My life was saved by a five-car pile-up; DAWN COLLINSON talks to a woman who cheated death twice thanks to M-way crash.
WHEN Julia Lyons' car hit a patch of black ice and skidded into the centre of a motorway pile-up, she was amazed to walk away from the wreckage.
But the 42-year-old had no idea just how lucky she was.
Because the five-car crash which left her with little more than two broken fingernails actually saved her life.
When breathing problems hadn't eased a week after the accident, Julia went to her GP with what she believed was a seatbelt injury.
"Even though there were no visible signs, I thought I must have bruised my ribs," she explains. "At first I got anti-inflammatories and painkillers, but when they didn't work I went for an X-ray."
Julia, from Upton was babysitting her godson on a Friday evening when she got a phone call with the results.
"It was just how you see it on Holby City and Casualty," she smiles. "The doctor said 'so, we've got your X-rays back and, don't panic but we've found a shadow that we need to investigate'."
A succession of scans revealed that Julia had Castleman's Disease and a mass the size of a fist in her chest.
"It had already attached itself to my heart, my lungs and my aortic arch and, if they hadn't found it, it would probably have killed me within five years."
It was a diagnosis which turned Julia's life upside down. At the time of the accident, almost five years ago, she was a confident career woman working for Bank of America in Chester.
On the night it happened, she left work as usual to head home to Wirral on the M56, warning colleagues to take care in the bad weather.
"It had been freezing, then it rained, then it froze again so the roads were covered in ice," she recalls.
"I was on the motorway in the outside lane when I saw brake lights coming on in front. I braked and felt the car go away from me. I hit the central reservation barrier and bounced off it, and my car ended up at right angles to the traffic.
"There were five cars in front that all crashed - as I'd hit the back one they'd ricocheted into each other - and there was a domino effect behind."
With two broken little fingernails, and having bitten her tongue on impact, Julia jokes that she looked in a bit of a mess with blood running down her face. But, having driven with her written-off car on the recovery truck, she was able to go home without a hospital stay.
It wasn't until she started struggling to catch her breath that Julia worried she might need more treatment.
"It felt like my chest just wasn't big enough, everything felt constricted," she remembers. "I wasn't passing out, but I couldn't seem to get a full breath."
Although scans showed the "mass", Julia admits she still didn't fully appreciate the seriousness of her condition.
"I remember sitting in a hospital in Preston and saying to my mum 'this is a cancer unit, why are we here?' When they called it a tumour, I said 'no, I've got a mass, not a tumour'."
Even when the disease was fully explained, she still delayed surgery to go to her friend's 30th birthday party. "It just didn't strike me, I think I was so busy managing everyone else around me who was falling to pieces that I didn't have time to worry about myself," she says.
It was only when she arrived at the party, with a new partner, that the potentially devastating reality struck her.
"We walked in and everyone, my family and friends who'd known me my whole life, turned round and looked," says Julia. "I'd been single for years so I thought they were looking at us as a couple. Then I realised they were looking at me because they thought they might never see me again."
On March 9, 2009, she underwent a nine-and-a-half hour operation at Broadgreen Heart and Chest hospital, with surgeons cutting through her ribcage to remove the tumour.
In HDU for a week afterwards, she couldn't lift her arms or get out of bed. "And because I wasn't putting make-up on, I didn't need to look in a mirror so I never once looked at the scar," she admits.
Even when she moved into her mum's home after being discharged, she still refused to confront the physical reminder. "I had no energy for anything, I was on eight different types of medication and I was sleeping for 22 or 23 hours a day, so it was easy to avoid," she reflects.
When she did finally face up to her scarring, Julia confesses she found it hard to cope with.
"In restaurants, if someone glanced at my chest, I'd want to leave straight away," she recalls. "They probably weren't looking at the scar, but in my head it was red and ugly and I felt like the Bride of Frankenstein. To me I wasn't a woman anymore, I was a horrible blob who'd been cut through."
With the support of her family, friends and boyfriend, Julia set about rebuilding her life and the confidence which played such a big part in it.
She went to therapy sessions and made a body cast which showed every detail, scars and all.
Now, as the five-year anniversary of her accident approaches, Julia has a new job and a new positivity.
"I look back and think it's been a wonderful five years bizarrely," she laughs. "I'm not someone who is defined by how they look; sexiness for me isn't a bra size or a dress size, it's all about attitude.
"I've got my scars and I've got my wrinkles, but why would I want to change that when I can celebrate it? I feel blessed to have gone through what I have because it's given me a completely new take on life.
"I'll never know for sure what the crash did, whether it dislodged something, but I do know that without it I might not be here."
| SMASH: Julia's car after the pile-up; left, Julia makes a body cast
CONFIDENT: Julia Lyons has much for which to be thankful