workingmums.co.uk talks to Sarah Hope, founder of the Sarah Hope Line, described as “a voice of kindness” for victims of life-changing incidents on the London transport system and their families.
On 25th April 2007, on a glorious day in London, Sarah Hope, her toddler Pollyanna and her mum were heading out to visit Sarah’s twin sister who had just given birth. They were walking to the Mortlake bus depot, talking excitedly about whether to get the bus or train. Sarah’s mum, who lived outside London, loved riding on a London bus. The three crossed a railway bridge and headed down towards the bus depot. There was a lot of shouting and traffic congestion.
Suddenly a bus came out of nowhere at speed. Instead of turning into the depot, it ploughed straight into them, causing Sarah to bash her head against the wall. She didn’t lose consciousness, however, although she wishes she had. Her legs were trapped under the wheels of the bus and she could see her mum sandwiched against the wall. Pollyanna had been flung through the air and had landed 20 feet away. Sarah could see her daughter’s leg hanging off.
“It was very frightening. I was screaming so much,” she says. A neighbour rang her husband and a woman who lived nearby came out and wrapped Pollyanna in a coat and held her, which Sarah feels may have saved her life. The bus driver wanted to move the bus, but Sarah felt she would die if he did. He began revving the engine. “It was like a horror movie,” says Sarah.
Sarah’s husband arrived, having fielded calls from friends who thought Sarah might have been killed. He had to decide which ambulance to go with – Sarah’s or Pollyanna’s. Sarah told him to go with Pollyanna. Meanwhile, her sister was waiting for Sarah, her mum and Pollyanna’s visit. The nurses took the tv away from her so she didn’t see the news. By chance, Pollyanna ended up going to the same hospital and was operated on the ward below Sarah’s sister.
Sarah and her mum were taken to another hospital. Sarah still doesn’t know if her mum died at the scene or in the ambulance. “It was too much to compute. I couldn’t believe my mum had been killed or that Pollyanna had lost her leg. I didn’t understand the enormity of it,” she says.
Eventually, Sarah was moved to the same hospital as Pollyanna, but could not see her for four days as she was unable to move. She had suffered a degloving injury to her leg which means the muscle had been ripped off her leg and all the nerves had been damaged. Those nerves have never come back. “Had I not got into that ambulance I would probably have died from the blood loss,” she says. She had to have multiple skin grafts and treatment for a massive haematoma which was the size of a watermelon. The pain was terrible and she had to be sedated. She had to do physio and couldn’t walk for around six months before going onto crutches.
Pollyanna, meanwhile, underwent a seven-hour operation to reattach her leg, but without success. Her leg had to be amputated. In six weeks she underwent 22 operations for injuries including a collapsed lung and a broken thigh bone. She had just turned two.
Sarah was also worried about her other two children – in fact that concern for her children is what got her through the aftermath of the crash. “I had some very negative thoughts,” she says. “It was like I was physically in a black hole and couldn’t get out.”
Sarah was in hospital for three weeks during which she was taken to her mum’s funeral by private ambulance and wheelchair. Sarah’s father was in pieces after the crash and she feels guilty that she didn’t pay him enough attention in the months afterwards because she was too busy focusing on her immediate family.
Before the crash, Sarah had a cookery business, Food for Fun. She set it up in 1998 when she was living in Edinburgh. The aim was to teach children from two a half years upwards about healthy meals through getting them to feel and smell the ingredients and by creating colourful healthy food, such as fresh fruit kebabs, that appealed to all their senses. She started it in her kitchen, but it grew very quickly so she branched out into nursery and primary schools. She kept it going when her son Barnaby was born, but once she had two small children she paused the business for a while. When Pollyanna was one and a half she started it up again in London and took Pollyanna with her to classes in primary schools. She had just been offered a job going to lots of different schools in London when the crash happened.
Everything was shelved after that and Sarah put all her efforts into her shattered family. But over the last decade she has become a formidable campaigner – for amputees and for other victims of road incidents. “I want to help people get justice when something like this happens to them,” says Sarah. “Justice needs to improve.”
She recalls how a lawyer came to visit her while she was in hospital and said she could get her some compensation from the bus company involved, Metroline. “I said yes. I was traumatised and didn’t understand the system,” says Sarah. “I can see now that she was taking advantage of the situation and that I should have got advice.”
Sarah spent five years in litigation, including the criminal trial against the bus driver and the compensation claim, and says the experience was “absolutely awful” and made the trauma her family had suffered even worse. The criminal case took place just over a year after the crash. Sarah remembers a woman on the next table outside the court staring at her menacingly. “The family liaison officer said it was the bus driver’s wife so I left,” she states. “At the trial I said my piece and collapsed. I don’t remember much more.”
The driver, who Sarah says was driving dangerously due to a fit of road rage, got three and a half years. He was subsequently arrested for drunk driving. The compensation case dragged on with Pollyanna having to prove her amputation in front of medico-legal doctors and Sarah being told Pollyanna had emotional problems because she wouldn’t stop screaming. “It’s all about the money,” she said, her anger at Pollyanna’s treatment palpable. She says the support for traumatised victims and their families is absolutely lacking, particularly with regard to negotiating the legal system. She would like to see a victim’s commissioner for road crash victims – just as there is for murder victims.
In 2011, Sarah and her sister set up Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope, a charity for amputees, in their mother’s name. While Sarah was able to save her own leg by building her leg muscles [she even did the London Marathon], Pollyanna, now 17 and a ballet dancer, has spent her childhood having operations, for instance, to trim the bone on her amputated leg, and had to learn to walk again with a prosthetic leg. The charity came about after Sarah started fundraising for the Limbless Association and she found out that children in many countries have no access to prosthetic limbs. Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope partners with charities working on the ground in Sierra Leone, India and Liberia to raise awareness and to pay for prosthetic limbs and for bone trimming operations. Without these, children can get bone infections which can be dangerous. Indeed one amputee child in Sierra Leone died from a bone infection during the Ebola outbreak.
In 2014, Sarah attended an amputee sports event where she met the then London mayor Boris Johnson. “He was the first person to apologise for what happened. Metroline had not apologised, says Sarah. As a result of that encounter Sarah attended a meeting at Metroline’s HQ with Transport for London’s chief executive and was given an apology. Seven years after the crash. Sarah told them that if they were really sorry they needed to make sure it didn’t happen again. She asked what they would do. She says she was fuelled by the anger she felt over her treatment by the bus company. She said the company couldn’t talk to her while the insurance claim was going on and were “actively rude”, making her feel like a “mad, crazy lady who was in the wrong”. “It made me very angry and when you are very angry you get things done,” she states.
As a result of her persistence and desire to help others, Sarah set up the Sarah Hope Line with Transport for London. It was launched in 2016 and aims to provide “a voice of kindness” for victims of life-changing incidents on the London transport system and their families. It provides practical support, including financial support if people have lost income as a result of their injury as well as signposting to private counselling. Sarah is keen for it to become more widely known so it can help more people. The helpline is manned by people trained by TfL.
Sarah is also a consultant for Transport for London and continues to press for greater recognition and support for victims and their families. For instance, she was recently at a Transport for London listening event with families and victims with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. And she continues to campaign for amputees. In 2017 she won a Pride of Britain award for a campaign she ran for amputee children to get activity blades. “When we watched the Paralympics in 2012 people were running on blades. Pollyanna wanted to be able to run like that,” she says. “So we asked the NHS, but they said they couldn’t provide them. I said children need to be able to run and keep fit and healthy. It is about having a life, not just getting a medal. We campaigned really hard and the Chancellor released £1.5m to the NHS for a pilot scheme to ensure all amputee children can get running blades.”
Sarah’s achievements show what a potent mixture determination and a desire to help others are and how the traumatic experiences of victims and families can be harnessed to improve things for others if they are just listened to, given support and treated with kindness.
*You can call The Sarah Hope Line on 0343 222 5678, Monday-Friday 08:00-18:00. A voicemail service operates outside of these times. You can also get support via email at [email protected]. Sarah’s website can be found here. Picture credit: Sarah with Sadiq Khan and Pollyanna [far left] and her other daughter Sapphire [far right].