Doctors said that the car crash that killed his wife would cripple his son forever. But they did not count on a father's love, his unwavering faith… and a miracle
22:28 GMT, 19 May 2012
23:34 GMT, 19 May 2012
Doctors said the car crash that killed his wife would cripple his son for ever. But they didn't reckon on Martin Spinelli's unwavering faith – and look at them now…
At about 8.30am on September 7, 2006, my wife Sasha drove me to the train station near our home in Lewes, East Sussex.
Our quick-witted four-year-old, Lio, was in the back seat. As his sun-bleached hair bobbed and his sky-blue eyes darted from flint houses to chalky cliffs, he was happily naming everything he saw.
Bedside vigil: Martin Spinelli with his son Lio ten days after the crash
I had a conference to attend in the North of England at the University of Sunderland and Sasha was going to work at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Just a few days earlier, we had returned from a fabulous holiday in Italy and France. We were tanned, fit and happy.
Sasha parked in front of the station and, as I was getting out of the car, I told Lio I loved him and that I would see him in a few days.
I was about to close the door, but something made me turn around and put my hand on his cheek. ‘Remember,’ I said, ‘I’ll always be with you.’
As I retell it now, it seems a touch over the top, but that’s exactly what I did.
When the train stopped in Sunderland, I made my way to the seaside hotel and had a shower. The rest of that afternoon and evening are a blur of fragmented details.
Policemen took me into the hotel office and told me that Sasha had been killed on the motorway outside Canterbury and that Lio was near death.
They drove me to the airport with sirens blaring as the traffic parted to let us pass.
At Heathrow Airport an hour and a half later I was met by more police and ushered to a helicopter. The sun had just set and an enormous blood-red moon was rising over the trees directly in front of us.
On arrival at London’s King’s Hospital, I bolted up the stairs to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit. There he lay. Tubes down his throat. Hair half-shaved and the rest matted with blood.
An enormous wound on the top of his head. A sensor attached to the front of his skull. A giant rainbow of computer screens all around him.
My son, smashed to pieces, with a pulverised leg.
But he was my boy and he was going to survive and be all right. At least that is what I told myself.
I went into the tiny family conference room across the corridor and sat in a too-low, too-soft chair facing three silly flying-duck paintings.
The doctor was a young, attractive Eastern European woman – far too young, I thought. She began by saying that there were two major issues with Lio: his leg and his brain.
‘Forget about the leg,’ I barked. ‘Tell me about his brain.’
In another tortured second, she continued: ‘There are tears in Lio’s brain in several places between the grey and the white matter. He’s also got several fractures of the skull and bleeding deep inside the brain.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but there is a good chance he will die.
‘If he doesn’t die soon,’ she continued, ‘there is the real possibility that he could remain in a coma for the rest of his life and it’s highly likely that he won’t ever walk or talk again.
Recovered: After doctors said he may be left in coma Lio is well on the road to recover and back on his bike with dad Martin beside him
‘The absolute best I would expect is that he’ll be severely mentally disabled. Eventually, he could go to a special school. But I have to caution you – that seems unlikely.’
At one point, I leapt out of my chair and stepped towards the door as if trying to escape, only to slowly sit down again. I fought tears, but they ran down my face.
This doctor was not a villain. But she terrorised me in that first encounter.
After four days of dosing Lio with morphine and staring at his intracranial pressure readout, the doctors decided to try to take him off his respirator.
He had been coughing – the only non-computerised sign that he was still alive.
The doctor who had warned me to prepare for Lio’s death – Dr Doom, as my family took to calling her – said she thought it would be a good idea to try to lessen the severity of his coma by changing his chemical dosage.
This, she reasoned, would give us a clearer idea of what we faced. She asked me, my mother Trudy and Lio’s other grandparents, Nigel and Penny, to hold his limbs.
She then had me lower the earphones for Lio’s iPod down the ear holes in the large, red foam blocks that were immobilising his head. She told me to turn the volume up and play some of his favourite music.
As his medicinal mix changed, Lio began to twitch. His already clenched fists snapped up to his shoulders and his muscles began to pulsate, as if he were being electrocuted.
Everything about him shook in seizure. His arms moved faster than my eyes could process and sickening low sounds escaped from his throat.
Alarm screamed from the machines. I was whispering to Lio how brave he was, and all the while Manu Chao was belting out Bongo Bong at him from the iPod.
He needed to be held and soothed back into the world. Instead, he was being bullied by a cacophony of voices and technology. They decided to return Lio to his deeper coma.
I wanted to tear my heart out. When I had pulled myself together, Dr Doom took me outside and said: ‘You have to prepare yourself for the fact that this might be all that’s left of your son.’
She paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come, and then went on: ‘Whether you tell the rest of your family or not is up to you. But if you don’t tell them, you’ll have to bear it all on your own.’
Devastating: Lio with his mother Sasha, who was killed in the crash
When she left, I told Nigel, Penny and my mother what she had said without flourish.
Penny, to her tremendous credit, replied without a second’s hesitation and with real passion: ‘I don’t believe her!’ And I felt myself smiling.
On September 14, one week after the crash, Lio stirred and opened his eyes. Just a sliver at first, but they did open.
Penny, who was making his little stuffed monkey dance at the end of his bed, even thought she saw his eyes move. The neurologists were delighted.
His muscles remained tightly clenched, though, and I was given massages to do while he listened to specially designed brain-stimulating music and natural sounds.
Hearing is the first sense to mature in the womb, and it’s also the first sense to fully revive as you leave a coma.
The massages of the face and limbs were something I took to with zeal. Maybe the therapists wanted to keep me quiet. But Lio’s muscles eased and his recovery began to astonish even the white-coated naysayers.
The next day, Lio’s eyes stayed open for almost 15 minutes and he seemed to follow his nurse, Dolorio, who pranced from side to side holding his monkey.
When Lio returned from surgery on his leg, Dr Doom paid us a visit. She was astounded with his progress.
Lio was crying, not with the unsettling animal-like grunts of a deep-coma patient but the familiar sound of a child reacting to pain.
Miranda, Lio’s speech and language therapist, tried a ‘chocolate-mousse experiment’.
She put a bit of mousse on the end of the spoon and held it, teasingly, about a half-inch from Lio’s unmoving mouth. ‘This is chocolate, Lio. Would you like some’ she said.
Lio clearly saw it and knew what it was but couldn’t quite reach for it.
A tiny squeak of exasperation passed his lips. Considering all he had been through, this scene struck me as callous; Miranda could see I was agitated.
After about a minute of this teasing, she put a tiny amount on his lips. But he wasn’t able to lick them and he desperately wanted to.
The throaty rattles that came out of Lio at that moment were not recognisable four-year-old sounds.
THE IMPACT FLUNG LIO 50FT ACROSS THE PATH OF TRAFFIC
According to the police report, Sasha’s Nissan Micra was parked on the hard shoulder of the M2 near Canterbury.
The handbrake was on and she had turned around to face Lio in the back seat.
Her car was several feet on the correct side of the white line and – she obviously assumed – safe.
Lio was in his properly fitted booster seat behind her.
His seatbelt was undone, and her seatbelt was undone and slack, meaning she had probably just unlatched it.
At 10.21am on September 7, 2006, an articulated Scania heavy-goods vehicle, returning to Belgium empty after delivering its load of mail, was travelling at 55 miles per hour along the same motorway.
The driver, Yvan Vandermeulen, a father of two then aged 54, had not taken his required breaks and had been driving more hours than his legal limit for three days prior.
At 10.22am, the truck hit that Nissan Micra with enough force to send it spinning into the air until it came to rest 230 feet away.
The truck itself was without mechanical defect of any kind.
Lio was thrown from the car 50 feet across traffic until he landed on the other side of the road.
Sasha’s body was pierced by the car’s metal and plastic.
In December 2006, at Maidstone Crown Court, Vandermeulen admitted to dozing off before the accident.
He was jailed for two-and-a-half years for causing death by dangerous driving.
Vandermeulen wiped away tears when Martin Spinelli told the court about his family’s grief.
Miranda put a hand on my jittering forearm and said in a soothing way: ‘So far, so good.’
Eighteen days after the crash, a turning point. Lio washed his face by himself. Then, with a special chair in front of the sink, he was able to brush his teeth.
It was September 25, 2006. My son had returned. I asked if he wanted ice cream – he did not hesitate for an instant, gave the thumbs-up sign and ate it all by himself.
On September 27 – 20 days after the crash – Lio began to speak. He was watching a DVD of Monsters, Inc. As Miranda came in, he faintly managed ‘Boo’, the name of the little girl lost in the monsters’ world.
These days remain, in a strange way, the happiest of my life. I knew I would have to tell him eventually about his mother’s death, but it was going to be torture. Lio’s questions were getting more coherent.
I started to take some of the pictures of Sasha down from the walls. But now he was asking me where the photos of Mamma had gone.
The following week, I reserved one of the rooms in the child psychology ward. It contained a wooden doll’s house with toy people in it, stuffed animals and three sturdy chairs.
There was an old leaded window and when the sun shone in, it made little criss-cross patterns on the carpet.
I held him in my arms as we sat in front of the wooden house.
‘Lio,’ I said, putting down the wooden boy with pink freckles and shorts that I had in my hand. ‘I have something to tell you about Mamma.’ Lio remained focused on building a tower of toy furniture for the toy people.
‘It’s something very, very sad and very, very hard. Lio, Mamma has died. She died in the accident.’
He continued to play as if nothing had been said.
‘Lio, I need to tell you that Mamma isn’t here with us any more. She’s died. But her spirit will always be in our hearts.’
He still didn’t get it, and I considered holding off for a few more days or even weeks.
‘Lio, please listen to me.’ My own voice was starting to tremble. ‘I’m telling you something very important and very sad. Your mother Sasha has died.
She was killed in the crash. She’s not on Earth any more but up above the clouds in Heaven with Grandad.
‘But she’ll always be near to us and you’ll always be able to feel her. She’s looking down on you every day and is so happy that you’re doing so well.’
Then Lio went still. The toys slipped from his fingers, yet his arms remained outstretched in playing position.
And then he started to cry.
He wailed inconsolably with hardly any breaths between the sobs. After a long while, he calmed a bit and, gasping between each word, he said: ‘I wish you were dead and Mamma was still alive.’
‘Oh Lio,’ I winced. ‘If I could change places with her, I would in an instant.’
And I would have done.
By November, Lio continued to progress, but his recovery had slowed: now we saw small steps in speech and concentration, whereas before he made great leaps.
Also, after seven weeks in a cast or dressing, Lio’s left leg was finally unveiled: unfortunately it was two centimetres shorter than his right, which would probably mean a good deal more surgery.
But at least the end of our stay in the hospital was in sight.
An enormous party was held for Lio, with all the many people at King’s who had helped him. Their kindness was staggering.
He had come to them with a dire prognosis. But their work with Lio – combined with his own courage and strength of character, and the profoundest love from his family – had brought him back.
Maybe Lio reminded them of why they had chosen to become doctors, nurses, therapists and hospital teachers in the first place.
The person aside from me who was the happiest to see him pursuing recovery so well was Dr Doom.
She glowed with something: pride, love or simple joy. I was very glad she managed to drop in.
After The Crash, by Martin Spinelli, is published by Mainstream, priced 7.99. To order your copy at the special price of 7.49 with free p & p, call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit mailshop.co.uk/books.