Catrin’s Long Way Back
THE MOUNTAIN ROAD, THE FIERY CRASH AND THE MONTHS OF RECOVERY THAT CHANGED A YOUNG WOMAN’S LIFE FOREVER
The fiery crash and months of recovery that changed a young woman’s life forever. ROBERT KIENER
This gap-year experience had been Catrin’s first time living away from home and she was anxious to see her parents, Sara and Carl, both of whom were schoolteachers, her brother, Robert, and her sister, Mari. Although she had an independent streak, she’d been homesick and longed for her town of Wrexham, in northern Wales, where she’d grown up and gone to school.
Along with 50 other young seasonal workers, she had boarded a charter bus on April 16, 2013, at the resort for the 20-hour drive to the United Kingdom. She sat directly behind the bus driver, Maurice Wrightson, so she could take in as much of the Alps’ beautiful scenery as possible.
The first stage of the trip—a descent lasting 14 kilometres—had become world-famous as one of the most gruelling climbs of the Tour de France. At each of the route’s 21 hairpin turns there was a plaque commemorating former winners of this stage in the bicycle race.
Catrin Pugh was coming home. The bubbly Welsh 19-year-old had just finished a four-month contract working as a waitress and chambermaid at the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, high in the French Alps. The pay was minimal, but there was a bonus: she could ski for free on her days off.
As Wrightson manoeuvred the bus, Catrin looked out on snow-capped peaks and sun-filled valleys. Suddenly the bus sped up after it turned onto the straight stretch of road before bend 21, the last turn on the tortuous mountain route. “The brakes are gone!” shouted Wrightson as the bus continued to gain speed, headed for a 90-metre drop-off. Terrified, Catrin looked out her window at the sheer drop to the ravine below and thought, I’m going to die! We are all going to die!
Wrightson violently turned the bus to the right, desperately hoping to stop it by crashing into the side of the mountain instead of allowing it to plunge into the valley. At the same time, Catrin’s seatmate, Shaun Stewart, cradled her in a headlock. “Brace yourself!” he shouted, telling her to wedge her feet against the seat’s supports to keep from flying out through the bus’s windshield.
The bus crashed into the side of the boulder-strewn mountain with such a force that many of the passengers were thrown onto the floor. The sound of shattering glass and twisting metal was deafening. Battered and dazed, most passengers clambered out of the bus’s emergency exit or jumped out windows. Then, in an instant, the fuel tank in the front of the bus exploded and set Wrightson on fire.
Catrin fell to the floor. As Wrightson shouted for help, the flames spread along the floor to her and she stood up, in shock. Within seconds, she was engulfed in fire. Stewart rushed to Catrin and pulled her off the bus. He and others smothered the flames that were burning off her clothes and singeing most of her skin.
CATRIN DIDN’T STOP SCREAMING UNTIL THEY PUT AN OXYGEN MASK ON HER. THEN SHE PASSED OUT.
Lying on the side of the road, Catrin raised her right arm and was horrified to see her mottled, burnt skin. Her hands and arms were raw and bloodied. She started screaming. The pain was excruciating—it was as if she were being stung by hundreds of hornets. Passengers ripped off their shirts to cradle her head and stop her bleeding. Some held a sheet over her to shield her from the sun.
Paramedics eventually arrived; four passengers had serious injuries and Maurice Wrightson died on the scene.
Catrin didn’t stop screaming until they put an oxygen mask on her face. Then she passed out.
The message on Sara Pugh’s phone from her husband, Carl, was short: “Come home. Quickly. Nothing to worry about.” However, when she arrived at the couple’s four-bedroom house, Carl’s face told a different story. “There’s been an accident,” he told Sara. “It’s Catrin.”
He explained that he’d gotten a call from France but didn’t know more than that. He’d been given the number of a hospital in Grenoble to call for more information.
A helicopter airlifted Catrin to the University Hospital in Grenoble, where doctors discovered she had burns over 96 per cent of her body. Only her scalp, a small part of her face and the soles of her feet were untouched. They decided to transfer her to a specialist burn unit at a larger hospital in Lyon, an hour away.
After finally reaching the hospital in Lyon by telephone, Carl learned that Catrin’s burns were extremely severe. “It is very serious,” a French
doctor told Carl. “It would be best if you came right away.”
Sara flew to Lyon the next morning. Carl, who was using a wheelchair after a recent hip-replacement surgery, followed the next day with his brother-in-law.
In the nearly 24 hours since the accident, Catrin’s severe burns had ravaged her immune system and threatened multiple organ failure. To spare her from pain, doctors had induced a coma and placed her on a ventilator.
At the hospital in Lyon, Sara met with Catrin’s head doctor and asked him, “Do you survive something like this?” The doctor paused, looked down at the floor, then met her gaze and answered gently, “A small—a very, very small—number of people do.”
Before Sara walked into Catrin’s room in the hospital’s intensive care department, she steeled herself. I won’t cry. I have to be brave, she thought. Then she saw Catrin, unconscious and tethered to a wall of blinking, whirring machines. A bank of heat lamps glowed red above her bed to keep her warm. Her body was completely swathed in a thermal blanket and thick white bandages, except for half her face.
Sara nearly broke down. She wanted to hug Catrin but was afraid of hurting her. She swallowed hard and told herself to be positive. As the ventilator whirred rhythmically, she looked past what she could see of Catrin’s black and red burnt, swollen face and consoled herself by thinking, She has her teeth, her eyebrows and her eyelashes. She’s still my Cat.
CATRIN WAS ALWAYS PUSHING HERSELF. “I CAN DO THAT” WAS A RECURRING REFRAIN WITH HER. AND SHE DID.
She reached out and touched Catrin’s bandaged arm. “Cat, it’s Mum, I am right here,” she told her. “We are going to get you better,” even though she didn’t think Catrin would survive more than a few days.
The next evening, after Carl had arrived and had seen Catrin, he and Sara tried to prepare for the worst. But Carl couldn’t bear the thought of losing his “Princess.” Besides, Catrin had a resilience that had served her well throughout her 19 years. “Strong willed” is how he and Sara had often
described her. As Carl once explained, “She has never been backward about coming forward.”
Catrin started going to dance school when she was just eight years old and loved getting on a stage to act and sing. (Her dream was to enrol in a theatre school in London.) On family vacations she would copy a hotel’s flamenco dancers and dance around the tables. She was the one who loved getting out the camera at family events and urging everyone to “Give us a smile!”
She was always pushing herself. She started working as a waitress in the local pub at just 16. When she chose to do her A-levels in math, no one could persuade her to try something less demanding. “I can do that” was a recurring refrain with her. And she did.
Ian James, one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished burn specialists, had just finished lecturing to physicians and medical students in Athens, Greece, when he read a news story about Catrin’s accident. The plastic surgeon supervised Mersey Regional Burns Unit at Liverpool’s Whiston Hospital, one of the most prestigious burn centres in the U.K. The doctors in France are going to have a tough time, he thought. I don’t think she can survive with 96 per cent burns.
Unbeknownst to James, the U.K.based company that had hired Catrin to work in France had been in frantic discussions with French and British doctors about the possibility of flying Catrin to England for treatment. A bed was available at Whiston, her best hope.
Five days after her accident, an elite team of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and medical technicians at
FOR MORE THAN A WEEK, CATRIN DRIFTED IN AND OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
THEN ON DAY 100, SHE FINALLY MOVED.
Whiston operated on Catrin in a determined effort to save her life. First, they scraped off her dead skin because it can easily become infected. Patients who don’t survive such large burns usually die from an infection of the unhealed wounds, so keeping them clean was a priority.
They took a small sample of unburned skin from her scalp and sent it to a laboratory to be grown, or cultured, for future grafting. Then they covered more than 40 per cent of Catrin’s raw tissue with cadaver skin
from Liverpool’s national skin bank to help prevent infection, preserve body temperature and promote healing. Eventually, the donor skin would be replaced by new skin grafts.
Catrin survived the fivehour operation, but when James met with Sara and Carl he was blunt: her chances were “one in 1,000.” Infection was a threat; James’s team needed to change Catrin’s antiseptic dressings in threeto four-hour sessions, once or twice every day. Because her organs had been so damaged by the trauma, the threat of kidney failure or heart attack was ever-present. James described the medical procedures as “military teamwork.” Every day was a battle.
One week went by. Then another. Time and again, Catrin was operated on as surgeons harvested and grafted new skin. At three weeks, James admitted he was surprised. He told Carl and Sara that, miraculously, the odds of Catrin’s survival had improved to one in 100.
For three months, Catrin remained locked in a coma. Every day was a battle, but her young body fought off infection after infection and withstood extensive skin grafts and major operations. To prevent her new skin from stiffening, physiotherapists “exercised” her arms and legs twice a day, bending and extending them.
Then, one day, James told Sara and Carl that their daughter, the girl who was so fond of saying “I can do that” had beaten nearly impossible odds: “I’ve never seen anyone as badly burned as Catrin survive,” James said. It was time to bring her back.
For more than a week, as she was weaned off the cocktail of drugs that sedated her, Catrin drifted in and out of consciousness. Then, on day 100, she finally moved.
Because Catrin had been comatose and immobile for months, her muscles had atrophied. She had lost 30 kilograms, nearly half her body weight.
Catrin was too weak to hold her head up and would have to relearn to stand and then walk. She had more than a year of physiotherapy ahead of her.
The major burns had destroyed tissue and caused neuropathy, a condition in which the nerves virtually stop working. While her nerves began to regrow and recover, she experienced horrible pain. Painkillers helped somewhat, but Catrin dreaded having her dressings changed. Inevitably, as carefully as her nurses removed her dressings, they would peel away some raw skin and Catrin would scream.
Then there was her appearance: most of her face had been badly burned and she had lost part of an ear and the tips of several fingers. Doctors had shaved off the luxurious long hair she had been so proud of; they would scrape her head for skin grafts six times while she was in the hospital.
During her thrice-weekly baths, which required 10 people to hold and bathe her in an oversized tub, Catrin could see her body. She was horrified; it looked like a scarred checkerboard of raw pinks and bloodied reds. No one will ever love me, she thought to herself. Later, as she drifted off to sleep, she told Sara, “It would have been easier if I had died.”
But she still hadn’t seen her face or her shaved head.
Donnas Wilkinson, a 30-year veteran nurse who had been supervising Catrin’s recovery, realized it was time to let the teen see herself when she overheard her telling her mother, “I can’t wait to shampoo my hair again.” Wilkinson went to grab a hand mirror.
Silence. Then screams. Then tears. “No! No!” Catrin cried. “I look like an
CATRIN HAD HAD ENOUGH. THE PAIN, HER APPEARANCE AND THE FRUSTRATION OF LEARNING TO WALK WERE TOO MUCH.
alien. It’s not fair.” No matter how much Wilkinson tried to console her, explaining that her hair would grow back and she’d look so much better someday, Catrin kept crying.
Catrin had had enough. The pain, the heartbreak of her appearance, the frustration of having to learn to walk and feed herself were too much. “I won’t,” became her answer to the simplest request.
James and Wilkinson had seen other burn patients sink into depression
and they knew what they had to do. “We are going to push Catrin,” James told Sara and Carl. “She may hate us, but that’s okay.”
They went on the offensive. When Catrin refused to do her physiotherapy, James told her firmly, “If you ever want to use your hands again, you have to exercise them now. If you want to dance and perform again, you need to start trying.”
Catrin burst into tears. James immediately asked her why she was crying. She answered, “Because you said I will never dance again.”
“No,” James answered. “What I said was that you would never dance again if you don’t try.”
His approach began working. Catrin pushed through the pain of physiotherapy by thinking, I’ll show them.
One day, she asked a nurse to help her take a selfie to post on Instagram. I know I look horrible but I’ll show the world! Catrin thought. The picture was of her with a shaved, scabbed head, a feeding tube hanging from her nose and a massive smile. The caption read, “Getting there.”
To help prevent permanent scarring, Catrin needed to wear pressure garments and a custom-moulded plastic face mask 23 hours a day. When she began resisting, Wilkinson asked 31-year-old Heather Simpson, who had been burned over 75 per cent of her body, to visit Catrin.
As Simpson stood at her bedside, Catrin peppered her with questions: “Will it hurt forever?” (It will be manageable.) “Do you live on your own?” (I am married.) “Do you have a job?” (I went to university and now have a government job.)
SHE’D BEEN HOME FOR JUST UNDER A YEAR WHEN CATRIN TOLD HER PARENTS
SHE WANTED TO SKI AGAIN.
Simpson also gave Catrin some stern advice: “You can play the victim, but people will eventually get bored with that. It’s up to you.”
Catrin confessed that she hated wearing her pressure garments. Simpson said, “So did I.” She took off her jacket and showed Catrin her right arm, which had healed nicely. Then she showed her left, which was badly scarred. “Guess which arm I didn’t wear my pressure garment on,” said Simpson.
The visit was what Catrin needed. She co-operated tirelessly with her
physiotherapists. And on December 7, 2013, after nearly eight months in the hospital, she went home to continue her recovery. Although she couldn’t feed herself, clean herself or walk unaided, she worked in the hopes of one day regaining her independence.
Three months later, she returned to Whiston hospital for a checkup. James had just finished checking her dressings and Catrin was sitting on a bed when he said, “Walk to me, Catrin.”
“I can’t,” she answered him. “Not by myself.”
“Give it a go,” he said. “I’ll catch you if you fall.”
She didn’t want to disappoint James. Try, she told herself. Catrin gingerly walked one step, then another. There was pain, but it was manageable. She managed three or four more before falling into James’s arms.
Catrin began walking, then running on a treadmill, then jogging outdoors. She had also regained the use of her arms and was controlling her pain with over-the-counter remedies. Her hair had grown back, and she no longer needed to wear her face mask and tightfitting pressure garments.
By the time she’d been home for just under a year and was walking unassisted, she told her parents she wanted to ski again— and she wanted to go back to the French Alps. Sara and Carl couldn’t believe their ears. How would Catrin cope with returning to the scene of her accident? But they both knew their daughter well enough not to doubt her. Catrin began taking lessons with a charity for disabled skiers, using adapted skis (laughing, she called it “my walker on skis”) to glide down an artificial “dry” ski slope in Wales.
On December 23, 2014, Catrin, her family and friends returned to Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in
Europe. The family had come here for more than a decade, and this was where Catrin, Robert and Mari had learned to ski. But this year was different; a television crew accompanied the family to cover her return to the slopes.
Under an impossibly blue sky, Catrin was helped into her skis. She doublechecked her goggles and ski helmet. She confessed to the reporter, “I have butterflies in my stomach.” As the cameras rolled, she took off, skiing slowly but steadily down one of the gentler slopes.
As she sped up, something extraordinary happened. Her brother, sister and friends formed a diamond-shaped moving barrier around her, protecting her as she glided down the slope. Catrin was thrilled. I’m free, she thought as she once again felt the wind against her skin and her legs responding to the snow. She wasn’t speeding down the slope as she had years before, but this was still a victory.
Before she slowed to a stop at the bottom she spotted her father, waiting with his arms outspread. Tears were streaming down Carl’s face. His daughter had defeated impossible odds. Carl hugged her, whispering, “You’re back, Catrin. You did it!”
For the past four years, Catrin has travelled across the U.K., speaking to students and other groups. She tells them her story—all about how she recovered from her injuries, the need to triumph over adversity, becoming “better, not bitter” and the importance of maintaining a good body image, no matter how scarred one may be.
The wreckage at the side of the mountain where the bus carrying Catrin Pugh and other seasonal workers crashed and burned.
Mari, Sara and Carl Pugh with Catrin, a few months after she was brought to the hospital.
Training at Ski Center Llandudno, a year-round facility in northern Wales.