Abigail comes home from hospital after stabbing that has left her paralysed

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The Independent Online

The pregnant 26-year-old was pushing her two-year-old son Joseph in a buggy along a country lane in Little Bookham, Surrey, when she was knifed in the neck. Initially, her condition was so severe that the last rites were administered in hospital.

But yesterday the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, north London, revealed she was well enough to leave the Spinal Cord Injury Centre, having made good progress.

The young woman, who has always appeared markedly cheerful in photos released since the incident, was said to be delighted at returning home on Wednesday night.

"She is now able to breathe and speak freely, and has some movement in her right arm so she is beginning to feed herself," said a hospital spokesman.

He added: "Abigail has tetraplegia which means she is severely disabled and will need ongoing therapy and nursing care.

"It is expected that her initial stay at home will be temporary as she will soon need to be admitted to a maternity hospital as her pregnancy comes to term."

Mrs Witchalls, whose second baby is due in about two months' time, thanked the hospital staff for their "enthusiasm and care", adding: "Your expertise and competence have encouraged me and given me the confidence to continue to expect improvements."

Mrs Witchalls' home has been specially adapted for her and the NHS will provide carers 24 hours a day to support her.

"While her family will all be close at hand to help, her husband Benoit and her mother and father are continuing with their careers," said the hospital.

The improvement in her condition has impressed specialists considering that two doctors who first examined her after she was stabbed in the neck last April thought she was clinically dead.

It was only after a third doctor examinedher that signs of life were detected. Her family were so pessimistic that a priest gave Mrs Witchalls, a devout Catholic, the last rites at the side of her hospital bed.

A photograph of Mrs Witchalls in her hospital bed showed Benoit, 26,and their son, Joseph, anointing her with holy water from Lourdes, the Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary in France.

Her brother-in-law Bruno Witchalls, a trainee priest at the Venerable English College in Rome, is reported to have been praying for her complete recovery at the tomb of John Paul II.

Pictures released in July showed her sitting up in a wheelchair working with her occupational therapist, Emma Linley. She was by then able to sit for most of the day, could speak softly and had begun to eat small amounts of puréed food.

At first she could only communicate by blinking, but she managed to give detectives a full account of the attack and a description of her attacker.

Mrs Witchalls told police she turned to see her attacker holding a knife to her son's throat as she tried in vain to open a high gate in front of her. She walked towards her would-be killer before being stabbed in the neck and left with a 3-inch wound.

Neighbours who heard her screams came running to find her slumped in the mud with Joseph out of his buggy and next to his mother.

Police have passed a file containing details of their investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service but the key suspect, Richard Cazaly, 23, died of a suspected overdose in Scotland just days after the attack on 20 April.

Cazaly, from Fleet, Hampshire, had been living in a house on Water Lane, Little Bookham, close to where the attack took place, and had similarities to the description given by the victim.

Although Mrs Witchalls failed to pick Cazaly out in a photo identity parade from her hospital bed, Surrey Police believe they have evidence linking him to the attack.

In an early appeal for help in identifying the culprit, Mrs Witchalls husband said the couple felt sorry for her attacker.

"Obviously whoever did this needs help. We haven't had any feelings of anger. You know life is just such a lottery and this could have so easily happened, as it does to so many people, through a car accident or through some sort of illness. People live wonderful lives paralysed from the neck down."

Mrs Witchalls has yet to receive any criminal injury compensation, the hospital said yesterday, and her family has set up a trust fund for additional long-term care expenses, to which donations were welcome.

A spokeswoman for Surrey Police said: "Everyone is delighted to hear that Abigail has now been able to return home.

"She has shown great courage and determination over the past seven months and we all wish her the very best for the future."

The long road to recovery

20 APRIL 2005: Abigail Witchalls is stabbed in the neck as she pushes her son in his buggy in Little Bookham, Surrey. The attack leaves her paralysed and unable to speak

21 APRIL: Police release details of the attack to the press and make a public appeal for help to catch the attacker

22 APRIL: A man and a woman come forward and are arrested, but later released and eliminated from police enquiries

25 AND 26 APRIL: Mrs Witchalls gives a statement to police by mouthing "yes" and "no" answers

30 APRIL: Richard Cazaly, 23, who lived close to the scene of the attack, dies of a suspected overdose of painkillers in Scotland, having crossed the border five days after the stabbing.

4 MAY: Mrs Witchalls is transferred to the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in north London

12 MAY: Police say Mr Cazaly is a suspect in the case and DNA tests are being carried out on his blue Volvo car and knives found in the vehicle. He bears similarities to a description Mrs Witchalls gave of her attacker, but she is unable to pick him out in a photo ID parade

18 MAY: Mrs Witchalls speaks about her improving condition, saying she can breathe unaided and talk for short periods. Her husband, Benoit, appears on the BBC's Crimewatch and insists he and his wife bear no anger towards the knifeman

2 AUGUST: Police hand over a dossier of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service

3 NOVEMBER: Now able to breathe and speak freely, and with some movement in her right arm, she is discharged from hospital.

JANUARY 2006: Her second child is due to be born