't get out anywhere, so the satellite is all we've got.' His three eldest children, Michael (13), Stuart (10) and Angela (9), watch TV or play games, while three-year-old Paul, the youngest, sits on the settee next to his mother. There is a row of birthday cards on the window-sill: Linda Withington has just celebrated her 38th birthday.

Stephen and Linda have just received more than pounds 1.5m. It is not a pools win: nearly four years ago Linda was paralysed in a maternity ward accident and has been awarded one of the largest medical compensation payments ever made in Britain. The money was won after a two-year legal process which ended in September. The hospital admitted its mistake.

Linda went into St Mary's Hospital in Manchester to have Paul in 1989. She had had problems giving birth before, and did not deliver the placenta properly. She delivered Paul safely but an hour afterwards began to haemorrhage. It was a hectic night, and little was done to try and stop the bleeding until it was too late: eventually she went into shock and had a heart attack. A combination of stretched resources and vital decisions not being made at the right time left her in a coma for six weeks, emerging permanently brain-damaged and blind. She has lost the use of her limbs and cannot feed herself unaided. She speaks with difficulty, although her memory and understanding are good.

The final award was pounds 1.55m. The money is coming through now. 'It can never pay for what happened to Linda,' says Stephen. 'But we can relax at last and know the money is there for the carers and physiotherapists and equipment.'

Linda inclines her head towards whoever is talking, her eyes resting on the speaker. She makes a great effort to join in the conversation, and is still at the centre of family life. In the evening she sits on the settee next to Stephen, usually listening to the TV with the children.

'Things on TV can upset us a lot - like hospital programmes or ones about normal families enjoying themselves,' says Stephen. Next to the sofa is a frame to help Linda stand.

The family helps interpret what Linda is saying. Asked what gives her most pleasure, she says: 'The children.' Stephen says she remembers Michael, Stuart and Angela as she last saw them, four years ago. 'The only good thing is that I won't have to see them growing old,' Linda says as a joke.

The accident threw the family into chaos: Linda was in hospital for a year, and Stephen had to drive for two hours every day to visit her. The children and the new baby needed to be cared for by Linda's parents, and a new, larger house found. Stephen mainly remembers battling with doctors: 'They said Linda would be lying on her back for the rest of her life. I said she would be capable of doing a lot of things, but would need a lot of work and help.'

Legal action had to be undertaken, involving 20 doctors and witnesses testifying to Linda's condition. Stephen sat through dozens of meetings where the minutiae of her disabilities were discussed. 'The fact the claim is over and the family is still together is due to Stephen,' says Richard Dawson, Linda's solicitor. 'Stephen and Linda have had their feelings turned inside out. After this sort of accident the strain on a marriage is massive. But Stephen won't ever let Linda down - his love for her shines like a beacon.'

Linda's defence estimated that pounds 94,000 a year was needed for equipment and help for her. It was obvious that Stephen's job as a supermarket manager wasn't going to cover it. A loan from his employers and a charitable donation helped pay for the new semi-detached home in Hyde, and Linda's home nursing care. Then the family received an advance award payment of pounds 250,000 in March.

The house itself is full of equipment: walls had to be knocked down to create a bigger downstairs bathroom, which contains a tilted bath, a wheelchair and a mobile frame. The frame is the most important piece of equipment in the house: it holds a seat which can be raised or lowered manually, and is used to move Linda from her bed to the bathroom, from her wheelchair to the sofa, and from the house to a specially converted van.

Some money will be used to buy a voice-activated computer console enabling Linda to do things like write letters and draw the curtains. More importantly, a lift will be added to the bathroom so Linda and Stephen's bedroom can be moved upstairs. 'She can't go upstairs, so she's never been involved with the children going to bed,' says Stephen. Three-year-old Paul kisses his parents and goes up to bed on his own. His mother says 'Night night'.

Much of the money is eaten up by the ever-present agency care assistants. The first two come at 7.30am to get Linda up. They are cheerful women who dress Linda, give her breakfast, and put her in the wheelchair. All three have a coffee and a chat once the children have gone to school, and Linda is read bits of news from the day's paper. She also likes to hear her horoscope. The care assistants include her in family life as much as possible. Linda listens to the radio while the others attend to her and get on with the household chores. The next team comes at one o'clock. As the minutes tick by, the costs go up: to have two women present costs pounds 10 an hour; two physiotherapists come for three hours a week at pounds 70 an hour, and a specialist nurse comes at pounds 50 an hour. Another helper comes in to look after Paul in the afternoons.

At weekends, Stephen works hard to keep family life going. On Saturdays he takes the three eldest children to their swimming lessons. After that he is constantly cooking and washing. 'The weekend's gone before we know where it is'. He regrets most of all the loss of normal life for the children. 'They don't get the same as a lot of children - I can't take them to football matches or sports centres,' he says. Asked what she regrets most about the way things are, their daughter Angela says: 'I miss going out.'

After the children have gone to bed, Stephen talks about Paul. Though the birth inflicted what he calls 'a life imprisonment' on Linda, Paul is perfectly healthy and has grown into a cheerful and independent little boy. He doesn't know his mother is blind, and will often come up to her with a book or will ask her to play. 'And everyone tells her what a lovely little boy he is,' he says. 'The hardest part for Linda is not seeing him.'

(Photograph omitted)

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