Teenager’s commute ended in hell after she stopped then forgot to strap herself back in.
It was a work commute that started like any other for Sarah Irving. The “happy-go-lucky” 19-year-old had set off in her maroon Ford Fiesta on the five-minute trip to the town’s Bright Horizons nursery less than a mile away from her Livingston home.
Soon, she would be fighting for her life as doctors battled to resuscitate her heart which had stopped beating – twice.
Now 21, Sarah remembers it had been raining but that the sky was clear when she began her fateful journey on an October afternoon in 2011.
She was happy – on the way to a job she loved and looking forward to meeting friends in Edinburgh later that day.
And after powering to victory in swimming competitions across the UK, she was tantalisingly close to realising her dream of making it into the pool as part of the Scotland team for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
But a moment’s carelessness was all it took to turn her life upside down, after she pulled over to answer her ringing mobile and drove off without refastening her seat-belt.
“I went round the bend and I saw this Volvo coming towards me on the wrong side of the road,” she said.
“I didn’t really feel anything – it was kind of like a shock. I just had to swerve . . . I don’t remember anything after that.”
She was later told by police that her car hit the kerb and was sent flying, hitting a nearby railway bridge side-on before flipping off and spinning back into the middle of the road.
The Fiesta was a wreck and Sarah, lacking the protection of her seat-belt, was tossed around like a rag doll. Her injuries were horrific – nearly all her ribs and collarbone were smashed, numerous vertebrae in her neck and spine were cracked, her body was covered in gashes and her heart was failing.
She was saved when another driver who was passing by phoned for an ambulance.
“I was unconscious but I was also coming in and out of consciousness,” she said. “I remember being placed in the ambulance.
“I remember going round the corner just before the Dalmahoy Hotel and then just blackness.
“I came round and there were hundreds of doctors round me in the ambulance. I was told later that my heart had stopped twice.
The second time, they couldn’t get me back – that’s when they called in the specialist medic one doctors. Basically, I died twice.”
Under police escort, Sarah was whisked along the City Bypass towards the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, while doctors and medics fought to keep her breathing and prevent her heart from stopping again.
She said: “I was still drifting in and out of consciousness. Eventually, I remember opening my eyes and seeing a resus sign above my head. Then it went blank again.
“In the ambulance, both my lungs collapsed, and one had fluid in it. They were working half of what they should do. My breathing was really shallow. But they managed to get one of my lungs working.
“I just remember it being black for ages. When I came round I was all disorientated. I didn’t realise how sore I was. The adrenalin was rushing round my body.”
Placed in high-dependency care, after admission, she stabilised enough to be transferred, six days later, to another ward.
Despite the severity of injuries sustained during the crash, Sarah’s recovery to the point at which she was able to go home was remarkably swift, with doctors happy to discharge her within the week.
Although her body had healed, she realised as soon as her dad, Bruce, 50, arrived to pick her up that the battle to put the pieces of her life together was only just beginning. “When I left, I was scared to get back in the car to come home,” she said.
“Then when I got home I was not allowed to do anything myself. I was house-bound.”
Even more crushingly, her love of competitive swimming had to be put on hold – indefinitely.
She said: “The crash changed my life. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t swim. I didn’t have the stamina, the strength.
“I’d been swimming since I was four. I competed in England and in the Scottish nationals and had just managed to get into the squad in West Lothian.
“I was training to qualify for the Commonwealth Games – I was so proud. I was out at competitions most weekends. Swimming pretty much took over my life.
“It killed me inside knowing I couldn’t do competitions. I went to one a year after the crash but it didn’t go very well and I realised I couldn’t make it any more.”
Sarah wasn’t suffering alone. Her mum, Shona, 47, and dad had been hit hard.
She said: “Dad went into a really bad depression. When I was in hospital, he came in every day because he had to know I was all right and that he wasn’t going to lose me.
“He would work and come into the hospital at night and not get to his bed ’til really late. My mum dealt with it differently. She kept it all inside. She didn’t show her emotions. But I know she was stressed.”
Sarah said getting herself back on her feet was a grim and grinding battle – at one point she was on daily suicide watch. But the struggle was one she was determined to win.
In January last year, after investing in a new Volkswagen Golf, she mustered the courage to get back behind the wheel and even drove to the spot where the smash occurred.
She said driving was “scary and daunting” but she managed it – adding that being in the car helped her regain a sense of freedom.
Then, six months ago, she met partner Darren Orr, 22, and has not looked back.
“It was him who got me back on my feet again – he’s been my rock,” she said. “He’s been there for me all the time. I can speak to him about it, even though he wasn’t there. He tries – he tries to listen and understand. And that makes the difference.”
Now firmly back in control of her life after securing work as a disabled carer, Sarah has embarked on a drive to turn her horrific ordeal into a force for good.
She has become the face of a new, city-wide teen safety campaign which aims to ram home the life-threatening danger of not taking care on the roads, whether through speeding, driving under the influence of drink and drugs, or travelling without wearing a seat belt.
“Talking about my experience to other young people is part of my own recovery,” she said. “I can see the broader picture now.
“I survived and then nearly threw the whole of my life away. I feel that if I can change one person’s life for the better then it helps me to feel that someone can get something good out of my experience.”
And her message is simple.
“Stop and think before you go anywhere and ensure everyone in the car has a seat belt on. People think it’s not cool but it’s there to save your life. It’s life or death.”