‘Her eyes were closed. I felt instant terror, emptiness’
Charlotte, 27, and Jak, 25, survived a serious car accident; both spent weeks in intensive care. They live in Lancashire and plan to marry this summer.
Charlotte Jak and I met in our early 20s, when he came to manage the bar I waitressed in. I fell for his looks, but he was caring and I could open up to him. In November 2018, after we’d been together for three years, I qualified as a teacher and he attended my graduation in Carlisle with my parents. We’d been driving back home for two hours, in poor weather. Ten minutes from home, an unlicensed lorry knocked us off the road.
I was conscious but couldn’t move. Jak climbed out of the car, desperate to get me out, but collapsed at the roadside. I watched his hand slide down the window and thought he was dead. My parents suffered irreversible brain injuries; Jak and I would have six life-saving surgeries between us.
My ribs went into my spleen, puncturing my lung and pancreas; my liver ruptured; I lost half my colon and a quarter of my small intestine, and would have to learn to walk again. Before consenting to surgery, the first question I asked was whether I could still have children. I was told I could; the worst thing would have been losing the future I pictured with Jak.
I spent five days in a coma and two weeks in intensive care. When I woke, Jak came to my bedside in a wheelchair. The seatbelt had cut repeatedly into his abdomen and he’d damaged his pelvis. The day I left intensive care, he went in, as bowel abscesses and sepsis set in. We had the same surgeon and were both left with colostomy bags. We spent more than 14 weeks in hospital. The week after we went home, on my birthday, he proposed.
We’ve spent a lot of time apart, too unwell to care for each other. I suffer chronic pain, and our injuries mean we cannot comfortably share a bed. We have five weekly medical appointments and have both been diagnosed with depression; we even share a therapist. I worried whether he’d still fancy me, and we both struggle with body image problems. Jak’s patience and understanding helps me through. It’s a joint fight.
We moved in together last summer, and are due to get married in July. Neither of us can work – I’m a primary school teacher and he’s a screen printer – which makes money tight, but I want to make our wedding magical. I’m determined to walk down the aisle unaided. Our medical team will be among our guests. We hope to have a baby one day, too, someone who will never compare us with how we were before.
Before the crash, Jak still had a young head on his shoulders. We both grew up quickly. Going through this means we could never be without each other. The strength we share is unbelievable.
Jak When I was offered a job at a bar in town, I wasn’t planning on taking it. Then I saw Charlotte. We gravitated towards each other and I asked her out for a drink. We never stopped talking. After six months, I knew that she was the one.
I remember the crash, vividly. Charlotte was still and her eyes were closed. I felt instant terror, emptiness, until I saw her breathe again, then I collapsed. In my hospital bed, I was told that she was in intensive care, but I wasn’t prepared for how frail she looked. It had been three weeks since I’d seen her. She was so traumatised she couldn’t speak. When I was wheeled back to my ward, I asked her dad for her hand in marriage. Coming so close to losing her set in stone the knowledge that I couldn’t feel that way again.
Our medical appointments became like dates. Despite being so poorly, Charlotte put my recovery and that of her parents, who are now disabled, before her own. She still cares for them. She has more bad days than I do. I think I provide her with a sense of normality. I can’t easily go out and buy her flowers or chocolates, but I can support her emotionally.
I love her resilience, and see how amazing she will be when we have a child. For me, our wedding will mark the end of the bad times and the start of a new, exciting life.
‘For three years, I believed she had been kidnapped and killed’
Abdula, 40, and Nada, 36, have survived the Sudanese civil war, years of separation, and a journey across Europe to seek asylum in the UK. They now live in Wales.
Abdula Nada and I are from Sudan, where we were engaged to be married when I was 11 and Nada was seven. Our region, Darfur, was destroyed by war and I fled to Libya, alone, as a teenager. It would be six years before my family learned I was safe, and before Nada agreed to join me there and marry.
We had seven happy years, and two children – a boy and a girl – together. I worked as a mechanic and Nada studied. I would go home every lunchtime to see her. She made me so happy; we felt safe.
In 2008, the Libyan government ordered us back to Sudan, but the threat of genocide was very real. On New Year’s Eve, I put my family on a lorry back to Nada’s home across the border. I was smuggled by speedboat to Italy: I would seek a better life for us and send for them later. I did not see Nada again for 12 years.
We could speak very little in that time. I made it to the UK, but was deported to Europe twice, making my way back illegally on lorries and freight trains. I spent long stretches on the streets or in detention centres, and borrowed phones to call home. It hurt me that Nada needed money and I couldn’t help her. I was lonely.
My lowest moment came at the Calais camps. I borrowed an officer’s phone and Nada told me our young son was missing after a bombing. He has never been found. Our daughter was killed several years later. We endured the worst losses imaginable but could not grieve together, or hold each other. The pain is still too great for Nada to talk about it.
I continued fighting for a UK visa. In a detention centre, another call came that crushed me, from my brother. There had been more fighting and Nada’s village had been wiped out: for the next three years, I believed she had been kidnapped and killed. At night, I would dream of her laughing with me in Libya, and wake up crying.
In mid-2014, a refugee arrived at the detention centre who said he knew her. They had been held by militia together in the mountains – but she had been freed. She was alive. It took me months to reach her family for confirmation. It was true; she had returned, traumatised and injured.
A human rights charity, Waging Peace, helped me gain my visa, and fundraisers put together the money needed to bring Nada to Britain. When we finally met at the airport, her face was just as I remembered. When I held her, my tears couldn’t stop. Our years of struggling have left us both unwell. We carry physical and emotional scars, but we are husband and wife again.
Nada I loved Abdula straight away. We were young when we met, but I knew he would be a good husband. We were married during war and our celebration was small; my mother and sisters weren’t there.
We didn’t know if he would survive the crossing when he left for Europe. When he made it to Calais, I was so happy to know he was alive. When he told me he was sleeping in the street, that he wasn’t well and had no food, I cried. My mother and brother wanted me to give up on him. He didn’t have a visa, and they thought it was time I chose a new husband. They told me, “You can’t keep waiting.” But I would never divorce him; as long as he was alive, I knew I would see him again.
After I returned home from the mountains [where she was held hostage], recovering over many months, we spoke again. When my visa arrived, I was filled with excitement and trepidation. I had never flown, and didn’t eat during the whole journey. I couldn’t speak when I saw Abdula in the airport, but in his arms I felt safe again. We recently welcomed a baby girl; life is still hard, but when we’re together we are blessed.
‘I was in prison for 2,192 days; she wrote to me almost daily’
Laure, 58, and Jerry, 62, survived his jail sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. They live in Alabama, and now run a support network for the families of prisoners.
Laure Jerry and I met in 1995 and married four months later. I tell him all the time I would marry him again, but faster. We’d both been married twice before and dating was the last thing I was looking for. But he ticked all the boxes.
I had two daughters and he had one. We moved our family from Tennessee to Alabama, to raise them in the country. We were living the dream. But on 17 March 2003, it was shattered when Jerry caused a head-on car collision which killed a young mother. He had been driving drunk.
I felt rage, betrayal. When we met, we were both recovering alcoholics, so I had only known him sober. Now a life had been lost. I didn’t want him dead, but I wanted him to hurt real bad. We lived in a small town, and I grieved for that family. I felt embarrassment. I had to get to the forgiveness part quickly so I could get through each day.
Jerry spent 10 days in the ICU. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison and 19 on probation. I was scared – emotionally, practically, financially, spiritually. I wanted to stay married but didn’t know how. I didn’t know what you do when someone you love is in prison.
I wrote to him almost every night. I could afford one dollar-a-minute phone call a week and petrol for the 100-mile drive to visit every two weeks. I felt a lot of anger in those first years. I remember burying the cat, crying, saying, “This is a dad job.” I tried to experience the girls’ graduations for both of us.
His first year home, we argued all the…