‘I was pregnant when my partner became disabled and told me to leave him… so I did’
Five years ago, Hannah Cole and her partner Rich Everett’s lives changed forever. After 40 year old Rich was involved in a motorbike accident, the pair were left dealing with hospital stays and operation all while Hannah navigated pregnancy. Here, 44 year old Hannah shares her story…
« Not long after the accident in April 2017, which left him paralysed, my partner Rich told me to leave him, insisting I would be better off without him. His own sense of identity was in such turmoil. He saw himself only as a burden – someone who would drag me down and hold me back.
At the time, I refused point-blank. I told him his disability didn’t change my feelings for him – he was still my Rich – and I told myself I would never be one of those people who walked away from a disabled partner.
And yet, two years later, that was exactly what happened. At the time, I felt every emotion imaginable, from sadness and frustration to a longing for how things had once been between us.
It’s almost taboo to split from a disabled partner and yet the brutal reality is that life after paralysis is incredibly hard – on both parties.
The last time I saw Rich walk was the morning of 21 April 2017. He’d woken up, got ready for work and kissed me goodbye before leaving on his motorbike. Neither of us had any idea that within hours our lives would be changed forever.
The next time I saw him he was lying in a hospital bed in A&E, his head and neck in a brace. He looked at me with a terror in his eyes that I’d never seen before and said, “I can’t feel my legs, Hannah.”
Rich and I met in 2012 when a mutual friend introduced us. He was funny, caring and passionate about fitness like me, and we moved in together later that year. His son Kaiden, now 14, spent a lot of time with us.
Finding out I was pregnant in January 2017 after a miscarriage the previous year, it felt like I had everything I wanted. Our future together seemed mapped out. But everything changed that April morning when Rich’s motorbike was in collision with a van and he was airlifted to St George’s Hospital in south London.
The police phoned and explained Rich had been in an accident. The officer said he had broken bones and, although I was scared, it never crossed my mind Rich’s injuries would be life-changing.
At the hospital, as I held his hand tightly, we took in the news that in addition to all his ribs and his sternum being broken, a punctured lung and bruising to his brain, Rich had a serious spinal cord injury. The chances of him walking again were no more than 20% and my head spun trying to absorb this shattering information.
Rich spent more than five months away from home – first in hospital, where he had an operation to attempt to repair the damage to his spine, and then in a rehab unit. As time passed, it became obvious his paralysis, from the chest down, was permanent.
As the realisation sank in that he’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Rich spiralled downwards emotionally. He was devastated and scared and it was agony hearing him say he’d rather be dead and that I should leave and forget about him. Of course, I was scared about what life would be like, how we’d adapt, how we’d cope financially and how on earth we were going to juggle having a baby with his new needs, but leaving him was never an option.
Under no obligation
It was never about “doing the right thing” or feeling sorry for him – that’s not why I stayed. I loved him and whether or not he could walk didn’t alter that fact.
With Rich I tried to be strong and upbeat, but in private I had some very low moments. Going through my pregnancy without him was incredibly lonely, despite the support of family and friends.
I FaceTimed him from my 20-week scan so we could hear together we were having a baby girl, but it was bittersweet because he should have been there with me. And I missed him so much as I was getting the nursery ready, buying babygrows and hearing our daughter’s heartbeat at my midwife appointments.
There were times he found it too hard to hear those details when I visited him several times a week and he would shut down emotionally. It only reminded him of his absence during what should have been the happiest time of our lives.
In early September 2017, Rich was discharged. Seeing him in our home in his wheelchair made it real that our old life was gone and we had to figure out a new way to “be” now.
A few weeks later Kára was born and Rich was by my side. Watching him hold her in his wheelchair I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that he was there and renewed my determination that we would cope with whatever lay ahead of us. And for the next two years we did cope, but that was all we did.
Practically, we adjusted to Rich’s disability, he learnt to look after Kára and Kaiden from his chair, I became the breadwinner with my job as a personal trainer and we survived. But the sheer effort of doing that put a distance between us.
It didn’t help that our home, which was rented, was woefully inadequate. Basic adaptations had been done by the local authority, but Rich had to live downstairs and be bed-bathed as there was no accessible bathroom. It was demoralising for him and not even being able to share a bed only compounded that sense of living separate lives.
We did move to a rented bungalow in late 2018, but things between us didn’t improve. We were more like housemates and we were both struggling with our new identities – him as a disabled person and me as both his partner and carer.
In October 2019, we split up. Home had become like a pressure cooker and, after a series of explosive rows, I moved back in with my parents and Kára spent time with both of us.
Neither of us were in a good place. I know now we made the right decision having time apart, but at the time I worried people would see me as cold and unsupportive, even though it was a mutual decision to separate.
We remained separated for a year but because of the kids we had to remain in contact and that would prove to be a good thing, as it kept us communicating. Over time I realised I missed Rich, I missed us being a proper family and I missed our life together – even if it was far from perfect. And he felt the same way.
In late 2020, we got back together. We both realised the time apart had been what we needed, but now we needed to be together. I’d never stopped loving Rich and the day I moved back in, it felt right.
Five years on from Rich’s accident, he’s recently been able to buy us a family home with his compensation money, which is currently being adapted, and we can’t wait to move in. It will give him more independence and feels like a new chapter for us all.
The greatest lesson I’ve learnt since Rich’s accident is that living with disability as a couple has to be about more than just “coping”. He deserves more than that – and so do I.
I feel thankful we made it back from that darkest time when we separated and that we reunited to be a family once again. »