Making Headway for brain injury survivors and their families

SHE was a senior manager at Sage before her daughter Abbie was run over by a car and Debra Thornton’s world was turned upside down.

Twelve years on, she is just as passionate about her career and, as trustee on the board of Headway Darlington & District, the mum of four is using her operational change and leadership skills to help other brain injury survivors as well as their families get the tailor-made support they need.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A journalist – I always thought the life looked exciting. I wasn’t particularly interested in meeting the stars but I like things that are fast-paced and I’m nosey.

Where did you work before Abbie’s injury?
I started at Middlesbrough Council and then became a pub landlady at what is now the Hole in the Wall in Darlington. I loved it – the days were 12 to 14 hours long but the people I met were fantastic.
From there I moved to the financial industry and ended up as a senior manager at Sage head office in Newcastle where I worked for 12 years.

PRIORITY: Debra Thornton, a trustee on the board of Headway Darlington & District with daughter Abbie.

PRIORITY: Debra Thornton, a trustee on the board of Headway Darlington & District with daughter Abbie.

What happened to Abbie and how did it change your career path?
Three days before her fourth birthday she was involved in a life-changing accident while walking with her teenage brother near where we live in Coulby Newham, Middlesbrough.

Paramedics told my husband Tony and I that she’d died at the scene but managed to be resuscitated before her heart stopped beating again in the ambulance and we were warned to expect the worst.

After bolts were inserted into her head to relieve pressure on her brain she was slowly weaned off life-support but we were told that, although she would survive, she would never walk or talk again.

But I refused to accept that and after three or four months of intensive rehabilitation Abbie said her first word and went on to learn to skip and ride her bike. Now 16, she’s recently left Polam Hall school and she’s at college training to become a hairdresser.

When the accident happened I took about nine months off work but when I went back I realised how much I now needed to be closer to home. It was hard – I gave up a big salary and the fast-paced environment but in our family I am the rock, the one who everybody comes to and I had to reassess my life and put Abbie first.

I thought about becoming a counsellor and went through the training but then I was approached by Fairbridge in Middlesbrough, a UK charity that supports young people aged 13 to 25 which has since become The Prince’s Trust.

It was the best move I’ve ever made. Seeing the positive changes in the young people gave me a lot of fulfilment and it was my first taste of working in the third sector. Every day I cried and every day I laughed. It was so inspiring.

After five years it was time to do something different and I set up my own business consultancy so I could be my own boss and fit it around Abbie.

How did you become involved with Headway Darlington & District?
When you leave hospital after an acquired brain injury there’s very little support out there for either the survivor or their family and Headway is creating and develop local services to fill a growing gap and help them rebuild their lives.

At the moment we are supporting people affected by brain injury in Darlington, Durham, Stockton, Teesside and North Yorkshire.

I got involved as a trustee last year around the same time as Nicola Hughes, currently acting chair whose husband sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2011.

She has global blue chip business experience and we hit it off straight away – we’re both determined to put Headway Darlington & District on the map and everything we’ve set out to achieve so far we’ve done.

What are the branch’s biggest successes so far?
Meetings are twice monthly and we get members involved with different activities such as cycling and walking. Our vice chair, Jean Martin Savage a chartered psychologist with more than 20 years experience is designing and delivering one-to-one rehabilitation programmes to members and their families which is so important.

We are very proud that she was a finalist in the Headway national awards for the charity’s volunteer of the year. She delivers cognitive and emotional support sessions, runs a busy helpline and has developed an awareness course for Headway volunteers.

She’s also established the Headway Forces Support Group at Catterick Garrison, offering support and education to veterans living with brain injuries.

We’re thrilled to have a new base at Mowden Park Rugby Club in Darlington and our aim is offer our services to other charities across the region as well as opening our own centre five days a week.

Why is Headway’s work vital?
We offer support to brain injury survivors and, just as importantly, their families. If Headway was not here many members would be living in an institution rather than at home. Brain injuries are unpredictable, one day everything is fine and the next day it’s not so you never know.

We’re going to build Abbie a hair salon in our home so she’ll have flexibility but still be able to work and have independence. The complexities are huge. We laugh and we cry with families because we know exactly what they’re going through and we help rebuild all of their lives.

What is a very underrated business skill?
The ability to communicate but also to listen.

Have qualifications got you where you are, has it been sheer hard work and talent or a combination?
I haven’t got lots of qualifications so I think it’s through patience, drive and being nosey but I still want to learn. With our business backgrounds and the skills we have Nicola and I would like to be able to offer what we do at Headway to different organisations.

Do you feel pressure to be a role model?
I don’t know that I’m a role model but I was asked recently by someone if I would be their mentor, which I was thrilled about. I am often described as ‘strong’ but that’s because I’ve had to survive in a man’s world.

During the legal case that followed Abbie’s accident I was challenged over and over again by male solicitors and barristers so I’m ok with being called strong.

Which three people (alive/dead celebrity or not) would you like to work with?
Mother Teresa, because I really want to be that kind and caring person, Mary Berry because I really enjoy baking and somebody like Michael McIntyre because he would make me laugh and I love to laugh.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
For the past 20 years I’ve wanted to set up a coffee shop in Whitby, were there’s no chaos and over tea and cake I can just listen to old peoples’ stories.

Headway Darlington & District Call: 01325-376444
Twitter: @HeadwayDarlo Facebook: Headway Darlington & District



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