'Phoebe needs care 24 hours a day but she's a fighter, a survivor - and her 21st birthday this weekend is a milestone we thought we might never see'
Historian and book editor Jane Crosbie has just published a new book on famous people of Co Down, but she is better known for being the mother of Phoebe Lyle, who was severely injured in a hit-and-run accident 18 years ago. Jane (55), from Bangor, who with her husband Robert Lyle also has a son, Patrick, talks to Leona O'Neill
Author, editor and historian Jane Crosbie will this weekend celebrate her daughter's 21st birthday, a milestone that, several times over, it looked likely she might never see.
For when three-year-old Phoebe Lyle was knocked down on a road in Spain almost 18 years ago, her parents were told she had just a five per cent chance of survival. Phoebe had been paralysed from the neck down - she is on a ventilator and needs 24-hour care at home.
Over the years infections have almost taken Phoebe's life. But, much like her mother, she is a fighter.
"We were on holiday in Spain for Easter," Jane reflects. "On April 9, 2001, our lives changed forever when Phoebe was knocked down on the road. Her skull was shattered and she was left paralysed from the neck down and on a ventilator. She requires 24/7 care at home.
"I still remember the aftermath of it all. It was a hit-and-run, but no-one was ever convicted. The way I looked at it was that the man didn't get into the car that day with the intention of running down a child. It was an accident. It wasn't a deliberate act.
"So, therefore, I felt that I had nothing to forgive. He didn't do it to me, he did it to Phoebe and it's up to her to forgive. But I brought Phoebe up with a mind that she should forgive him and she has said to me that she does. Yes, he didn't come back, but that in itself is pretty understandable. He had just run over a child and he probably panicked.
"We don't actually think about it much. There could be days or months when we don't think about him at all. Because he does not factor in our lives. Dwelling on him would give him too much significance in our lives. As far as I'm concerned he is completely insignificant."
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Jane says she was determined that her daughter would have as normal a life as possible.
"I have a strong faith and that carried me through that period of my life," she says. "My determination was that yes, she was disabled, but I didn't want to add to her disability, so I pushed to get her into a mainstream school, who were amazing, so that she could get the best chance academically that she could get. She has her GCSEs and A-levels and is now in third level education.
"Phoebe is currently in her second year at Belfast Met doing broadcast journalism. She had a front page in the Belfast Telegraph in May of last year, which was a very proud day. She has never let her disability hold her back. But then both of her parents are very stubborn - perhaps that is the kindest way of saying it - and I think she takes after us."
Jane (55), who is also mother to Patrick (22), says that her "rock" throughout the whole ordeal was her husband of 26 years, Robert, who as a partner in Lyle Bailie International helped create the hard-hitting, brutal and controversial road safety adverts seen on our television screens.
"Robert actually grew up around the corner from me," she says. "We knew who each other was, but we never really spoke to each other. Then we met when we were at Queen's University. We met having coffee in the Great Hall. It was not love at first sight. In fact, we had a major argument about something. I went home giving off about him.
"But we kept bumping into each other and he eventually wore me down.
"We have had an interesting life together. We definitely couldn't have done it without having a united front. If anything, I feel it has brought us closer together because we have gone through what happened. I know that, in some cases, something like this can break a couple. But Robert has been rock solid the whole way through."
Jane says that the stark advertisements made by Lyle Bailie were greeted with shock by doctors looking after Phoebe in Spain.
"We were conscious of the irony of Robert's company making these adverts about road safety," she remarks. "Just before Phoebe had her accident, they had put out the advert where the car came through the hedge towards the two children.
"When we were in the hospital in Spain every major newspaper in the UK and Ireland was calling, asking for updates on Phoebe. The doctors were asking who we were and Robert showed them the advert that they had made. They just sat with their mouths hanging open, because they said that adverts like that didn't appear on Spanish television. They were very hard hitting and some of them could only be shown after 9pm. But they portrayed reality and they were very, very effective in reducing road deaths.
"They made many more adverts after Phoebe's accident. Yes, they talked about road deaths, but the people who survived the crash were rarely talked about. And we had personal experience of how that can change your entire family's life. So if you look at some of the adverts that were made after the accident, they concentrate on the impact. They show people learning to walk again. There's even one which actually features a little girl on a ventilator. And it was to try and get across that it would be awful to live with the guilt of having killed someone and also having to live with causing catastrophic injury to someone as well."
Jane cares for Phoebe at home 24 hours a day. An avid historian with a burning passion for publishing, she set about creating a project close to her heart that she could manage while caring for her daughter. Writing her new book, Famous Folk from County Down, which looks at characters who made an impact on society, served as a therapeutic distraction for her.
"I was determined that the people in my book would not be the usual parade of the great and good of society," she says. "So, other than Lord Castlereagh, the people featured came from the lower gentry, professional classes, rural 'middling folk' and, in the cases of Patrick Prunty and George Best, the rural and urban poor.
"These were men and women who, through force of personality, made a huge difference, not just to their own society, but also shaped the world we live in today.
"Men like Frank Pantridge, the inventor of the portable defibrillator, which has saved millions of lives throughout the world, or Harry Ferguson, who not only revolutionised agricultural engineering but was also the first man to build and fly an aeroplane in Ireland.
"My book also features women like Margaret Byers, founder of Victoria College, Belfast, who revolutionised women's education in Ireland and Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell, who was the first woman medical graduate from Queen's and a leading suffragette, imprisoned in London for breaking a window.
"I loved putting the book together. For the past 17 years I have been taking on just a couple of editing jobs a year, or helping other authors to get a publisher, or preparing their manuscripts for submission to publishers. It has helped me to remember who I am, and to withstand the stresses of dealing with our rather peculiar family situation, where we have carers in our home 24/7 and I am on call 24/7."
This weekend the family will celebrate a very special occasion, Phoebe's birthday. It will also be a time of reflection for Jane.
"Phoebe is 21 on Tuesday," she says. "But we are celebrating today. To be honest, we didn't think she would see 21, so it is just marvellous.
"After the accident she had an operation to stabilise her neck and we were given only a five per cent chance of success. But the way I looked at it, five per cent was better than none. And we were very fortunate that there were excellent surgeons in Spain.
"There have been other times over the course of her life that she has contracted some really bad infections that the doctors didn't think she would survive, but each time she has come through it. She is a fighter.
"My mother fought liver cancer for nine years before she died. My father had complete heart and organ failure for 18 months and was out partying all the time. We have always laughed and said that in order to kill off a member of our family you need a silver bullet - and a stake through the heart, just to make sure. So Phoebe comes from a long line of survivors."
Famous Folk from County Down, by Jane Crosbie, published by Laurel Cottage Ltd, £12, is in local shops and major Tesco stores now