12-year-old schoolgirl spent 23 days in a coma

A 12-year-old schoolgirl spent 23 days in a coma and almost died after a birthmark on her brain popped "like a balloon".
Rachel Cunningham
Rachel Cunningham was left paralysed and unable to speak after the terrifying experience, which happened after she complained of a headache. Now her parents have spoken out about the nightmare ordeal, and their pride as brave Rachel must fight to speak and walk again. Recalling the heart-wrenching hours after Rachel's shock collapse, dad Shane Rainey said: "It was touch and go at that stage. It's so hard to explain how I felt. It was all so surreal."


The fit and healthy girl, from Catford, south east London, was walking between classes at Sedgehill Secondary School when she suddenly vomited and collapsed at around 10.30am on February 10. Friends raised the alarm, alerting teachers, who rushed to help, but Rachel's whole body seized up and they struggled put her in the recovery position. She was rushed to Lewisham hospital accident and emergency, where she had a CT scan. Her mum Deborah Cunningham, 33, rushed to the hospital, where she was told Rachel had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and needed emergency surgery at King's College Hospital in London to remove the clot. Deborah phoned Rachel's dad Shane, 38, at his home in Dromore, Co Down, telling him his daughter was in a critical condition and he should come to London. The warehouse worker, who is separated from Deborah, caught the first available flight, so he could be with Rachel when she came out of surgery. He said: "The flight over was horrendous, because I just had to sit there. There was nothing I could do. Her mum was phoning me and every time, I thought it could be bad news. I was in so much shock."

Rachel's brain injury

Doctors told Deborah and Shane that Rachel had a birthmark on her brain. It had burst and damaged an artery, filling her head with blood and putting pressure on her brain. Shane said: "It was described to us as being like a balloon popping, which then ruptured two arteries. We didn't know she had this, there had been no obvious signs. She was a healthy, normal 12-year-old." After coming through the five-hour surgery, Rachel spent 23 days in a coma in intensive care in King's College Hospital.

Early recovery

Her parents sat by her beside and played voice messages from her friends in a bid to get a response from their daughter.
Shane explained: "Her friends would send messages to her phone and we would play them for her. "Her eyes would flicker open. Doctors said it was just a reflex but we thought it was more. As soon as we opened her eyes, we got her friends in." When Rachel finally woke up, she wasn't able to move at all, but within a few days, she had improved enough to be able to squeeze her dad's hand and wiggle her toes.
"From the day she woke up, she remembered everything," Shane said. "A few weeks ago she remembered collapsing and vomiting before the injury and she can remember being in King's and not being able to move. She said she felt like a brick." For four weeks, Rachel communicated by spelling out sentences using an alphabet board and squeezing her dad's hand for yes or wiggling her toes to say no. On April 19, she was moved from intensive care to the Lion rehabilitation ward at King's to start a three-month intensive therapy programme, where she had to begin the process of learning to walk again. "When I look back and see how far she's come now, it's amazing. At one stage, she couldn't even move her eyes," said Shane. "She has a lot of fight and she still has a great sense of humour. Through the therapy on the programme, she was able to move her right hand and move her legs."


In July, Rachel was transferred to the Children's Trust rehabilitation centre in Tadworth, Surrey, for three more months of intensive treatment, including physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.
Rachel Cunningham
She still uses a wheelchair but can write and speak, although she has poor coordination and her speech is slow. Every day she is making progress - recently learning how to crawl. She can also stand, using a walking frame for short periods of time. "We're so proud of her," Shane said, "She's pushing the boundaries herself and is taking risks to get better." Rachel's therapy is due to end in October and her parents are trying to fundraise through a GoFundMe page, to allow her to get more specialist treatment, so she can walk again. When she is discharged to her home in Catford, her daily therapy will be reduced to once a week and her parents want to find private treatments to help her recovery. Shane added: "We hoped that by the time she had left here she would be walking, but we believe she will walk at some stage. With more therapy, it is possible - it could be a few months or it could be a year - but we believe she can do it."
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