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Sarah Whitchurch

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Sarah Whitchurch

Sarah Whitchurch

Achiever of the Year becomes sporting celebrity
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In 1997, Sarah was like any other 10-year-old school-girl. A strong swimmer with a passion for all things active, she was a year 6 pupil living with her family in St Sampsons, in Guernsey.

Four days before her 11th birthday, Sarah fell seriously ill with what turned out to be meningitis, causing the youngster to sustain a brain injury that was to leave her wheelchair-bound with long-term partial paralysis in her limbs.

Today, Sarah is an ambassador for Headway Guernsey and, while she still faces daily challenges as a result of her injury, she rekindled her passion for sport as part of her rehabilitation, and she has gone on to compete - and win - national swimming and cycling competitions. Sarah is a shining example that exceptional achievements can be made after brain injury.

"It was a couple of days before I turned eleven when I became incredibly poorly with meningitis," recalled Sarah. "It all happened very quickly and, in the space of a few hours, I had to be airlifted to London where doctors placed me into a medically-induced coma for three weeks."

Sarah's survival hung in the balance and her parents, Jill and Hugh, watched as their daughter grew weaker as one-by-one her organs began to fail.

On Christmas day, Sarah's condition took a turn for the worse, sending the hospital ward into a state of emergency. The crisis even pulled the hospital's brain specialist away from his Christmas dinner.

But the determined youngster clung to life and she was eventually stabilised, though the illness left her with a severe brain injury.

"As a result of the injury, I suffered short-term partial paralysis and for a long time I could only communicate through blinking. Even today, I still suffer from weakness in my limbs," said Sarah.

I rediscovered my love of swimming

"When I was finally discharged from hospital, I stayed in England to begin a lengthy and very tiring process of rehabilitation. Eventually, I re-discovered my love of swimming and used my passion for the sport as an incentive to improve my movement.

"A daily challenge I faced - and still face today - is that I was unable to kick my legs and I suffered with limited dexterity in my hands. After a lot of hard work and training I began competing - and even winning - local swimming competitions.

"It wasn't until 2005 that I returned to Guernsey and turned to my local Headway group for support. After regularly attending cognitive development sessions with Headway Guernsey I made great progress, and I eventually trained as an ambassador and a mentor to help others affected by brain injury."

Not content with her already extraordinary achievements, Sarah pushed herself to complete a half-marathon in a normal wheelchair and, after an anonymous donor gave her funds for a racing wheelchair, she went on to complete a further three half - and one full - marathons.

Perhaps her finest achievement to date came in August last year when she became the first disabled swimmer to battle the intense cold to complete the Guernsey to Herm race, which involves swimming 6k against strong tides in open water. She completed the challenge in two hours and 43 minutes, before being welcomed back to shore by a beach-full of cheering supporters.

"I like to challenge myself and swimming is just something I've always done naturally," said Sarah. "I particularly loved taking on the Guernsey to Herm race because Philippa Stahelin from Headway Guernsey accompanied me in a kayak, both as an escort and for moral support. Philippa has been - and still is - a huge support to me throughout every challenge.

"When I first finished the swim I wasn't too happy as I was so exhausted, but I'm so glad to be able to say I've done it and I've got more events to prepare for in the upcoming months."

Today, Sarah lives in St Peter Port and campaigns for improvements to the lives of disabled people as a member of the Guernsey Disability Alliance.

As well as being named Achiever of the Year in this year's Headway Annual Awards, Sarah was recently presented with yet more prestigious awards by the Guernsey Sports Commission, which recognises sporting achievements across the island.

"I've definitely built up a lot more confidence since I started attending the various courses and support sessions organised by Headway Guernsey," said Sarah.

I want to say a huge thank you to Philippa and I really love being a part of our amazing team!

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Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

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