KIRA MIDDLETON was just two and a half years old when her life changed forever.
She was involved in a car accident which resulted in devastating injuries to her brain.
“Kira is 17 now but, in many ways, she’s still a little girl,” says her mum Erika Cullen.
“She’s got the same happy personality she had before her head injury.
“Thankfully, she has no real understanding of what has happened to her.
“Kira is able to talk, but her speech is limited.
“She can read at about the level of a six or seven-year-old.
“She can only use her right hand, and needs help with everyday basics like eating and washing.”
Carers come twice a day to help Kira get ready for the day with a bath or shower and go to bed at night.
They also help her enjoy activities like making birthday cards.
“At home, Kira has a therapy room, a room for carers to stay in and a specially-fitted bathroom,” Erika explains.
“A hoist that runs along a ceiling track links the bathroom to her bedroom so that carers do not have to lift her, now that she is a teenager,” Erika explains.
For most of Kira’s childhood, however, Erika cared for her daughter alone and, realising that Kira’s disabilities would be lifelong, fought tirelessly for the right support — on both sides of the Channel.
“I was a single parent and we lived with my mother in rural France when the accident happened,” Erika says.
“It was so terrible that I’ve blocked out many of the details.
“But I do remember the helicopter landing on the local cricket pitch to airlift Kira to hospital in Bordeaux.
“I remember her bleeding from her nose and ears.
“And I remember the way nurses wrapped a sheet around Kira’s head, so we couldn’t see the extent of her injuries.”
In hospital, doctors needed to shave Kira’s head.
“Afterwards, they handed me a lock of her hair — it was meant kindly but was almost unbearable,” Erika recalls.
Kira was put into an induced coma to help her body heal.
She had suffered injuries to the left side of her brain, which meant that the right-hand side of her body was affected.
Erika was told that Kira had wounds, called lesions, on her brain and would be unable to talk.
“The doctors also told me that Kira was blind, but I refused to believe it,” Erika says.
“I could see her silently laughing as she watched videos from her hospital bed.”
Erika, who was pregnant with her second daughter Olivia at the time, spent every day at Kira’s bedside.
Her faith in her daughter was rewarded when, to the medics’ amazement, Kira waved at a passing doctor — proving that she could see.
Kira also surprised doctors by learning to sit up and trying to eat using her left hand.
Three months after the accident, she was allowed home, but many challenges lay ahead for the family.
Kira had lost a great deal of weight, had suffered a lot of pain and was very weak.
She was sick every day, could not walk without help and had lost the ability to express herself emotionally.
And it was clear that Kira, previously a bright little girl, now had learning disabilities.
To her mother’s shock, Kira started to go through puberty at just four years of age, because the gland that controls the body’s hormones had been damaged when her brain was injured.
When Kira was five, the family returned to England.
Kira attended a local primary school which, fortunately, was fully accessible for children needing a wheelchair.
“Kira did well at school, learning new words every day,” Erika recalls.
“Gradually, some emotions started to come back, too.
“She could stand by herself, and even walk a bit.”
Unfortunately, Kira now needs to use a wheelchair almost all the time.
At 17, Kira is well physically but, her mother says, very vulnerable.
“She has no sense of fear or danger and, if anything happened, she does not have the vocabulary to explain,” says Erika.
“She needs supervision at all times.
“But we recently went on our first-ever family holiday.
“It was a barge holiday and the boat was fully accessible and Kira even got to steer it along the Basingstoke Canal, which she loved!”
At home near Burgess Hill in West Sussex — which is now shared with Erika’s husband Matt, baby Leo and Olivia, who is now 13 — Kira’s therapy room is decorated in bright, primary colours suitable for her developmental age.
But her chic, pink bedroom is very much a teenage girl’s room.
As Erika says: “Kira is a young lady now and, despite the severe disabilities caused by her head injury, it’s important for her that is recognised.”
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Research key to better recoveries
HEAD injuries are common in children, often coming out of the blue through falls, accidents on the roads or during sports, writes Alan Shaw.
As a result, every year, more than 35,000 children are admitted to hospital with a traumatic brain injury.
The extent of the damage will vary and may not be obvious straight away, but can include problems with memory, concentration, learning and behavioural issues.
The most seriously-affected children will be left with long-term disabilities.
Children’s charity Action Medical Research is helping to fund two studies to help children and young people like Kira Middleton who have suffered a serious brain injury.
Professor David Sharp of Imperial College London is developing sophisticated new brain scans to enable more accurate diagnosis of children’s problems after brain injuries.
He hopes that, one day, this work will help doctors predict how each child may be affected and identify the type of healthcare and educational support that will be most helpful.
At the University of East Anglia, Dr Anna Adlam is developing a computerised programme for children who have survived a head injury, designed to boost working memory.
The aim is to see if this offers benefits in terms of behaviour, emotional wellbeing, academic performance and family life.
“Advances in emergency care mean that most children are able to survive a traumatic brain injury,” says Dr Adlam.
Research like this is, Kira’s mum Erika feels, very needed.
She says: “The brain is so complex. There definitely needs to be more research into how different parts of the brain are used.
“I would love to know more about what Kira is able to understand and whether she thinks ahead.”