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Happy Reunion after paradise became hell

A YOUNG woman from Great Sutton has made a poignant return to the Indian Ocean island where her life was changed for ever three years ago.

A YOUNG woman from Great Sutton has made a poignant return to the Indian Ocean island where her life was changed for ever three years ago.

And her mother believes the trip helped her finally lay to rest the ghosts surrounding the accident which left her paralysed from the neck down.

Rachel Smith back on the beach on Reunion Island

Rachel Smith had a glittering career ahead of her when she left university in 1997 with an MA in interpreting and translating French and German.

She landed her first job teaching English on the island of Reunion.

But tropical paradise turned into hell when she was hit by a freak wave as she dived in the sea, leaving her a tetraplegic after her neck was broken.

Parents Ian and Mary flew to the island and brought her 7,000 miles back to England in an air ambulance.

She was treated at Stoke Mandeville before undergoing rehabilitation at the spinal unit of Southport Hospital.

Since then she has made remarkable progress.

Rachel, now 26, has a good job with a major pharmaceutical company, her own home, car and boyfriend and has done a stint as a TV presenter.

But her proud mother reveals Rachel recently faced her biggest test to date when she she returned to Reunion for the first time since her accident.

She said: 'She spent three weeks there and was treated as something of a hero. She appeared on the local television channel and was invited to officially open an hotel for 12 wheelchair users whose owner said her story had inspired him to launch the project.

'While she was there she took the opportunity to do some gliding and paragliding and also went back into the sea in a special wheelchair.

'Rachel also visited the medical team which worked on her immediately after the accident and didn't rate her chances very highly.

'This must have all taken a lot of courage but I'm sure it helped her lay the ghosts of the past.'

The trip is only part of Rachel's globetrotting over the past few years.

Almost immediately after she left rehabilitation she flew to Sweden for a holiday on which she went tobogganing on a specially-adapted sledge.

She wrote about it for the Pioneer, and we have brought readers regular updates on her progress.

At the end of 1999, Rachel spent a week in a Tunisian holiday resort checking out wheelchair accessibility for an Internet company.

And last summer she did a similar reporting exercise in India for a BBC TV holiday programme.

Rachel studied for a post-graduate diploma in business and languages at Chester College, graduating at a cermony in Chester Cathedral last March.

And she put her new qualification to good use by landing a job on the help-desk at pharmaceutical firm Bristol Myers Squidd on Chester Business Park, to which she drives every day.

The company even spent £15,000 on special electric chair which allows her to stand up while working.

For almost a year Rachel has been going steady and she lives independently in a bungalow in Chester which has not been specially adapted for her disability.

Her mother said: 'She leaves us all standing and her father and I are very proud of her.

'After the accident she could so easily have given up - the prognosis was not good. But she has built a new life for herself through sheer determination and guts.'


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
David Norbury
Mike Fuller
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