Abigail Witchalls was so severely injured that two doctors who examined her shortly after she was stabbed concluded she was "clinically dead", The Independent has learnt.
It was only after a third doctor looked at her that signs of life were detected, a senior police source has revealed. Family members and police had been told that Mrs Witchalls, 26, who was stabbed in the neck while walking with her son in the village of Little Bookham, Surrey, was brain dead and unlikely to regain consciousness.
Her family were so pessimistic that a priest gave the woman, a devout Catholic, the last rites at the side of her hospital bed.
A police source said officers were "amazed" that she regained consciousness and went on to give officers a detailed description of the knifeman and the assault. The source said: "We were told at first that she was clinically dead, that she was likely to be in a coma that she would not recover."
The disclosure that doctors had almost given up hope for her makes the young mother's recovery all the more remarkable.
Although the damage caused by a single stab wound to her spine has left her paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak, she can communicate by mouthing words and blinking. She has also started to get some feeling back in her arms.
The attack 12 days ago in which a man held a knife to the throat of Mrs Witchalls' 21-month-old son, before stabbing the woman in an apparently motiveless assault, has provoked sympathy and admiration for the victim and her family.
Mrs Witchalls, a teacher, was taken first to Epsom Hospital before being transferred to St George's Hospital in Tooting, south London, where she remains in a serious condition, unable to breathe unaided. But she is described as in good spirits and determined to help police catch her attacker.
Her family, who are also devout Catholics, believe her survival and improvement is partly due to the huge number of people praying for her around the world. A photograph released of Mrs Witchalls in her hospital bed showed her husband, Benoit, and 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.
Police are planning to stage a reconstruction of the attack in the next few days in an attempt to jog memories. They want Mrs Witchalls to help them compile a "CD-fit" image - a hi-tech type of e-fit - of the knifeman.
She is also going to be shown a range of cars and colours in the hope that she will be able to identify the vehicle her attacker used. Mrs Witchalls has disclosed that a man driving a blue five-door estate followed her, but no such car has yet been discovered.
Officers are working through 32 names of suspects provided by the public in more than 700 calls made since a description of the knifeman was released.
A 25-year-old man was arrested and later released after Mrs Witchalls failed to pick him out of a video identity parade, but he remains a suspect. The mechanic, who is being held on unrelated bail matters, matched the description of the attacker, had access to a blue car, and knew the area where the attempted murder took place, said Surrey Police. A large number of his belongings, including clothing, are being examined by forensic scientists for possible clues.
A team of 100 officers has made 605 inquiries, taken more than 100 statements, and seized 468 exhibits so far in the inquiry.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Rowley called the attack "shocking and emotive" and said his officers were working 14 to 16-hour days. "It is a crime that has touched the nation and also touched my officers," he said. "They cannot help but to take their jobs home with them. There is a real determination to solve this."
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