Inspirational Leah Batchelor, a parishioner of St Michael’s, Belfast, who is determinedly recovering from ‘locked-in syndrome,’ passed another milestone when she graduated just before Christmas.
Leah was just 21 when she suffered a major brain stem stroke caused by an aneurysm in September 2011. Her prognosis was not good and her parents Allison and Tom were told she may not survive.
Leah was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. While she was aware of everything that was going on around her, the only muscles she could move were her eyelids.
And it was with her eyelids that she spelt out her ambition to finish her BDes degree in graphic design, an ambition which was realised at the University of Ulster graduation ceremony in Jordanstown on December 16.
One of the nurses who had looked after Leah in ICU, on hearing the news, recalled in a Facebook post the first day Leah was brought a spelling board – when she could only move her eyes. The first word she spelled out was uni… ‘You’re a remarkable young lady Leah,’ the nurse commented.
Former Archdeacon of Belfast, the Ven Barry Dodds, was Leah’s rector in St Michael’s when she suffered the aneurysm and remains a close family friend. He said Leah was determined to see everything through.
“Graduating from university was in her mind when she was going through the first weeks after the stroke,” said Barry. “She had proved her determination to see it through to the end. She has also got back to driving and has a specially adapted car. She only has the use of her left arm and her left side, but she is able to drive herself and her family around, which has given her a great sense of independence.
“Yet although she has got a degree and she is back to driving herself, simple things like turning over in bed are next to impossible for her. She cannot do a lot of the things we all take for granted. While she is brilliant and has achieved so much there are many things which she is still denied.”
Although Barry has retired as rector of St Michael’s, he and his wife Norma remain close to Leah and her family. In fact, they had charge of Leah’s new pup Lola on the day of the graduation, and afterwards hosted a graduation day tea for Leah and her family!
Leah’s story featured in Connor Connections in June 2013, when, just a year and a half after being told she had locked-in syndrome, Leah was already making a brave and incredible recovery. She also featured on TV in Stephen Nolan’s ‘Story of a Lifetime’ series.
The graduation ceremony was a proud day not only for Leah and her family, but for her many friends in St Michael’s and in St Mary’s, Ballybeen, where she is a Girls’ Brigade leader.
Leah had expressed a determination to walk to receive the certificate herself, and she even achieved that. On stage she was congratulated by Vice Chancellor Paddy Nixon, and the auditorium rang with loud applause. Her mum Allison said: “Leah had a seat on the stage, and was able to walk the couple of steps to receive her certificate, which she handed to me as she needed to hold onto her stick again. But she stepped up to get it, which is what she wanted to do.
“It was an extremely emotional day. I was so proud of her, but as her mum I was thinking this was not how she wanted to graduate but at the same time absolutely bursting that she had managed it, and managed it so successfully, getting a 2:1.
“She had to switch from being right-handed and learn to do everything with her left hand.”
Allison said being able to drive had given Leah a new independence, although every trip out had to be planned to ensure that wherever she travelled to would have disabled access and other facilities she might need.
Leah has been doing some freelance work and hopes to get an internship with a graphic design company.
“She will also be focusing on her therapy, because she could not devote as much time to it when she was working on her university stuff,” Allison said. Leah continues to live at home with her parents and brother Ryan, who is her main carer.
“Despite all she has achieved she still has a lot of limitations, like getting into and out of bed,” Allison said.
Leah travels to London to a specialist clinic once a year for a fortnight of rehabilitation treatment as no similar service is available in Northern Ireland. She was at the clinic in the month before her graduation.
After the ceremony, Leah said she was “glad she got through it,” and attributed the intensive rehabilitation she received in London to her increased mobility.
“The ceremony was very good, I enjoyed and I am glad I was able to do it – but I was hopeful after all the rehab,” she said.