Inspiring testimony of couple who are learning to live with brain injury
Chrissy and Stewart Fryett, from Middlesbrough, met back in March 2009 having spent two months getting to know each other online. Very quickly, the pair became inseparable. But just six months after their first date, Chrissy and Stewart's relationship faced the stiffest test imaginable. A car crash left Stewart in a coma, with doctors warning that if he survived, he may not be the person he once was and may not remember Chrissy or their relationship.
Five years on, and with help from Headway Teesside, Chrissy and Stewart have battled to rebuild their lives. Now married with a three-week-old baby boy, this is their inspiring story.
"Before I'd even met Stewart I knew we were meant to be together," said Chrissy. "We had an immediate connection when we eventually met in person and we became very close very quickly. I knew he was the person I wanted to be with.
"The first six months of our relationship flew by. I met his children from a previous relationship and he soon became part of my family. Things were great, until the day of the crash.
"Stewart and I had been at a family BBQ at my mum's house. Stewart got chatting with my stepdad and family friend Ian. I'd gone upstairs for a short while, and when I came back down the three of them had gone out in Ian's car.
Just as I was asking Mum where they'd gone, she received a phone call. Ian had crashed the car and Stewart was trapped inside.
"The accident had occurred just 200 yards from my mum's house, so we were quickly running down the road to the scene, with the sirens of numerous emergency vehicles going off all around us.
"The closer I got to the car, the more my heart sank. Looking at the wrecked car, knowing Stewart was trapped in the back, I truly feared he was dead.
"It took fire fighters 45 minutes to cut him free. He was then taken to the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough.
Changing day by day
"The doctors gave us very little hope. Stewart was unconscious and remained in a coma for 10 days. During that time, we were told that he might never wake up. If he did, he might not be the same person.
"Things kept changing day by day - minute by minute, even. One moment we were being told to say our goodbyes to Stewart, and the next he showed signs of responding. It was a horrid rollercoaster of emotions.
"We weren't given much information about brain injury by the hospital staff. However, I was told that memory loss is common. As we'd only been together for six months before the accident, the doctors even told me that Stewart may not remember who I was. It was heartbreaking to hear.
"I always believed though that if he woke up he would remember me. I always felt that he knew it was me holding his hand while he lay unconscious in his hospital bed.
"When he first started to gradually wake from his coma, we were all so excited and hopeful. He began to show signs of wanting to speak, but as he'd had a tracheostomy fitted we gave him a pen and paper to write down what he wanted to say.
"After handing me the pad, he looked at me expectantly for a response. But what he'd 'written' was just an illegible scrawl. It was a painful reality check for us all.
"When he eventually was able to speak again, his first words were as bitter-sweet as you could imagine.
'I love you, I've missed you,' he said, 'but I can't remember your name.'
"From being elated at hearing the first few words, I was rocked when he said he didn't know who I was. He then started saying really odd sentences, waffling on about nonsense.
"At that point, I thought my Stewart was gone. But thankfully the doctors explained that it's not an uncommon thing to happen when people wake from comas.
"After spending three months in hospital, Stewart was discharged into his own flat where he would be assisted by carers, alongside help from family and friends, and of course me.
"In the early days, he struggled with so many things. His mobility problems meant he relied on a wheelchair, which frustrated him. He also had problems with his memory and general cognitive functioning, which made everyday life difficult.
"Gradually, Stewart began to make progress and he moved in with me. But he was still depressed and frustrated with his recovery and was struggling to come to terms with his brain injury.
"Then we found Headway - specifically Headway Teesside. At first, Stewart didn't want to go to the meetings. 'I'm not like those people,' he said. 'I don't need any help.' But as soon as we were there, he loved it. He was suddenly surrounded by others who knew what it was like to have a brain injury. He could be himself without having to make apologies.
"We are both still involved with Headway and regularly go to meetings and on outings.
"Headway is the first organisation we have ever come across that supports the carer or partner as much as the individual - and importantly they support you both at the same time, promoting togetherness. It really helped us come to terms with our new life.
"In September 2012 we got married. He'd asked me to marry him just three months after leaving hospital, but we delayed the big day until he'd recovered enough for us both to be able to walk down the aisle together. As you can imagine, it was a wonderful moment.
"Our new life was made even more special in July with the arrival of our first child, Oliver. Parenting with a brain injury is proving a challenge to Stewart, but he's coping brilliantly.
It may be a cliché, but while the hospital saved Stewart's life, it didn't begin again until we found Headway.
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