Colleen Kelly tells SARAH SINGLETON how her life was transformed the night her fiancé didn’t arrive home for their evening meal... and how brain injury charity Headway has helped her family put their lives back together

WHEN Colleen Kelly found herself spoon feeding her nine-month-old baby and her fiancé at the same time, she thought she was living a nightmare.

The mother-of-two had just qualified as a carer and the couple had bought a house that they planned to transform into a family home when their dreams for the future were shattered.

One September night, Andrew Cuthbertson failed to arrive home for tea. Colleen drove from hospital to hospital searching for him, until she reached Frenchay — and was told to say her goodbyes.

Andrew, 44, had sustained a traumatic brain injury after a devastating motorcycle accident, as well as three other serious and potentially fatal injuries.

“I was numb,” Colleen said. “I got to see him before his operation. He had a brain injury, he had broken his back, he had severe nerve damage in his neck. The list of his injuries was endless. I went back to the waiting room and passed out.”

This was five years ago. Overnight Andrew went from being a hard-working scaffolder and hands-on dad, to relying entirely on Colleen for his care, having forgotten the past 10 years of his life.

Andrew remained in a coma for around eight weeks and spent a year in hospital, where Colleen, 31, from south Swindon, visited him daily, desperately teaching him thumbs up to show signs of recovery.

Just one month after Andrew’s accident, Colleen’s mother was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and subsequently lost her home. As well as visiting Andrew, and looking after her children, Colleen moved her mum into their home so she could be cared for too.

The house the couple had just bought was in disrepair and needed major renovations. Once Colleen had put her children to bed at a friend or relative’s house, she spent her evenings stripping paint and ripping up floorboards, before falling asleep on the sofa.

But she soon realised the house would never be suitable for Andrew’s needs and they were forced to move. In the past six years, the family has had to move home four times.

When Andrew was finally able to return home, his sons realised they were living with a different man.

“His memories are gone,” said Colleen. “The 10 years prior to Andrew’s accident are a complete blur to him. But that’s when we got together and had our children and made all our memories.”

Colleen had to explain to her children why their father could no longer play with them, or remember the conversations they had just minutes before.

“Our children thought they were going to get their old dad back,” she said. “He had come home but he was different. He doesn’t like a lot of noise, he becomes confused and anxious.

“I had to put my feelings on the back foot to help our kids come to terms with it. Mine and Andrew’s relationship has never been the same since the accident. You quickly get used to going from a partner to a carer.”

Colleen has also been forced to give up her dreams of marrying Andrew, as he does not have the capacity to remember committing himself to his wedding vows.

For the past five years Colleen has cared for Andrew and her two children, Corey, 11 and Lorcaan, aged five.

Her mum did make a recovery from cancer and was able to move out, but the pressure of repeatedly lifting Andrew’s 6ft 3in frame due to his limited mobility has taken its toll on Colleen, who is 5ft 2in.

She recently injured her shoulder, leaving her unable to drive or care for Andrew.

“His physio told me I was doing such a good job of looking after Andrew, they were happy with his progress, it was me he was concerned about,” said Colleen.

“He told me at the rate I was going my kids were going to end up caring for me.”

Colleen found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If she continued caring for her husband, her children might become carers themselves.

Andrew spent six weeks in respite care while Colleen recovered – but she said she could hardly sleep at night for worrying about how he was getting on. Now he is back at home again.

Colleen said: “I would do absolutely anything for Andrew but my kids are watching me go steadily down the pan and I haven’t even realised because I hadn’t had the time.

“Throughout it all they’ve been outstanding. They have never moaned. They couldn’t have sleepovers or go to kids’ parties because Andrew doesn’t like a lot of noise.”

Throughout all the upheaval, Colleen and Andrew have been supported by Headway Swindon, a charity which provides brain injury survivors and their loved ones with support.

“I cannot praise Headway Swindon enough,” said Colleen. “It’s all Andrew talks about.

“He’s got his group of friends there. He loves to cook, make ceramics and do gardening.

“His speech, co-ordination and reading have all improved since he started attending. He can deal with his emotions a lot better.

“But they have supported me as well. If I arrive in a stress they’ll sit me down with a cup of tea and tell me not to panic.

“When Andrew first had his brain injury it felt like the end, but Headway helped us to realise that it’s not.”

Service development manager Sonia de Blaquiere has nominated Colleen for the Carer of the Year Award.

“Colleen has worked tirelessly to support her family without a second thought for herself,” she said.

“She has put aside her own loss, devastation and dream of getting married to care for her family.

“She is a wonderful woman, and no one deserves this award more than her.”

Each year, Headway Annual Awards celebrates the exceptional efforts of survivors of brain injury and their carers.

Colleen will join two other finalists chosen from across the UK in the running for the title of Carer of the Year at a ceremony organised by Headway – the brain injury association – and sponsored by SweetTree Home Care Services.

Colleen will discover if she is to be named Carer of the Year at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, on Friday, December 8.

Andrew said he was very proud of his partner for her nomination.

Colleen will be travelling up to London with her mum, who is now five years clear of cancer, and she paid tribute to the support and help she gets from her family.

Awards for Achiever and Volunteer will also be presented, alongside the Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway Award.