The devastating car crash that prepared Vicky Phelan to take on a health system decades later

A crash in France in the early 1990s claimed the lives of Vicky Phelan's boyfriend and friend and gave her a first glimpse in two very different healthcare systems
The devastating car crash that prepared Vicky Phelan to take on a health system decades later

Vicky Phelan on the Moments that Made Me

Campaigner Vicky Phelan has described a fatal car crash she survived as a teenager as one of the defining moments of her life.

Vicky was just 18 years old when she was a front-seat passenger in a crash in France that claimed three lives, including those of her boyfriend and her friend, and paralysed another of her friends.

“We were coming home from this nightclub and we had a car crash. It was a head-on collision,” Vicky tells Vickie Maye in ‘The Moments That Made Me', the new weekend podcast from the Irish Examiner in association with Green & Blacks.

“There were five of us in the car, I was in the front passenger seat, my boyfriend was driving. Lisa was in the middle of the back seat and she went out over the two front seats and she broke her two legs and she hit her head. She was brain-damaged.

“Katie was in the back and went out through the side window. She’s paralysed for life, not just from her waist down, she’s paralysed from her neck down. She has very little use of her hands. I visited Katie last year, we keep in touch regularly, she’s a great friend.

“Lisa died. She survived for a week but she didn’t really survive, she was on life-support and her parents had to make the awful decision to turn off her life-support machine because she was brain-dead. Kristoph died literally straight away. His neck broke, there were no headrests in the car and these are all things that you take for granted now, but no headrests so his neck went back with the impact and broke.” 

Vicky suffered catastrophic injuries but also had to deal with the emotional impact of learning her loved ones had died after waking from a 10-day coma.

“I spent almost three-and-a-half months in hospital, broke an awful lot of bones but I survived it. About 70% of the bones in my body, particularly the left side, 360 stitches, lots of internal bleeding and injuries, cosmetic surgery. My nose was literally torn off my face, they had to sew it back on. It was a lot. I was in a coma for 10 days and it was my poor father that had to tell me that Kristoff, my boyfriend, and Lisa were dead.” 

Vicky Phelan. Picture: Cathal Noonan
Vicky Phelan. Picture: Cathal Noonan

Over time, her recollection of the crash improved, but Vicky says she still doesn’t remember the impact itself.

“I suppose it’s your body’s way of protecting you, I had no recollection of the accident. Bits of it came back to me. I don’t remember the actual impact but I remember sounds and smells. I remember the smell of burning, the smell of petrol and the sound of helicopter blades.” 

It took many years for her to come to terms with the crash and Vicky says she still gets upset thinking about it.

“Because you’re so young and nothing bad has ever really happened to you it’s an awful shock to the system. It’s bad enough being involved in an accident but being involved in an accident where you’ve lost two friends and you haven’t been able to attend a funeral and you’re in hospital for months.

“You’re nearly institutionalised, I was terrified coming out of the hospital because I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was very bitter, I was angry. It took me about two years really to get over it physically as well as mentally and emotionally. 

It took a toll. It’s lived with me since. It was 27 years ago and I still get upset thinking about it. It’s something that just doesn’t leave you.

It was, she says, the first time she realised that terrible things can happen to even the best of people.

“It shaped my life, it shaped my attitude to life as well. I could see bad things can happen to good people and at the same time life still goes on and you have to try and pick up the pieces and move on,” she says.

Vicky says her long recovery was her first experience of two healthcare systems, Ireland’s and France’s, and she was struck at the time by how patient-focused the French system was compared to Ireland.

“That was my first taste of dealing with a health system because I was in there so long. My parents were astonished at the way the system worked over there. Before I was transferred back home to Ireland I had all of the surgeons who had operated on me, and there were five of them because I had five different types of injuries, they each came down and sat at the end of my bed for maybe 20 minutes or half an hour explaining what they had done to me, the type of injuries I had, what the short-term impact would be, the long-term impact.” 

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