I lost a leg after being crushed by a lorry. I cried a lot – then got on with building a new life

Victoria Lebrec, who lost a leg in a collision with a lorry, sitting on a sofa in a light, airy room full of plants [1]

I lost a leg after being crushed by a lorry. I cried a lot - then got on with building a new life

Victoria Lebrec forgave the driver who almost killed her. Nine years on, she is happy, active, at peace with her changed body.

But she is still fighting to make the roads safer

Victoria Lebrec can't be sure if what she knows about 8 December 2014 is from her own memory, or the BBC video cameras that captured her bleeding heavily at the side of the road, tyre marks visible across her crushed pelvis from the lorry that knocked her from her bicycle. Or maybe what she knows is from the CCTV footage that was reviewed first as evidence in a criminal case and then in a gruelling, victim-blaming struggle for the compensation she urgently needed. How else would she buy the GBP70,000 prosthetic leg her injuries required?

And how else could she find closure and move on in her changed reality and changed body?

It was a Monday morning. Lebrec - now 33, then 24 - was cycling to work in London on a busy stretch of road that she knew well. "I was next to a skip lorry and he only indicated as he was turning, so I didn't see that he was about to turn. The police investigation concluded that he hadn't looked in his mirrors for 13 seconds leading up to the crash.

He would've seen me had he looked," she says.

"The CCTV evidence shows me realising he's turning, then trying to move out his way but not being able to. Then I get knocked over by the front wheels of the lorry, and then the back wheels of the lorry go over my pelvis."

The pain must have been excruciating: skip lorries weigh somewhere between eight and 18 tonnes. "I still don't understand how you survive something like that - surely it's like when you see roadkill? But pelvises are strong bones," she says.

Lebrec doesn't remember the pain, although she knows she was in agony.

How? "There was a film crew there."

The crew were following London's Air Ambulance for a BBC series called An Hour to Save Your Life[2]. This particular episode aired in 2015, with Lebrec's permission, and the footage makes for difficult viewing. It's not gory - Lebrec was bleeding internally rather than externally - but she looks pale, can barely speak and is disturbingly still.

"Sometimes everything on the outside looks intact.

Meanwhile, on the inside, they're catastrophically bleeding," says one of Lebrec's medics in the documentary. "These patients are sometimes referred to as patients that 'talk and die'."

Lebrec was anaesthetised while the air ambulance crew carried out a life-saving procedure that until then had rarely been performed successfully at the roadside: resuscitative endovascular balloon occlusion of the aorta - Reboa. This involves inserting a small inflatable balloon into the aorta - the largest artery of the body, connecting the heart to the circulatory system - to stop the patient bleeding to death. It's a delicate operation. "A millimetre of movement either way and it goes wrong," explains one of Lebrec's medical team in the documentary.

It would be nearly two weeks before Lebrec was brought out of the induced coma.

She was airlifted to Royal London hospital, where days of surgical procedures lay ahead. Surgeons removed the balloon and began repairing the blood vessels, but discovered that many of those around her pelvis were too damaged.

"When the blood starts going back into the lower half of my body, they realise that it's not going back into my left leg as it should," says Lebrec. "I had to have my leg amputated a couple of days later."

Victoria Lebrec in 2015, during recovery after losing a leg in a lorry collision

There were also operations for her pelvis and right knee, both of which were badly damaged. She estimates that in total she was an inpatient at Royal London for three months. "There's pictures of me from back then and I'm green, because it's such a shock," she says. "I was on so much medication."

When did she fully understand that she had lost her leg? "It's not like when I'm out of the coma I understand what's going on," she says. "I got this thing called ICU psychosis, which is where you are quite crazy as you're waking up.

I was having hallucinations, thinking that the guy in the bed next to me was trying to kill me, or that the nurses were trying to kill me. I was always trying to rip out my cannulas.

"I think I only really understood it when I was on the trauma ward. I dealt with it fairly well, but you just can't picture what your life's going to be like.

I had moments where I was just crying all afternoon."

Yet, despite all this, Lebrec says she remained hopeful. "I've always assumed that it would turn out OK and that I would be able to walk again."

How did she cultivate such strength of mind, such optimism in the face of immense adversity? "I'm not an anxious person," she says, matter-of-factly. "Friends have said this to me, that I don't really worry too much and I don't think about the future too much." This, she says, has put her in good stead. "I live in the moment. I worry once things are presented to me."

When she was well enough, Lebrec was admitted to the specialist ward for amputees at Queen Mary's hospital in Roehampton, south-west London. But progress was not linear. "Some of the setbacks were finding out my limitations in terms of my muscles not working properly.

So I walk with a walking stick and I've got a limp. And I was really disappointed in the leg that I got from the NHS."

Lebrec's current prosthetic leg is state of the art; it has a microprocessor that anticipates which movements she is going to make and tries to match her gait as much as possible, she says. "Whereas the leg given by the NHS had a mechanical knee controlled by me flicking my thigh forward. If you put your weight on it when it was a tiny bit bent rather than straight, you'd fall like a sack of potatoes.

I'd fall over all the time."

Lebrec says that her aim in the first year was to get to her former life. She moved back to her old flat before picking up a new corporate job, just because "it was the sort of job I would have taken if nothing had happened".

But the truth was she had changed. It was around this time she became interested in road safety campaigning. "A group contacted me about their campaigns for the road I had the crash on," she says.

She went to meetings with the then London cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan[3], to discuss a segregated cycle lane (that still hasn't been implemented).

She joined protests, connecting with others who had been let down by poor road safety. "I've never been good at being vulnerable, but that's how you connect and I've now connected with so many people. Seeing these amazing women who I think really highly of, with the same injuries as me, makes me feel good."

Through this activity, she met Cynthia Barlow, then the chair of trustees at RoadPeace, a charity for road crash victims. Shortly after this, Lebrec left the corporate world to become RoadPeace's policy lead.

But while she was finding purpose in fighting for others, there was the matter of justice for herself.

The driver of the skip lorry pleaded guilty to careless driving (the charge of "causing serious injury by careless driving" only came into force last year). He received six points on his licence and a GBP750 fine, which many commentators considered insufficient. After the case, Lebrec told newspapers that she and the driver had had a "really long hug" and that she had forgiven him.

Victoria Lebrec filming a video for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, for whom she is a spokesperson[4]

"I don't feel comfortable sending people to prison when they've essentially made several seconds' worth of mistakes," says Lebrec. "When I tell people about the criminal process, they say it's not justice, but I found it positive, because the police were amazing, I went to court and he accepted blame.

That's closure."

But getting compensation from the insurer would not be so straightforward. In the UK, the size of the claim is based on your projected lifelong expenses as a result of the incident. "Legs cost GBP70,000. No one could reasonably afford this without compensation," Lebrec says.

But whose insurer pays out depends on which party is found to be at fault. This means if the crash was Lebrec's fault, she would not receive a penny, despite her life-altering injury.

"Obviously, it wasn't my fault, because the driver was found guilty, but the insurance companies will literally do anything to victim-blame," she says. "They were saying things like: I should have known better than to be next to the lorry; and why wasn't I wearing hi-vis at 9am on a Monday morning? Neither of these things are requirements, by the way."

The driver's company's insurer even hired its own medical expert to argue that she didn't need such an advanced prosthetic and that a cheaper, less sensitive leg would somehow be better.

"I had to try the rubbish leg for six weeks.

Because if I didn't then it couldn't be proven that my one was better for me," she says. Not to mention the various appointments Lebrec was sent to, each time having to tell her story "and be poked and prodded, only to see these reports that the insurance company doctors are writing that are plainly untrue".

At points - even for the calm, patient and optimistic Lebrec - this was too much. "I felt angry. These people, they're educated people.

They are, on purpose, making my life difficult, hoping that I'm going to give up, or that I'm going to break, or say the wrong thing that can be used against me." Lebrec recalls the feeling of being watched when she learned that some insurers set up surveillance on victims, to try to prove they are not being accurate.

"There was one time where there was a guy in a car just outside my window and I nearly went out to have a go at him. I was just convinced he was watching me. But he wasn't.

It gets to your head."

Eventually, with the support of her lawyer, Lebrec received the settlement to which she was entitled. She is now a spokesperson for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.

Victoria Lebrec, sitting on a chair at a table, resting her chin on her hand[5]

Lebrec says that working in road safety has been immensely rewarding, even if it brings up painful feelings. Since her crash, Lebrec has learned of two other cyclists who have lost limbs in crashes near where hers happened. "The longer you leave it to change things, someone is eventually going to get killed or have something horrible happen to them."

And while she resists thinking about tomorrow too much, she has plenty to think about in terms of today and looking after herself.

She still suffers with phantom pains that can be "really debilitating" and force her to stay at home. Happily, however, she is no longer self-conscious about her body.

"I struggled with feeling unwanted when I was dating," she says. "I think a lot of women do that thing where you look at why someone might not be into you. And my mind always goes to: 'It's because I've got half a leg missing.' But getting older - I'm in my 30s now, rather than my 20s - I have had time to accept myself more, to like myself more." She is in a relationship "with someone super-nice", she says, smiling. "I feel quite at peace with what's happened to me."

That peace has formed over the years, from a mix of feelings, each experienced one day at a time: gratitude that she can walk; learning to be vulnerable and share with others. "And I've found satisfaction from impacting, making sure things don't happen again or that there's improvements, instead of vengeance or self-pity."

It's not that she is defined by what happened, she says, "but it helps to be able to turn something that was really negative into something positive.

I don't think about these last years and say: 'What a total waste - I wish I wasn't disabled.' There's some really good things about these last few years."

When Lebrec was knocked off her bike, nearly 10 years ago, all she wanted was to pretend it never happened. Now, she is walking, working and has found a passion for swimming - she swam the Channel[6] in 2019 as part of a 12-person relay team to raise money for London's Air Ambulance.

Does she feel she is back to normal? "Sometimes when people say: 'You are back to normal,' it's like: well, no. I'm not back to normal, because I still struggle with loads of things on the day-to-day," she says. "But I feel I've got a nice life.

I'm happy with the life I've got."

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  1. ^ (www.theguardian.com)
  2. ^ BBC series called An Hour to Save Your Life (www.theguardian.com)
  3. ^ Andrew Gilligan (www.theguardian.com)
  4. ^ (www.theguardian.com)
  5. ^ (www.theguardian.com)
  6. ^ swam the Channel (www.theargus.co.uk)
  7. ^ Road safety (www.theguardian.com)
  8. ^ How we survive (www.theguardian.com)
  9. ^ Cycling (Life and style) (www.theguardian.com)
  10. ^ Health (www.theguardian.com)
  11. ^ Disability (www.theguardian.com)
  12. ^ Cycling (News) (www.theguardian.com)
  13. ^ London (www.theguardian.com)
  14. ^ features (www.theguardian.com)
  15. ^ Share (www.theguardian.com)
  16. ^ Reuse this content (syndication.theguardian.com)