Four years ago an amazing woman contacted Featureworld to sell a story.
Her name was Dawn Faizey Webster and after suffering a devastating stroke, the mother of one was left paralysed with locked in syndrome. Yet incredibly she had managed to write a book – by blinking.
Dawn’s incredible story was placed over two pages of the Daily Mail newspaper. Following her national newspaper story, I also placed it for her over a double page in Bella magazine and then she went into The Sun newspaper.
And this week she has been hitting the headlines again – after gaining a 2:2 degree in Ancient History again by blinking. Her story has appeared in a number of newspapers and on television.
I am always delighted to see interviewees whose stories Featureworld originally nurtured go on and gain further press and publicity. It is wonderful to see that doing their first ever stories via Featureworld gave them confidence to do more! So I am thrilled to see how Dawn’s story has now appeared yet again as a second feature in the Daily Mail as it is such an incredibly inspirational story, not only because of Dawn’s inner strength but her amazing parents Shirley and Alec who’ve been so supportive.
Meanwhile it seemed apt to republish her original amazing first Daily Mail story again …
After giving birth, a stroke left Dawn paralysed – miraculously, she broke free from her prison – only for her husband to deliver the cruellest blow of all…
By Alison Smith-Squire
Evening, when she lies on the sofa with her young son placed carefully beside her, is Dawn Faizey Webster’s favourite time of day.
She can feel the warmth of six-year-old Alexander’s body and hear his laughter. She can smell his hair, sense his sleepiness. But she cannot take him in her arms, or cuddle him.
A fortnight after Alexander was born, Dawn suffered a devastating stroke that left her with a rare condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’.
She can see, think, hear and feel normally, but she is almost totally paralysed, and able to communicate only by blinking her eyes or using tiny head movements.
The story of how a tragic twist of fate transformed her from an overjoyed new mother to a woman trapped in her own body, desperate to bond with her tiny son, is heartbreaking. And for Dawn, it is now an agonising effort.
Dawn, a former private school teacher, gives voice to her thoughts via an adapted laptop that she controls with head movements. It is an arduous process that produces only 50 words an hour and leaves her exhausted.
But every word, every expression of love for her child and her battle to be a mother to him, is nothing short of a miracle.
And it helps Dawn blot out the memory of the terrible days when her family and her doctors believed she was in a coma and talked about her at her bedside as if she were no longer there.
As she says via her laptop, nodding steadily into the receptor: ‘This is my lifeline. Never did I imagine when I got pregnant with Alexander that my life would turn out like this.’
Until that point, her life had been everything she wanted it to be. She met her husband, Simon, when they were both aged 17 and studying for their A-levels.
After a beautiful white wedding in 1995, they bought a three-bedroom cottage in Rugeley, Staffordshire.
While Dawn taught IT at an independent grammar school, Simon worked as a post office manager. They enjoyed holidays abroad, a good social life and a shared love of long walks and the outdoors.
When Dawn discovered she was pregnant in the autumn of 2002, it seemed as if their happiness was complete.
Most of her pregnancy was plain sailing, but then, out of the blue, at 26 weeks, she woke up with a swollen ankle. By the time she got to see the midwife, her blood pressure had soared and she was rushed to Stafford Hospital.
There, she was diagnosed with the life-threatening pregnancy disease pre-eclampsia and six days later, on June 15, 2003, as her condition worsened, Alexander was delivered by Caesarean weighing only 1lb 8oz.
‘I could only glimpse him before he was whisked off to special care,’ she recalls. ‘The following day I saw him surrounded by tubes and wires in an incubator.’
Seven days later, she was sent home – without her son. Her blood pressure was still high, but doctors reassured her it would settle. But a week later, Dawn woke in the early hours of the morning.
‘I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. I felt dizzy and faint. I had pins and needles in my right side and when I went to speak my voice was horribly slurred.’
Rushed back to hospital, tests revealed she was having a stroke.
‘The last thing I remember properly is my mum, Shirley, saying “Squeeze my hand if you are able”, because by that stage I couldn’t speak.’
Over the following week, Dawn drifted in and out of consciousness but was unable to move or talk. Even her eye muscles were paralysed.
‘I was vaguely aware of a tracheostomy tube in my neck to help me breathe, and a tube to feed me being put into my nose,’ she recalls. ‘I could hear traffic going by. A nurse washed my hair.’
But then, as she emerged from her semi-conscious state, Dawn realised with horror that no one else in her hospital room was aware that she could hear them.
She listened, motionless, while they discussed her condition and doctors told her husband and family to prepare for the worst.
‘My mind screamed that my brain was fine. But as I couldn’t speak, no one could hear me shouting that inside my paralysed body my brain was still alive.
‘Simon, my parents and older brother Mark visited daily. They would talk to me, talk to one another and to the nurses. But all I could do was lie there hopelessly watching them, listening for snippets of news about how Alexander was.’
Believing that Dawn was in a coma, visiting family members held her hand and spoke to her, hoping that somehow their words might help her. They were utterly unaware that she was savouring every bit of information.
‘They told me about my son, that he was fine and growing stronger. It gave me the will to go on. But still, my heart sank whenever I thought of his tiny little body in that incubator without me to comfort him.’
And then came the terrifying day when nurses removed her wedding ring and gave it to Simon.
Not surprisingly, Dawn panicked, wondering if she was being prepared for something terrible. In fact she was transferred to a high-dependency unit.
They had taken off her ring as a precaution – in case it obstructed machinery or her fingers became swollen.
She remembers: ‘Nurses came and went. Some of them shouted “Hello Dawn!” as if I were totally stupid. People discussed my care in front of me, or chatted about the weather as they tidied my bed as if I weren’t even there.
‘For long hours I lay staring up at a blank ceiling, living for visiting hours when at least I could hear my family’s chatter. Inside I cried, but no tears came out. When people saw me they had no idea that I was as wide awake as ever.’
Doctors with concerned faces examined her, taking her hand and telling her: ‘Squeeze it if you can hear us.’
But, however hard she tried, Dawn could not make her fingers move. ‘They would go away, shaking their heads, muttering that regrettably there was no change.’
Then came the day, a month after her stroke, that Dawn heard the words she had been longing to hear. Sitting beside her bed, her brother Mark spoke to her father, Alec: ‘You know, I’m sure Dawn can hear us.’
To test out his theory, he turned to his sister and looked straight into her eyes. ‘Dawn, if you can hear me, blink your eyes.’
‘I blinked,’ she types. ‘Had I been able to cry, tears of joy would have been streaming out of my eyes.’
Jumping out of his seat, her father ran to get a doctor.
‘The doctors were amazed and from that moment my treatment changed. From that minute. The medical staff talked to me instead of over me.’
Over the next few days, Dawn’s family helped her communicate by pointing to letters in the alphabet and asking her to blink when they reached the right letter.
Then, her sister-in-law, Helen, made a letter board, separating the alphabet into four squares to help narrow down the possible letters and make the process faster.
‘The first question I asked Mark was: “Am I going to die?”‘ Her brother reassured her that she wasn’t.
‘But then in many ways,’ says Dawn, ‘I felt like dying. How could I live like this?’
But the thought of her son kept pulling her forwards, so determined was she to find a way to be a mother to him.
Poignantly, the neo-natal nurses kept a diary of Alexander’s daily activities so they could read it to her.
‘Dear Mummy,’ it would read, ‘I have been a good boy and drunk all my milk today.’
Other times, they would write: ‘Today I’ve been a little naughty because I wet one of the nurses.’
When her little boy was strong enough, he was brought to see her, despite the fact that he was still plugged into a machine which helped him breathe. A nurse lifted him up to show Dawn.
‘How envious I was of her holding my baby,’ she recalls. A couple of weeks later, as Alexander’s tubes were gradually removed, he was tucked up beside her in bed.
‘It was pleasure and a torturous pain as I felt him next to me, but I longed to stroke his face and tell him Mummy was here.’
To her agonising disappointment, however, despite hours of physiotherapy, when she was lifted out of bed and her feet were put into weighted boots to stop them from drooping sideways as a result of so much lying down, and her fingers were put into splints to prevent them from contracting into fists, Dawn’s physical condition showed no sign of improvement.
At five months, Alexander was well enough to go home with his father Simon. Dawn was delighted that her baby boy had grown so strong, but bereft that she was unable to care for him.
‘I willed my body to work. But when Simon visited and fed Alexander in front of me with a bottle, I would weep silently that I wasn’t able to do it.’
During one visit, a nurse propped Dawn up in bed, placed her son beside her and lifted her arm around his feeding bottle.
‘It was the first time in around six months that I had been able to do something for him, and it felt fantastic,’ recalls Dawn.
There were other small staging posts, such as the day she managed to turn her head just a fraction.
Her 31st birthday. Her eighth wedding anniversary. Then there was the arrival of her adapted laptop, which was fitted with an attachment enabling Dawn to communicate by blinking and moving her head slightly from side to side.
And yet, ironically, Dawn began to notice that the easier she found it to express herself, the less she and her husband had to say.
After six months, Dawn was transferred to a rehabilitation centre in Stoke. There, doctors diagnosed that Dawn had ‘locked-in’ syndrome, a one-in-a-million condition in which a patient is aware and awake, but unable to move or communicate due to a complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body.
It has been described as the closest thing to being buried alive.
At first, when Simon’s visits became less frequent she assumed it must be because he was overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a father.
But when Alexander was just 13 months old, Dawn’s mother broke the worst possible news: Simon had met someone else.
‘I don’t know how Simon met his new “partner”. All I know is she is a police woman, her name is Maria, she is aged 47 and has two adult sons.
‘I had always believed we married in sickness and in health. I was sure if it had been the other way round and this had happened to him, I would always have been there for him. It was a crushing blow,’ she admits.
‘Simon later wrote a letter to me saying he had cried about what we had lost together. He had found our cottage somehow haunted and changed without me. He saw us both as victims, alone and confused. But I felt betrayed.’
Despite this painful shock, Dawn clung on to the thought of her beloved life son – and felt a new-found determination to get well enough to be able to care for him.
Around 15 months after her stroke, her tracheostomy tubes were removed, enabling her to breathe on her own.
A nurse painted her nails red and her parents took her outside in a wheelchair for long walks, something which, she remembers now, filled her with joy: ‘Feeling fresh air on my face was marvellous,’ she recalls.
A year-and-a-half on, she was able to make home visits to her parents’ house in Rugeley.
Dawn in hospital with two-month-old Alexander: ‘I longed to stroke his face and tell him Mummy was here’, she said
Simon would drop Alex off and she would rejoice at being able to see her little boy rolling around on the carpet.
Finally, after two years in hospital, in June 2005, Dawn went home – not to the fairytale cottage where she lived with Simon after her marriage. That had been sold with her family’s somewhat reluctant permission.
Her new bedroom was the dining room on the ground floor of her parents’ home.
Others might have found the contrast with their old life unbearable, but this remarkable woman merely embraced her new life.
She has enrolled with the Open University and embarked on a degree in ancient history.
One of her greatest achievements is, she explains, that she has learned to swallow – she hopes one day she will no longer need to be tube fed.
And thanks to a special ‘standing’ wheelchair, which supports her chest and legs, she is able to be upright for short periods of time. That was how she was able to stand upright to watch Alexander as he took his first tentative steps around the garden.
She and Simon divorced in May 2005 and a bitter battle ensued for care of Alexander, who is now six.
Dawn says: ‘A few months after we divorced, Simon stopped bringing Alexander round to see me so often. I don’t know why.
‘But eventually, I went to court, where I fought a battle through writing letters to enable me to see more of him. Thankfully, I now share custody of Alexander and although he lives with Simon, he comes to stay with me at various weekends and in the week.
‘Simon now appears to want to be one big happy family. For example, he has suggested that I stand with them at Alexander’s school functions, but I have refused.
‘He thinks I should be grateful that Maria is bringing Alexander up. But I can’t forgive him for what I see as a huge betrayal.
‘I just look back on our marriage, which I thought was so wonderful, and can’t help thinking: “Was that a sham?” Did Simon ever really love me?
‘Even photos we had together I have long since ripped up because I was so upset.
‘However, now I don’t hate him. Any love I had evaporated a long time ago when he asked that Maria be given parental responsibility for Alexander – which I would not allow.
‘Instead, our relationship is cold. We only communicate if we have to about Alexander – otherwise we have nothing to say to one another.’
Sometimes it breaks her heart that her son has no memory of what she was like before the stroke. But the tenderness and concern he already shows for her is a joy in itself.
‘When he sees me being lifted on to my feet, he asks: “Mummy, are you OK?”
‘He explains to his schoolteachers that “Mummy talks in A, B, C” because of my laptop.
‘And as for discipline’, she says: ‘I only have to give him a certain look when he’s naughty to make him behave.’
In the end, it is the strength of her love for her son that drives her on. Her outlook on life is humbling indeed.
‘I’m sure many people would say they would rather die than live as I do. But in so many ways I consider myself lucky. I can still read a book, listen to a beautiful song, enjoy the sunshine on my skin and the scent of a flower.
‘Most of all, I am still alive to see Alexander grow up, to feel proud of him. And for that I will always feel eternally grateful.’
Buy Dawn Faizey Webster’s book Slowly Making Ripples here.
You can read Dawn’s latest interview by Frances Hardy in the Daily Mail here.
Do you have an extraordinary story to sell to the press? Contact me to sell your story using the form to the right of this page!