'When I woke up from a coma, I knew in my heart that Louis had passed away'
Parents share grief after their longed-for IVF baby was killed by a car as his mum pushed his pram home aged just five months
Chris Thorold is counting down the days until his wife comes home this summer
In January, Rachael was so catastrophically injured few thought she would wake
Son, Louis, five months, died instantly in the accident which left Rachael fighting
Driver they believe to be responsible has still not been charged over the crash
Rachael now has to face going home to a place without her baby
Chris Thorold is counting down the days until his wife comes home this summer.
The fact that the medical team responsible for her care have even pencilled in a possible date of the end of May feels nothing short of miraculous.
Back in January she was so catastrophically injured in a road accident, it made headlines. She fractured her skull 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 and drifted in and out of consciousness for the next 40. Few thought Rachael, 36, would ever wake up, let alone ever leave hospital
No wonder Chris, 35, can’t wait. But there will be no bunting, no party, no champagne corks popping when Rachael comes home.
Just hours before the accident on January 22, Rachael was photographed by a friend. In her arms, grinning gummily, is her five-month-old son, Louis.
Louis died instantly in the accident which left Rachael fighting for her life. She was pushing him in his pram along a footpath beside the A10 in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire when a car, driven by an elderly woman, was in a collision with a van. Careering off the road, the van crashed into Louis’s pushchair, throwing the sleeping baby from his pram.
Rachael will be walking into a home where everything is the same: the gallery of photos of a chubby-cheeked Louis, the tiny crib, the 5ft high stuffed giraffe in the nursery.
But nothing is. It’s a home whose heart has been ripped out.
‘I don’t know how Rachael’s going to feel. Neither of us do,’ says Chris. ‘It’s a miracle she’s coming home. Her determination has been phenomenal. But it’s not over. She’s now got to face a home without Louis.’
Chris is talking exclusively to the Daily Mail for the first time since the accident because he is determined to honour Louis’s very short life and express the devastation the accident has wreaked on the family.
The couple feel so passionately that Rachael joins our conversation briefly via Zoom from her hospital bed. She talks slowly but clearly and cogently, only breaking down once when she talks about her baby.
‘I’m doing everything to get better because I want to be the mum Louis loved,’ she says. ‘I owe it to him. I’ve never once thought of giving up.’
Adding to their suffering is the fact that the driver they believe to be responsible, who lives in the same village, has still not been charged over the crash.
From his conversations with police, Chris believes the woman driver is ill — whether with a pre-existing condition, or as a result of the accident, he’s not sure.
Nevertheless, he’s been told she’s been seen driving around the village, making the possibility of meeting her face-to-face an ever-present, terrible prospect.
And frightening … although she’s ‘only’ in her 70s, it is still unclear whether she was medically fit to drive on the day of the accident.
Plus, there’s been no apology. No note. No flowers.
Yet through it all, Chris’s pride in his wife radiates: only in March was she stable enough to start rehabilitation at a private London hospital.
The hours of intense exercise are paying off. ‘She is smashing every goal she is set. Something like learning to use a toothbrush again takes four weeks. It took Rachael ten minutes. At first she couldn’t even remember where she lived. Now she can operate Zoom.’
The couple are fired by a determination to try to make some good come from their little boy’s short life.
They 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.
The Thorolds, and many others, believe this is not enough.
‘We’re not vindictive but people should understand the devastation a driver can cause. Louis was my little mate and the apple of Rachael’s eye. We couldn’t believe we had this precious little gift. His death has to mean something.’
The couple met at Newcastle University in 2003 where Chris was reading Accounting and Finance, and Rachael, Town Planning.
While Rachael rose to her current role as planning policy manager for Elmbridge Borough Council, Surrey, Chris was jetting round the world as a chartered accountant with various blue chip companies.
Deciding the time was right to start a family, they married in August 2015. However, to the couple’s intense disappointment, Rachael failed to get pregnant. It was the start of a testing five-year struggle. In the end they decided to pay for IVF treatment at a private clinic in Cambridge.
They told themselves they would give it just three attempts, yet Rachael fell pregnant at the very first, in November 2019. Celebrating that Christmas, they were ecstatic.
Chris had started a new job as finance director of Marshall Aerospace And Defence Group, a privately owned defence company, in Cambridge. He was also studying for an MBA master’s degree at Cambridge University, so they decided to move to the area.
In February — when Rachael was three months pregnant — they swapped their cottage in Epsom, Surrey, for what seemed the perfect family home: a new build in the sleepy little village of Waterbeach, six miles outside Cambridge.
Rachael sailed through her pregnancy, spending every moment she wasn’t working excitedly preparing for the baby.
‘She was in her element,’ Chris says. ‘She’s always been practical and super organised. She loved getting everything ready, researching prams and car seats. I teased her because she bought the silliest things, too — like a 5ft tall stuffed giraffe. She couldn’t help herself.’
Louis was born at The Rosie Hospital, Cambridge on August 4 last year, weighing 8lb 3oz.
‘We were punchdrunk on happiness,’ says Chris. ‘Everyone tells you your life will change when you have a baby but until it happens you can’t imagine that level of love.’
‘I had longed to be a mum for so long,’ Rachael says, trying hard not to cry. ‘It had been a massive struggle. Louis was our little miracle and a lovely baby. He was just wonderful, smiley and happy. We had him for such a short time but he was everything to us.’
Their only sadness was that owing to Covid restrictions they couldn’t visit family members. It meant that some of the family, including Chris’s dad, never got to meet Louis.
They took endless photos and videos to send the family (6,000 in total) — something for which they are now inordinately grateful. In the very last video, filmed the night before he died, Louis is fresh from his bed-time bath, showing his new skill of rolling over. He’s wriggling and gurgling wickedly and rolling around as Chris tries to dry him.
Also due to Covid restrictions, Rachael had rarely ventured far from home. But the next day, 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, bright day that Rachael, a keep-fit fanatic, decided to walk home. It should have taken an hour.
It was 3.50pm and Rachael was just ten 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 had minor injuries.)
Mercifully, Rachael remembers nothing of the accident. The first Chris knew of it was when a policeman knocked at his door 30 minutes later. ‘I assumed he was a delivery driver,’ Chris says. ‘Then he showed me Rachael’s driver’s licence and explained there had been an accident. He couldn’t tell me any details.’
It was only when Chris arrived at Addenbrooke’s that staff broke the terrible news. Knowing he could do nothing for his wife — who was undergoing a range of brain scans — Chris went to say his last goodbyes to Louis.
‘I spent two hours holding him,’ recalls Chris. ‘He had a little smile on his face. There were a few tiny cuts and bruises but otherwise he looked so perfect. I had to ask the nurses to call me away. It was the only way I could leave him.
‘Rachael was in a coma. The doctors were frank. Her brain injury was so severe that her chances of making it were less than 50:50. I was prepared for Rachael to die. I told myself at least she would be with Louis.
‘I realised I had two choices — I could end it all. Or I could be there for Rachael. As long as she was still alive, she needed me. If it was hard for me, it was 100,000 times harder for her.’
That night Chris also made a vow to himself. He would ensure something good came out of the tragedy. Incredibly, within a week he had established a foundation in Louis’s name. The horror of the accident and the goodwill this hugely likeable man generates meant that, within hours of posting on his LinkedIn page, he had received 500,000 views. Meanwhile, in one week friends and neighbours raised £20,000, which will be used to support charities that helped Rachael and Louis — East Anglian Air Ambulance and Magpas Air Ambulance — and road safety charity Brake.
‘The foundation has been keeping me sane and focused,’ he says. ‘At first I was living hour by hour. Doctors were blunt. They didn’t expect Rachael to last 72 hours. Even if she survived, she might never wake from her coma.’
Rachael’s life hung in the balance for three weeks. Chris visited every day, carrying with him Louis’s favourite toy, a small stuffed elephant. It smelt of Louis.
‘I felt I was bringing Rachael a little bit of Louis,’ says Chris, who’s being supported by his father and stepmother, who rushed from their home in France in the wake of Louis’s death.
Rachael was still drifting in and out of consciousness when Chris held Louis’s funeral. It’s hard to imagine how lonely he must have felt. ‘Every day is tough but the funeral was the hardest,’ he says. ‘I had no idea what Rachael would want.’
Mourners lined the street as the cortege passed through Waterbeach on its way to the service in Cambridge. Chris put Louis’s little grey elephant in the coffin with him. ‘Louis loved that toy. I told him: “I need to borrow it for a bit, mate.” But it was his toy. He needed it more than me.’
But he has no answer for what to do with his baby’s ashes. ‘They would look so sad on the mantelpiece,’ he says. ‘So they’re in his bed, wrapped in the sleeping bag he wore at night.
‘Rachael thinks it’s macabre but for now it’s comforting to feel he is snug and warm.’
Rachael drifted in and out of consciousness for nearly eight weeks. All the while the dread of telling her about Louis hung over Chris.
‘I remembered being pregnant,’ she says. ‘And because there was no baby I realised I must have lost him. I knew in my heart he had passed away.’
Very gently Chris filled in the details. ‘I said: “Now you know how the story ends you can fill in all the happy bits beforehand. It can’t get any worse,’” he recalls.
Adds Rachael: ‘I’m determined to come home before summer although I know it will be hard. The whole house is fully absorbed in Louis.’
Chris is on leave from his job and spending every hour away from Rachael’s hospital bed working on the charity.
‘This is going to be our life’s work,’ he says. ‘There are 1,800 road deaths a year. Around 500 of them are pedestrians. And 18 of those are children.
‘We need to make the world a safer place for our children and that can start with improving our roads. We can’t bring Louis back but we can make his life count.’
For information go to www.louisthorold.com. For support, call the Samaritans on 116 123.