'We sat by her bed, willing Charlie to live'

Charlie was 21, and had everything going for her. Then a moment's lapse left her fighting for life. Here, her sister Rachel Halliburton recalls the week that changed her family for ever
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The Independent Online

It is impossible to imagine the violence of the moment when you discover someone you love is going to die. Suddenly it feels as if the world is punching you from every angle, while you stand there in a state of suppressed hysteria and try, in disbelief, to tell it to go back to normal.

In early January, on a day marked by nothing more startling than family chitchat, cups of tea, calmly perused newspapers, and discussions of new millennium resolutions, my youngest sister Charlie decided to cross the road in the middle of Fleet Street. It was a decision she had taken several times before, but on this occasion a split-second error of judgement meant that she never made it to the other side.

The most recent statistics reveal that in 1998, 906 pedestrians suffered a fate made even more horrifying by its triviality - of being killed while crossing a road. Many are killed outright, but Charlie's accident heralded the start of a six-day fight for her life which has distorted the family's concept of normality for ever.

Each person's experience of grief or pain is different, but as anyone who has watched a relative or friend in intensive care will know, your emotions run the gamut from despair to desperate hope several times a day. In a world where information is hurled at you continually through the Internet, newspapers, magazines and books, you come to the salutary realisation that nothing can prepare you for this kind of anguished, adrenaline-fuelled vigil.

One of the strangest ingredients of the nightmare was the knowledge that, on one level at least, we were lucky. It was the week beginning 3 January, the week when the front pages screamed that "killer flu" was highlighting a critical shortage in hospital intensive-care beds. Unlike some families, we did not have to endure the farce of watching Charlie be rushed from London to another county for treatment, or be doomed to a death of botch-ups and mishaps after hours of waiting on a hospital trolley.

In our sea of pain we had the privilege of experiencing the health service at its best, which made clear how sick a joke it is that the Government is fiddling financial figures while the NHS degenerates into an organisation that is scandalously poor in resources.

Charlie suffered severe head injuries and a fractured pelvis when she was hit by the van. She was rushed to the Royal London Hospital, where they diagnosed her, gave her a brain-scan, and started operating to remove a blood-clot from her brain within the first two and a half hours of arrival at the hospital.

In one of the tiny, harshly lit rooms of the Royal London's A&E ward we sat out the sickening period of waiting, while a Bangladeshi family wailed in the room next door as if their world had come to an end. Inside we felt the same, but we sat tight-lipped and tense as we tried to occupy our minds by picking our way listlessly through crosswords, and talked to a hospital chaplain who offered us shreds of wisdom gleaned from having seen all too many families like us before.

You don't need to be a medical genius to understand how a person's chances of recovery are directly linked to the speed of their treatment. The Royal London Hospital's team of neuro-surgeons managed to operate on Charlie twice within the first seven hours to remove a further clot, and ease the bruising of her brain - which is far quicker than in most cases, apparently. By midnight, when we had all moved upstairs to the comparative calm of the intensive-care unit, the battle lines were drawn up. Brain pressure was enemy number one, and even if the primary swelling from the accident subsided satisfactorily, within 48 hours secondary swelling would be posing another threat to her life. If she survived these phases, it was possible we would get her back.

For the next few days, there was only a present. Notions of a past or a future carried too much pain. Staring-eyed, we sat by Charlie's bed, willing her to live. It was impossible to take in how this walking, thinking, breathing individual, who had been planning her 21st birthday party only hours before the accident, had been reduced to a collection of tubes and machine-induced bleeps. The fluctuations of our emotions were measured out by the figures that monitored her progress, as we watched for signs of possible life, or death, by numbers.

Charlie was in a drug-induced coma, but the nurses encouraged us to sit beside her, talking and reading to her as much as we liked. Although the particular sedative used in her case meant that she was unlikely to hear us, one nurse told us a story about a patient in similar circumstances who had recovered, and had later written to the ward staff about his experiences while he too was in a coma. Somehow he felt as if he had been on a trip around the world, because he had been treated by staff with so many different accents. So for instance, when he heard a nurse speaking with a South African accent he would be transported in his mind to South Africa, while the sound of a Canadian voice would instigate an interior journey to another continent.

Like many women in this country, Charlie was seduced by the image of Colin Firth in a wet, white shirt when he played Mr Darcy on TV. In the hope of creating pleasant thought patterns for her, we therefore read to her from Pride and Prejudice, chatted about what we could do to celebrate her 21st birthday, and played her Bach's double-violin concerto, which her boyfriend had brought in on a CD. Behind her bed we pinned up photos, so the nurses could see what kind of a person she was before the accident reduced her to a passive being: Charlie pissed on holiday in Crete; Charlie playing with a much-loved Dalmatian; Charlie just standing there, with her thick hair and irreverent smile. At the same time as exhibiting a calm professionalism, the nurses sympathised and talked with us so that over the intense, week-long wait they came to feel like our closest friends.

On the fourth day, however, further medical problems started to develop. Although Charlie had survived so far against the odds, her body was beginning to make it clear that it was giving up, and on 11 January she died.

Now the family is beginning the jagged process of coming to terms with its grief, but at least we are doing so in the knowledge that everything that could have been done to save her life was. It is a terrible indication of the Government's attitude to the NHS that - unlike so many people who were involved in the desperate search for intensive care beds over those same weeks - we can claim that Charlie's death was a tragedy rather than an insulting farce.