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A Significant Medical History

She can't remember her name, but Heather Gray will never forget the nurse who sat by her side during the longest night of her life.

"It was a surgical ward in Glasgow Western Infirmary and every time I opened my eyes, that nurse was there," she recalls.

All Heather could think about was her desperation to get to the bedsides of her gravely injured children.

Her own injuries were relatively minor, but she had no idea if her son and daughter would survive the accident on the M8, where a van had careered over the central reservation and smashed into the side of the family car just a few days after Christmas.

Everyone was in different hospitals. Heather's 13-year-old son, Alex, lay critically ill in the Southern General, with abdomen and spinal cord injuries, while her daughter, nine-year-old Katie Ann, was also seriously ill in Yorkhill with abdomen and spinal injuries.

Heather's mother, Ann McColl-Poole, 70, who was driving, was in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Both women had shoulder fractures.

"I needed to be with my children and I couldn't be, but that nurse calmed me," says Heather.

"She spoke about her children and I spoke about mine. She had true compassion. There are not a lot of people in society who have real compassion and that girl did.

"That's a part of nursing people don't see. They don't realise the workload of a nurse. They're not just there to look after you physically.

"The unit support nurse, Helena Richmond, at Philipshill at the spinal injury unit, sat with me one day when I was particularly upset, although she had other things to do".

Heather, 43, and her husband Steven, 40, are both still on special leave from their jobs as staff nurses in Edinburgh, where Heather works nights at the Royal Infirmary, while Steven works in orthopaedics at the Victoria.

Amazingly, considering the extent of her injuries, after nine weeks in hospital, Katie Ann has made a complete recovery and is back at school in Livingston, where the family (originally from Lanarkshire) now live.

Neither parent wants to dwell on those first terrible days when along with Heather's brother, Alex Poole, they took turns to sit by their children's bedsides at separate hospitals night and day.

"During this whole journey...being faced with two children seriously ill in hospital and thinking you are going to lose them ... nobody knows what it can feel like," Heather says, her voice trailing away.

"The van driver was killed and all of us could have been killed too. The knowledge of that is what keeps you going."

It has all been an unimaginable strain on the whole family, but what made the difference was the caring attitude of all the staff at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and at the Southern General in particular.

"I feel the NHS only ever gets negative comments," says Heather. "They get more criticism than support and we feel the need to speak out and support them.

"I have been absolutely amazed by Glasgow hospitals, never having worked in them.

"And I don't think I could fault the immediate care, the ambulance services there on the day, a doctor who was travelling that day and who stayed with Alex..."

Alex had to be helicoptered to the Southern General for major abdominal surgery and was brought to the surgical intensive care unit there.

"The intensive care team were amazing," says Steven.

Heather adds: "Their skills, their empathy, their qualities, their compassion just shone through.

"They not only made us feel Alex was safe, they looked after us as a family."

Steven says: "When I got to the Southern General on the Saturday night and I was told the extent of Alex's injuries, I didn't think he was going to get through that."

Steven, who had been phoned at work and told of the crash, had been advised to go first to Katie Ann's bedside because she needed him.

"She was in high dependency at Yorkhill, but was conscious and talking, while Alex was having surgery right away.

"Rod Duncan, Katie Ann's orthopaedic consultant, and Graham Haddock, the surgical paediatrician, are wonderful people.

"It was a waiting game with Katie Ann and they treated her conservatively.

"The care she received at Yorkhill was wonderful. She went to the right place and she was looked after by the right people. The staff of 3a at Yorkhill should be very proud of themselves."

They also praised surgeons David Allan, director of the Queen Elizabeth Spinal Injuries Unit at the Southern General, and Graham Smith, who led the surgical team which operated on Alex's abdomen.

"Mr Allan visited Alex when he was in intensive care after his abdominal surgery and right from the start he was positive," says Steven.

"He told us that two weeks down the line he would be operating on Alex's spine.

"At a time when we felt we might lose Alex, that gave us a lot of hope that he was still going to be here in two weeks."

The couple also make special mention of Dr Purcell.

"She was Alex's spinal consultant before she went on maternity leave and she had a wonderful way with him. Her touch was so gentle and she communicated with us as well and involved us," says Heather.

It was emotional for the family as Alex was moved to Edenhall, the high dependency unit at the Queen Elizabeth Spinal Injury Unit at the Southern General.

"It was like leaving a family who had supported you each time," says Heather, "and we also had the fear of the unknown."

"Alex was desperate to get on and to move", says Heather. "He just wanted to get better and to move on and he has."

Everyone is positive about Alex's future, not least Alex himself, and he has tackled rehab at Philipshill enthusiastically.

Alex was always a very active boy, playing football (he is a Rangers fan), golf and badminton.

"They are all sports he can still do now, but in a different way," says his mum, "and that's the way he's viewing it too."

It's this positive attitude which marks Alex out.

"He is a spirited, determined boy and he puts us all to shame. Everybody has been amazed at his recovery," says Heather.

"I feel for the first time since we came to Philipshill that Steven and I can breathe now. We are finally starting to sleep at nights."

Heather pays tribute to her children, too. "Both of them have been so brave."

For Alex, it's a lot of adjustments to make in his life, but he's tackling it with a maturity beyond his years.

He has told his parents firmly that when he gets home, hopefully by the end of June, he will be picking up his normal life.

He was being fast-tracked at school before the accident and is continuing his school work in hospital.

"He insists that when he gets home, he's going back to school and that's it," says Heather.

"There's something special about this boy. His friends came in one day and they said afterwards: 'Alex is back' - and he is."

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Heather Gray, (back row in black top) and husband Steven, (front in striped shirt) are so grateful to the Southern General stafffor all that they did for their injured children Alex and Katie Ann

Alex Gray with his physiotherapist Jon Hasler at the Southern General Hospital's Queen Elizabeth Spinal Unit