When Rachael Thorold moved into her new home with husband Chris two weeks ago, she barely gave a thought to where she was going to position the table and chairs, the sofa and TV.
All that mattered was finding a place for her baby son’s ashes. She simply couldn’t bear that he might be cold or lonely.
‘He’s my baby and I need to take care of him,’ says Rachael quietly. ‘His ashes are wrapped in his little infant sleeping bag. It’s on our bedside table so we can sleep next to him.
‘Rationally I know Louis has gone and isn’t coming back. But we just aren’t ready to say goodbye to him yet.’
You’d need a heart of stone not to understand. Baby Louis has been dead just seven months. He was killed instantly in a road accident on January 22 when a grey Mazda 2, driven by one of the Thorolds’ elderly neighbours, was in collision with a van.
Speaking from her new home in Fulham, West London, where she and Chris, 36, hope to escape the memories that hang heavy in their old home, she says: ‘Louis was just a baby. He never had the chance to lead a full life. I owe it to him to make sure something good comes out of his death’
Careering off the road, the van crashed into Louis’ pushchair. The sleeping Louis, just five months old, was thrown out of his pram and died instantly.
Rachael, 36, was also horrifically maimed in the accident in Waterbeach, Cambridge. She fractured her skull, sustained serious nerve damage and broke virtually every bone on the right side of her body including her cheek bone, several vertebrae, her pelvis, hip, arm and leg.
She was in a coma for ten days, drifted in and out of consciousness for the next 40, and only in March was stable enough to start rehabilitation at a private London hospital paid for by the car driver’s insurance company, which has admitted liability.
There she made such extraordinary progress that — in May — she was allowed home. Determined to regain every shred of her lost fitness and mobility, she now spends her days on an exhausting routine of therapies.
Remarkably, despite the severity of the accident, her sharp brain is undimmed. Her memory is excellent. She speaks clearly and eloquently and rarely struggles for words. But there are obvious signs of her trauma, from the tracheotomy scar at her throat to the hobble when she walks.
Although she refuses to seek sympathy, she is having to relearn everything from brushing her teeth to loading the dishwasher. Hardest of all, she is having to learn how to build a life without her baby.
Showing remarkable courage, she has decided to speak exclusively to the Mail about her journey. She’s doing so because she wants to honour Louis and to demonstrate the devastating impact the accident has had on her family.
Speaking from her new home in Fulham, West London, where she and Chris, 36, hope to escape the memories that hang heavy in their old home, she says: ‘Louis was just a baby. He never had the chance to lead a full life. I owe it to him to make sure something good comes out of his death.’
Careering off the road, the van crashed into Louis’ pushchair. The sleeping Louis, just five months old, was thrown out of his pram and died instantly
The couple have set up a charity in his name: the Louis Thorold Foundation. It aims to eradicate child pedestrian deaths by improving road safety and to compel drivers over the age of 70 to be retested regularly.
It’s a highly contentious issue: with people living longer, the number of elderly drivers on UK roads is at an all-time high. There are thought to be more than four million.
Yet under the current rules, drivers aged 70 and over have to renew their licence by post or online every three years, and inform the DVLA if they have a health condition that may affect their ability to drive.
It is understood that the elderly driver has not been fit to be interviewed by police and, to date, no charges have arisen from the accident and there is yet to be an inquest.
Rachael and Chris met at Newcastle University in 2003. Busy with their careers — Chris worked for various blue-chip companies and Rachael was planning policy manager for Elmbridge Borough Council — they started trying for a baby shortly before they got married in August 2015.
‘It was a huge shock when it didn’t happen,’ she says. ‘I worked out at the gym and ate healthy food. So did Chris. We expected a baby to come easily.’
After two years of trying naturally, they started on the long road to fertility treatment through the NHS.
‘There were endless tests,’ she says. ‘Finally we were told that there was no obvious cause. But we seemed no nearer to being accepted for IVF. It hurt so much, although now I know what real hurt is.’
In the midst of all this, Rachael’s father Steven, a nuclear engineer, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 58. It was particularly traumatic for Rachael as she had lost her mother, Morag, to breast cancer when she was barely five and her younger sister, Claire, was three.
Seizing the initiative, they decided to pay for IVF treatment at a private clinic in Cambridge. To their intense joy, Rachael fell pregnant at the very first attempt in November 2019.
Celebrating that Christmas, they were ecstatic. Chris had started a new job as finance director of Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge, so they decided to move to the area.
In February — when Rachael was six months pregnant — they swapped their cottage in Epsom, Surrey, for a five-bedroom new-build in the sleepy village of Waterbeach, six miles outside Cambridge.
Rachael sailed through her pregnancy, excitedly preparing for the baby who they knew from scans was going to be a boy.
‘I went a little bonkers,’ she laughs. ‘Chris and I come from ordinary families. We wanted Louis to have the best of everything.’
Perhaps because of losing her mother when she was so young, Rachael is a woman who likes to be in control so she booked in for an elective caesarean at Cambridge’s Rosie Hospital.
Louis was born on August 4, weighing 8lb 12oz. ‘He was so perfect I couldn’t believe he was really ours,’ says Rachael. ‘I lay awake all that first night just drinking in every tiny bit of him. I knew I would lay down my life for him.’
Back home the family settled into a routine. With Chris working from home because of Covid and Rachael on maternity leave, their lives revolved around Louis.
She looked so happy, sporting sunglasses as she cuddled a snugly wrapped-up Louis that her friend took a photo, their last of Louis. It was such a beautiful day that, after the coffee, Rachael was reluctant to get the train home
‘I was unbelievably proud and happy,’ she says. ‘With this wonderful baby, every day felt like Christmas.
‘The tiniest things thrilled us. When we took Louis for his first walk — with our little five-year-old terrier, Alfie — we came home and celebrated with champagne.
‘He was an incredibly chilled baby; the only baby to fall asleep in the middle of a swimming lesson. He slept easily, barely ever grizzled and just wanted to have fun.
‘We were so close that, his whole life, I think I was only away from him for a few hours once when I went to the hairdressers and then I missed him like crazy.’
They took endless photos and videos to send their families; something for which they are now inordinately grateful.
The very last video the night before he died, Louis is fresh from his night-time bath and proudly showing his new skill at rolling over. He’s wriggling and gurgling with glee as Chris tries to dry him.
‘He had the dirtiest laugh,’ Rachael smiles. ‘It was so cute.’
The accident wiped out Rachael’s short-term memory so her last recollection of Louis is from the previous weekend.
‘Chris and I went on a little drive into the countryside,’ says Rachael. ‘Louis was in the back of the car wearing these silly little elf booties we had bought him for Christmas. He was in his car seat, playing with his fingers and chirruping to himself.
‘We were all so happy. We thought we had a lifetime of days like this ahead.’
Because of Covid restrictions, Rachael had rarely ventured far from home. But on January 22, she took the train to Cambridge to meet a friend and her baby. She looked so happy, sporting sunglasses as she cuddled a snugly wrapped-up Louis that her friend took a photo, their last of Louis.
It was such a beautiful day that, after the coffee, Rachael was reluctant to get the train home. ‘Louis was peacefully asleep so rather than disturb him, I decided to walk the hour home. It was the worst decision of my life.’
It was 3.50pm and Rachael was just 10 minutes from home, walking along the pavement beside the A10 when the accident happened at what the couple have since learned is a notorious blackspot.
Two air ambulances were at the scene within eight minutes and Louis and Rachael were airlifted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital (the two drivers sustained minor injuries.)
Louis, asleep in his pram, had died instantly from a catastrophic brain injury. Severely brain injured and in a coma, Rachael’s condition was so serious, Chris was told she stood only a 50 per cent chance of surviving. She was still in a coma when Chris was forced to hold Louis’s funeral alone. It was three weeks after the accident before doctors dared hope that Rachael would pull through.
As she drifted in and out of consciousness, Rachael began to realise that Louis was dead.
‘I had post-traumatic amnesia,’ she says. ‘I thought it was 2011 and that my dad was still alive.
‘Then I remembered being pregnant but I couldn’t remember being a mum. When I saw a photo of Louis on Chris’ phone, I thought it was his nephew.
‘As all the pieces came together I remembered that I’d had a baby. He wasn’t with me or Chris so he must be dead. When I knew I’d never see Louis again, I howled. There was nothing Chris could say to comfort me.’
Bereaved and broken, it’s hard to imagine how Rachael found the resolve to go on.
‘I wanted to be the mummy that Louis knew,’ she says softly. ‘I wanted him to be proud of me. I was determined to get better.
‘I’m very close to my sister. I told her that I would only grieve at home in private. I really tried. But it doesn’t work like that. There were very dark moments.’
However, Rachael was so determined to grab something good from the tragedy that she pushed herself harder than ever before.
Two months after the accident and still in a wheelchair, Rachael was transferred to The Wellington, a private rehabilitation hospital in London’s St John’s Wood. There she began a gruelling programme of therapies, seven hours a day, six days a week.
The accident wiped out Rachael’s short-term memory so her last recollection of Louis is from the previous weekend. She is pictured with her husband Chris
‘At first I couldn’t even wipe my own bottom. Can you imagine how humiliating that is?’ she asks. ‘I was determined to get my independence back.
‘Too weak to stand, I had to start with exercises on my bed. In April, I graduated to a walking frame. Chris has a video of my first steps. I look proud but terribly wobbly.
My right side had such limited mobility, I had to relearn holding a knife and fork. Using a pen took days of practice.
‘As I had a tracheotomy to help me breathe and a broken jaw, I also needed speech and language therapy to learn how to talk clearly again.’
Rachael took pride in setting herself goals, then smashing them. When told it would take four weeks to learn to brush her teeth again, she took less than an hour.
Doctors anticipated Rachael would need six months of rehabilitaton. She stunned them by being ready to come home after just three. Although she was desperate to leave hospital, her homecoming on May 20 was difficult.
‘Everything was the same and nothing was,’ she says. ‘I loved seeing all his toys and photos out. When my mum died, Dad hid everything away. She was never mentioned. I’m determined that won’t happen to Louis.
‘Chris had kept Louis’s nursery untouched. But he had converted his playroom downstairs into a bedroom for me. I couldn’t bear it. I insisted on crawling upstairs.’
But although in many ways it was comforting to be in the only place Louis had known during his short life, Rachael rapidly came to hate all the other memories.
It was hard to avoid the spot where the accident happened. Most painful of all, the elderly car driver who the couple believe to be responsible lives in a neighbouring street. She has offered no words of sympathy or condolence.
From their conversations with police, Chris and Rachael believe she is ill, whether with a pre-existing condition, or as a result of the accident. But the possibility of meeting her face-to-face is still an ever-present, terrible prospect.
Although she’s ‘only’ in her 70s, it is still unclear whether she was medically fit to drive on the day of the accident.
‘Her lawyer says she is not fit to be interviewed by the police at the moment,’ says Rachael. ‘It’s horribly frustrating as it means we can’t even hold an inquest for Louis let alone try to get closure.’
And so three weeks ago, the couple moved into a rented house in Fulham. ‘We aren’t making any permanent decisions but it seems right for now,’ says Rachael. ‘I hope we can just enjoy the lovely memories of Louis, not the awful ones.’
But some things are unavoidable. On what would have been Louis’ first birthday, Chris and Rachael went to the beach where they found the sound of the sea calming. Although she is getting stronger and more agile by the day, everything takes at least twice as long and she tires easily.
‘I managed to unload the dishwasher by myself last week,’ she says proudly. ‘I was so chuffed I texted my sister. I can now walk 7km. My next goal is to run. But it doesn’t take away the anger.’
Although Rachael is determined to focus on the positive, there are some things she still can’t do. Chris has to shave her legs because she still has insufficient dexterity.
Rachael’s new normal is very different. But one thing remains constant. Although it won’t for a second assuage her loss, she is determined to have another baby.
‘My periods restarted in June and my gynaecologist says there is absolutely no reason why I can’t have a baby,’ she says. ‘If it doesn’t happen naturally, we will start IVF early next year.
‘Louis made me the happiest I have ever been. I look at videos of him and I wonder if I can ever be that happy again. I have to believe it’s possible. It’s the only way I can go on.’
You can donate to the Louis Thorold Foundation at louisthorold.com