From depths of despair to ‘Woman of the Year’

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Melissa Devine was recently recognised as a Derry Woman of the Year for her voluntary service in the Bogside and Brandywell. The 28 year-old, who has been paralysed from the chest down since 2003, was hailed as an “inspiration to local young people” through her dedication to the promotion of road safety in particular. In this article, Melissa speaks exclusively to IAN CULLEN about her darkest day, her zest for life and the importance of positivity.

After spending more than a month in hospital Melissa Devine remained “completely oblivious” to the grim reality that she’d never walk again.

PACEMAKER BELFAST  12/1/12 Melissa Devine a spinal injury victim from Derry who was an unbelted back seat passenger in a car that was involved in an accident in 2002. Melissa tell's her story on the new road traffic advert as part of the " crashed lives campaign".

PACEMAKER BELFAST 12/1/12 Melissa Devine a spinal injury victim from Derry who was an unbelted back seat passenger in a car that was involved in an accident in 2002. Melissa tell's her story on the new road traffic advert as part of the " crashed lives campaign".

Then came the darkest hour for the Bogside teenager who was studying to be a fitness instructor. Confusion quickly transformed into anger, shock and horror when a orthopaedic consultant from Musgrave Park Hospital told the 19 year-old that she had arranged for a wheelchair to be brought to transfer her from her Royal Victoria Hospital bed. “I turned to my sister Paula with a puzzled look and said: ‘What do I need a wheelchair for’. Then the consultant said, in such a blasé manner, ‘You’re never going to walk again’.”

As the shocking truth began to sink in, Melissa’s anger turned to heartbreak and she plunged into the depths of despair. “That was the darkest day of my life. When she said those words they hit home. It’s a very vivid memory for me, I can remember the room and where the consultant was standing as if it was yesterday.”

The young student’s distraught family had known the devastating diagnosis since Melissa suffered a broken neck in a two car collision near Letterkenny almost five weeks previously. “My family had known since I was transferred from a high dependency unit to intensive care because my kidneys were failing in the days after the accident. Then they were told that I may not pull through. I can understand what they were going through: how do you tell your sister or daughter that they’ll never walk again, it is an impossible thing to do.”

Melissa’s large and very close-knit family network had been by her side since the day of the accident and throughout her many months of treatment and rehabilitation in several hospitals in Donegal, Dublin and Belfast.

Now 28 years old, Melissa regularly speaks candidly to young people in Derry and beyond about how had she worn a seatbelt during that fateful journey from Bundoran to Derry on June 3, 2002 she’d be fully mobile today. Melissa recalled that she had always worn her seatbelt but on that “one occasion” she was tired and took it off to lie down across the back seat. Her life changed forever in a split second.

“It was 3.30 in the afternoon and I was lying sleeping in the backseat as we headed for Derry. I had no seatbelt on because I was lying down. I don’t remember much about it but I ended up with my head underneath the front passenger seat and my neck broken. If I had have been wearing my seatbelt then I would have walked away like the other three people in our car and those in the other car.”

The car, which was being driven on the Letterkenny to Manorcunningham dual carriageway by Melissa’s then boyfriend, was accidentally struck on its side by a car accessing the busy route from a slip road. “I kept waking up and hearing all the screaming around me and being put in the ambulance. I remember having the feeling that I couldn’t move at all and all the commotion around me. I kept slipping in and out of consciousness.”

What stood out for Melissa during her ordeal in the hours, weeks, months and years following the accident was the support she received from her family and friends. “I couldn’t have coped as well as I did if I didn’t have the great support of my family and friends. My Ma always says that they were stronger because of my reaction to get up and get on with life - it worked both ways I suppose.” In the traumatic months after the accident two people in particular helped to come to terms with her devastating situation. “Two fellas, Mark (17) and Michael (19), were both in Musgrave with the same injuries as me and they helped me cope, we helped each other. I don’t think I could have coped without them. We had great craic and if one of us was having a bad day then the other two would always be there. It was the most dreary, depressing place - it would put years on you.”

These days Melissa lives life to the full and works hard to ensure that young people in the Bogside and Brandywell area do the same. “My bad days are behind me now, the first year was the hardest and getting out of Musgrave was a big thing for me. Now I’ve a wee bungalow close to my family and friends, I have carers who visit me in the morning, afternoon and night, and I have a normal routine.”

During filming for the current high profile DOE road safety campaign ‘Crashed Lives’, Melissa was asked for her advice on how to cope with her condition. “For me it has to be tough love, being petty and feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere. Whenever I did have a bad day then the next day I started out with the attitude to not let it get to me, to get up and get on with it.” And that’s very much the vein in which Melissa lives her life. In the years directly after the accident, Melissa discovered she could achieve a very high quality of life once again. “I went to Sweden three years in a row where I learned to ski. It was unbelievable to have the freedom to control the cart as it moved so quickly through the snow. But since then I’ve discovered that sun holidays are much more relaxing and that I prefer hot weather to the cold conditions.”

Melissa has also thrown herself headlong into education, taking part in new courses every year. “This is the first year since my accident that I haven’t started a new course in September. The year after the accident I went back to the Tech (North West Regional College) to finish my BTEC in sport and after that I did many different courses at the Gasyard and Dove House.” Melissa has worked with the Dove House Community Trust, where she is now Director of the Management Committee, for many years - as a child in the Youthfirst programme, as a teenager in the Peer Educational Programmes and as a volunteer youth leader in the fundraising and development of Ark Park children’s play facility.

Her positive outlook and unswerving dedication to working in her community saw her given a Derry Woman of the Year category award earlier this month. She said she was “totally surprised and deeply honoured”.

But according to her friends and colleagues the accolade should have come as no surprise.

As part of her nomination, colleagues stated that Melissa “is a local inspiration for young people of the area - constantly promoting and encouraging safety first”.