HER chance of survival was one in a thousand, her life hung in the balance for months and she underwent more than 200 operations and procedures, but Catrin Pugh is still smiling.
Catrin, now 20, from Rossett, suffered 96 per cent burns in a coach crash in France last year.
Only the soles of her feet and a few patches on her scalp were unaffected by the flames, which ripped through the vehicle with her trapped inside.
After months of intensive surgery and care at Whiston Hospital on Merseyside, she can now smile, speak and is learning to walk again.
She is one of only a handful of adults in the world, and the oldest in the UK, to have survived such extreme trauma.
The former pupil of Darland High School, Rossett and Castell Alun High, Hope, spoke publicly about her ordeal for the first time yesterday.
“I don’t remember much of the crash,” she said. “I had taken a year out after being accepted to Manchester Metropolitan University and I was working in a hotel at the Alpe d’Huez ski resort in France.
“I was on my way home when the accident happened. I remember everything going up in flames and then it went blank and I remember being carried out and the paramedics arriving.
“Someone was translating what was going on for me, but then I went unconscious and I can’t remember anything after that.”
Catrin was put into a medically-induced coma for 90 days following the crash.
Initially she was treated at a hospital in Grenoble.
Her family, fearing the worst, flew out to see her.
Father Carl Pugh, 53, assistant head at Castell Alun in Hope, said: “Catrin was already in a coma by the time we arrived. At that point we thought she wouldn’t be with us much longer and I was wondering how the hell she would come home because of the state she was in.
“We were given the option of flying her to the UK for treatment here. Doctors warned us she might die during the flight, but she made it back for treatment.
“They were honest with us from the start. We knew how critical it was.”
During her three months in intensive care on life support, Catrin underwent extensive skin grafts, including receiving skin from her mother Sara, a teacher at St Peter’s Primary School in Rossett, and brother Rob, 23, cadaveric skin from the Liverpool skin bank and a ‘spray’ of cells cultured from her own skin.
Ian James, consultant plastic and burns surgeon, was there when Catrin said her first words after the accident.
He said: “We brought Catrin round slowly. It took a long time to wean her off the various medications and at one point we became aware that she was trying to say something.
“The room went silent, and I heard her say ‘welcome to the Big Brother house’. The first thing she did on waking up was make a joke!”
Mr Pugh added: “It was an incredible feeling when she woke for the first time.
“They told us about then that she had a 30-40 per cent chance of surviving and that was when we knew for sure that chance was real.
“Since then, her recovery has been in record time.”
Staff at the hospital say that Catrin’s progress was twice as fast as expected, with Mr James adding it was extremely unusual for anyone over the age of 12 to survive such an ordeal.
Mr Pugh said: “She’s very positive. I couldn’t get over how positive she is. She’s had bad times and tears, but she wants to get better. I’m incredibly proud of her. There’s no word to describe it [her determination], but it’s there.
“And that’s down to the staff. They gave her hope and she listened to them.”
Her strictly-structured day revolved around physiotherapy, baths and changing the dressings, a process that sometimes took hours.
Catrin said: “It has been really hard. I woke up not knowing where I was, and I had to have my parents tell me what had happened and the extent of my injuries.
“I’ve been in a lot of pain. I thought I’d never get better, I’d never be normal again, but now I know I’ll get there.”
Catrin said her spirits were buoyed up by constant support from her family, friends and visitors like model and TV personality Katie Piper – who set up her own foundation after being scarred during an acid attack – and another burns victim who suffered 80 per cent coverage but now lives independently.
Catrin said: “I know my mum and my brother donated skin grafts to me. It means a lot. It proves just how much they love me.”
She also praised medical staff for their dedicated 24-hour care.
She said: “All of the people at Whiston Hospital, I can’t thank them enough. I’ve made friends with them all now.
“I’d never heard of the hospital before the accident. I never knew they existed, but I’m glad they did.
“Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d travelled home from France on a different day or a different coach, but I try to block it out of my mind because it upsets me. I’d say to make sure you remember there’s an up side to everything.
There is always a silver lining, always something good to come out of a situation.”
Catrin is now home with her mother, father and sister Mari, 17, although she attends the hospital on a weekly basis for physiotherapy.
Her treatment cost in the region of £1 million, covering the cost of skin grafts to the face, body and eyelids, hydrotherapy and treatment rooms and even heating panels which helped regulate the temperature of her vulnerable body.
Catrin cannot use a knife and fork because the deep burns severely damaged her fingers and she also wears pressure garments to protect the skin grafts, but she is still smiling behind the mask.
Mrs Pugh said: “We couldn’t imagine last year that she’d be in the situation where she can sit here and talk about it. She was so badly burned. I know she was in very dangerous situation, but we never doubted there was hope.”
Catrin is looking to attend university in the near future. The former member of Delta Academy of Performing Arts in Wrexham, which has also supported her through the trauma and treatments, has also not ruled out a return to her passions of singing and drama.
“My family, my friends, the staff at Whiston – it’s a mixture of all of those things that helped me pull through,” she said.
See full story in the Leader