Thursday, April 30, 2015

A long battle with a ruthless British government corporation

The last time Diana Morgan-Hill ran, it was for a train. A day has not passed since when she has not wished she’d missed it.

Instead, as it pulled into a suburban London station one summer evening, she dashed to catch it and in so doing set in motion a string of events that changed the course of her life profoundly and irrevocably.

Diana opened a carriage door, put one foot on the step under it, then the train jolted forward and she lost her balance and fell.

Wedged between the platform and running board, she screamed, but the train did not stop. Instead, it picked up speed and she was dragged along until she fell under the wheels.

Miraculously, even with the vast weight of the train crushing her, she survived. But as it ground, belatedly, to a halt, the life Diana had known ended. She lost both her legs. One, severed above the knee, hung by a thread. The other was ripped clean off below the knee.

In seven awful seconds Diana — a businesswoman with her own PR firm — had become a double amputee, her life in ruins.

She was 29: bright, beautiful and successful. She loved to walk, dance and ride. The athletic grace that defined her was wrenched from her in the most horrific way imaginable.

Yet this was just the start of her torture.

Just seven days after the accident, when she was still in hospital, traumatised and heavily sedated, the rail company announced its intention to sue Diana. Its aim was to invoke a 100-year-old by-law and prosecute her for trespassing on the railway line.

The sheer callousness of its tactic was gasp-inducing. The train had already started to move when Diana boarded it, the firm claimed. It hoped to prove her culpable, thereby diminishing its responsibility to compensate her for her injuries.

For Diana— who remembered with certainty that the train had been stationary when she’d tried to board — it was the start of a nightmare; the beginning of five years of litigation that consumed her life as she struggled to adapt to her disability.

‘My fight with what was then British Rail was worse even than losing my legs,’ she says.

‘I’d just come out of intensive care. I’d lost my mobility; I’d nearly lost my life and BR put out a press statement saying they were suing me. The cruelty was astounding.’

Now, 25 years after the accident, Diana, 54, has written a book about her ordeal. It tells the story of her indefatigable battle against both disability and injustice.

Her story is one of triumph over both her injuries and the intransigence of British Rail, who in 1995 paid her £634,000 after a judge found it was 70 per cent to blame for the accident.

Today, Diana recalls the day in August 1990 when her life changed in the blink of an eye. ‘My new business was going well and I was enjoying myself,’ she says. ‘That evening I was going to meet a friend for supper and I wasn’t in a rush.

‘But as I walked over the bridge at Wandsworth Common station, the 6.29pm train to Victoria was pulling in. I knew I’d have to wait half an hour if I missed it, so I ran down the stairs and across the platform to the train.

‘I had my right foot on the running board (the step under the door) and was raising the other when the train jerked ferociously and pulled away. My right foot slipped, I clung to the doorframe and then the train jolted again.

‘Then my left leg dropped below the running board and I fell into the gap between the platform and the train. I was wedged there, crushed, terrified, and the train moved on.

‘Four hundred tons of metal were rolling against me, crushing my ribs — they were all broken — and I screamed: "Stop the train!" But it just picked up speed and carried on moving.

‘Then a wheel caught my right leg and I was pulled down. I felt a tugging sensation, then nothing. When I came to, the train had stopped and I was trapped underneath it.

‘I knew my left leg had gone because it was under the wheel of the train. Then 650 volts of electricity from the train line hit me, and the pain was obliterating.

‘I wanted oblivion but it didn’t come. Most people, when they suffer traumatic shock, lose consciousness. But I didn’t — there was no merciful blacking out.

‘The driver was distraught. He said they were going to switch off the power to stop me shaking due to the electricity.’ Diana’s life was saved by her rubber-soled pumps, which don’t conduct electricity.

‘I lay there, I later discovered, for 45 minutes,’ she recalls. ‘A lovely passenger who told me her name was Maggie — talked to me and held my hand.

‘Then the ambulance men arrived, and they said they had to switch the electricity on again to move the train off me.

‘There was a moment when I thought "I can’t bear any more", and I had to choose between holding Maggie’s hand and living, or turning away and oblivion.

‘I held her hand. I realised later how brave she was, not knowing if the current would carry through to her, and I was still holding it when they rolled the train off me. The pain was so severe I didn’t even have the energy to scream. ‘My heart stopped, and the second electric shock seemed to glue me to the tracks.’

There ensued a desperate fight to save Diana’s life. She was rushed to St George’s Hospital, Tooting, where she underwent surgery and was given 12 pints of blood. For three days she lay in intensive care.

She recalls now the sheer joy she felt when she came round to realise she was still alive: ‘It was exquisite, heavenly, and the nurses in intensive care felt like angels.’

But then came the crushing news, from her sister, Helen, who had spotted a paragraph in a newspaper, that Diana faced legal action from British Rail.

So, as she confronted the momentous struggle of learning to live without legs, Diana had to marshal fresh strength to fight BR through the courts.

First, though, she had to acclimatise to her new life. After 11 days in hospital at Tooting, she was transferred to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, which specialises in the rehabilitation of amputees. For almost six months, it became her home.

Exactly a month after her accident, she stood for the first time, on a rudimentary pair of prosthetic legs. She remembers both the effort and euphoria of the experience:

Her determination was also unquenchable: within a year of the accident, she was living in her own ground-floor flat in Tooting and driving a specially adapted car.

Although she continued to work in her business, the physical demands of the job became untenable and she had to sell her share to her business partner.

But, in 1991, she met David Morgan, a City banker, and they fell in love. To their delight, she became pregnant and daughter Lara was born in 1993. David and Diana married a year later. But their marriage endured difficulties, not least because of Diana’s protracted litigation with BR.

In 1992, a judge had decreed that BR was 70 per cent responsible for the accident. Its guard had not applied the emergency brake in time; he hadn’t shouted a warning. Diana was considered 30 per cent to blame.

The judge believed the guard’s testimony that she’d boarded the train as it had started to move — even though Diana asserts it had been stationary.

More intrusion ensued: BR picked over Diana’s life in meticulous detail to try to prove her compensation claim was exaggerated and to reduce it.

The stress of the legal battle took its toll on her marriage and in 2000, with regret but without rancour, she and David divorced. Since then, Diana has continued to wring happiness from life. In 2010 she was a finalist, with dance partner Mark Foster, in the BBC’s Strictly spin-off Dancing On Wheels.

She danced again at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony in 2012, and as CEO of the Limbless Association she has helped child victims of the Iraqi war.

Original report here

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