Mavis Marsh: 'I couldn't abandon my son'

Mavis Marsh was furious when the doctors told her she should put her brain-damaged son in a home and get on with her life. Instead, she tells Simon Beckett, she and her husband decided to defy the experts
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The Independent Online

It was at 7am on Thursday, 12 October 1995, that Mavis Marsh's life was irrevocably changed. "I saw a shadow go past the window. It was a policeman coming to the door. He said there'd been an accident. I just said: 'Which one?'"

Mavis and her husband, Keith, had three grown children: two daughters, Gaynel and Dena, and a son, Matthew. The police officer told them that Matthew, then 25, was on a life-support machine in intensive care at Leicester Royal Infirmary, but could offer no more information. "I thought he might have been stabbed or been in a car crash," Mavis says.

In fact, Matthew, who had just completed a PhD in astrophysics at Leicester University, had climbed up a fire escape the night before, going to the top of a university building with his girlfriend, apparently to star-gaze. At some point he had fallen off - though no one ever satisfactorily explained how. The 40ft fall had left him unconscious and with a broken collarbone, pelvis, elbow and ribs, and - more crucially - bleeding in his brain.

At first, Mavis and Keith were assured that there was no cause for concern. It was only several days later, when attempts to bring Matthew out of the sedation-induced coma failed, that a far more devastating verdict was delivered. "I'll never forget the doctor's words," recalls Mavis. Her anger is still evident. "He said Matthew would be either a cabbage or a vegetable, whatever we wanted to call it. That's what he said."

Sitting in the living room of the bungalow where he now lives with his parents, Matthew is patently neither. His speech is impaired, and he still walks - as his father jokingly puts it - "like he's had a few". But although his intelligence and sense of humour are still evident, his injury has left him with both short- and long-term memory loss, which clearly frustrates him.

But the extent to which he has defied the doctors' grim predictions is remarkable. His recovery is a testament not only to his own efforts but also to his parents' refusal to accept the bleak medical prognosis, and their decision to tackle his therapy themselves.

Mavis's account of the devastating accident that changed their lives, and the gruelling years that followed, is published in paperback this week under the title Shattered. Last September, without telling Matthew or Keith, she entered TV's Richard and Judy's "True" competition. While she didn't win, she was awarded one of two runner-up prizes of £15,000 and the chance to have her story ghostwritten and published. "I didn't care about the money," she says. "I just wanted to get it in print."

It's a sobering, as well as uplifting, story. While Mavis (who retired last year) had to return to her job in the housing department at Leeds City Council after six weeks, Keith had recently sold his newsagent's business and so was able to spend 10 hours a day at his son's bedside. They remain full of praise for the attention Matthew received in intensive care. But it was different once he was moved to a ward, where they found the hospital's attitude towards victims of neurological injury less impressive. Keith, in effect, took over nursing duties, turning Matthew every few hours to prevent bedsores, and cleaning him when staff failed to. "I just couldn't trust the situation," Keith says. "I'm not blaming them as individuals; it's the system. When I watch Holby City, I could weep."

Inevitably, fracture lines between the family and the hospital staff began to appear. When Matthew contracted MRSA - this was before the superbug problem was widely recognised - a doctor stood by his bed and told his sister that if the brain injury didn't kill him, the infection would. His parents were even reprimanded for following basic hygiene and using a box of hospital gloves when they nursed him. "I said 'tough'," Mavis declares. "Like I say to Keith, they're only human. But the doctors' and nurses' attitudes need questioning. As well as the stress of what had happened to Matthew, we'd also got the stress of falling out with the establishment every day."

After nine months, it became apparent that the hospital had done as much for Matthew as it was going to, a fact summed up by a comment made by one of his doctors. "He told us to put him in care and get on with our lives," Mavis says. "They meant an old people's home. There's nowhere else for brain-injured people to live."

Instead, they took Matthew home. Although he had regained some speech, he could only move around in a wheelchair, and one arm and leg seemed to have permanently contracted. Keith assumed the role of 24-hour carer, using "common sense" and drawing on his experience of physiotherapy from his rugby-playing days. "We walked up and down the hallway like soldiers for three years. Left, right; left, right."

He laughs, but the strain of what they went through is never far away. There was no turning point, just a long, arduous process, and a dogged refusal to give up. "The first six or seven years were the worst," Mavis says, as lightly as most people would refer to a period of months or weeks.

She and Keith remain bewildered by the indifference shown by the medical profession. If their son could flout medical wisdom and recover, they reason, then so could other people. Surely there are lessons to be learnt for other neurological victims? Apparently not. "No one's ever come to see how he's doing," Mavis says. "They don't seem to follow anything up. They haven't learnt anything. They should talk to him; he can explain things."

While Matthew's story is one of hope, there's no pat happy ending. Having come this far, he and his parents have no idea how to go any further. Of all his injuries, it is the effect on his memory that is the most profound. I'm told that, 10 or 15 minutes after I have gone, Matthew won't be able to remember the visit. "I don't have a life," he says, matter-of-factly. "Not that I'm whinging. But your memory is who you are. Life's life, you handle it. But it's like being a kid. Your parents do everything for you. All I do is watch TV and make tea and coffee."

For the most part, the Marsh family seem to have adapted well, and even joke about Matthew's memory. "I bet you don't remember that tenner I lent you," Keith says to his son. "I remember you keep telling that joke," Matthew shoots back, and the three crack up.

For Mavis, the fact that her son's story has finally been made public is a source of relief. "It's the first time in 10 years I've felt relaxed. I wanted to tell the rest of the country, 'Look after your own children.' The NHS is good, but it's not that good."

'Shattered', by Mavis Marsh with Andrew Crofts, is published this week by Arrow (£6.99)

Extract: 'The doctor told us there was no hope'

I realised that, in his strangely matter-of-fact way, the doctor was telling us to walk away from Matthew and get on with our lives. There was nothing we could do, he would never change. There was no hope.

Walk away? From our darling son, who lay helpless in a hospital bed just yards away? . . . Even at that moment, when Keith and I were both so deeply shocked and unable to take in what was happening, I don't think we ever believed for a second there was any possibility we could ever just walk away from [him]. We would be there as long as he needed us.