People often ask me where I get the inspiration from for my novels. And Then It Happened was inspired by the incredible love and devotion of an extraordinary woman I interviewed while working as a journalist.
I first met Jean Dennis in 1997, while working as a feature writer on the Coventry Evening Telegraph.
Jean’s husband John, aged forty, had suffered a heart attack during the ambulance dispute of 1989 and was starved of oxygen when a wrong turning was taken and he didn’t receive adequate care during the journey in an army Land Rover to hospital.
He went into a coma and remained in a vegetative state. A year later, hospital staff said there was nothing more they could do for John and recommended Jean put him in a nursing home.
Jean was having none of it. Having pledged to care for each other ‘in sickness and in health’, Jean decided that the right thing to do was to take him home and look after him herself.
When I met them both, John had been in a persistent vegetative state for seven years, the past six of them being cared for at home by Jean.
Witnessing the tenderness, love and utter devotion with which Jean cared for John was incredibly moving. And yet she was adamant that any woman would have done the same in her situation.
John’s special bed was in the living room of their home. Jean would talk to him, wash and shave him and even put aftershave on him, as he’d always liked to be well-groomed.
Although he couldn’t move or respond verbally to Jean, she was convinced he was aware of her presence and that he was at home. Watching them together, I was convinced she was right.
Sadly, John never recovered and died in 2006, almost 17 years after slipping into the coma.
Jean and John’s story had a lasting impact on me. The idea of trying to capture the range of human emotions involved took hold in my head.
I wanted to write about the sort of selfless love, Jean had demonstrated. A love far deeper than the romantic love most commercial women’s fiction dealt with at the time
I created a young couple, Mel and Adam, who had been childhood sweethearts and had a little girl, Maya, who was about to start school. I wanted to examine the impact Adam’s accident would have on the whole family and particularly focus on how Mel would cope with what happened.
I embarked on a lengthy period of research into coma, persistent vegetative state and minimally conscious state. For someone who flunked her biology O level, I ended up knowing a surprising amount about the human brain!
To find out more about the impact of traumatic brain injuries on patients and their families, I interviewed Andrew James, a Consultant in Neuropsychology and Rehabilitation at Daniel Yorath House in Leeds, which is run by Headway, a charity set up to give help and support to people affected by brain injury.
Traumatic brain injury has a devastating effect on people’s lives. Each year in the UK, almost 12,000 people will suffer a head injury so severe that they will remain unconscious for six hours or more. After five years, only fifteen percent of these people will have returned to work.
One of the things which became really important to me was to create an honest and realistic portrayal of brain injury. Too often Hollywood films have given the impression that someone emerging from a coma can just jump out of bed and resume their life as if nothing has happened. The reality is very different to that.
My task was then to apply my research to the characters and develop the plot for the novel. And Then It Happened is entirely a work of fiction. The couple in the book, Mel and Adam, have to deal with a different situation in different circumstances to Jean and John. But, while allowing myself a bit of artistic licence, I wanted to ensure that the characters’ experiences were as accurate as possible and would resonate with those who had experienced traumatic brain injury.
One of the best things for me as an author, has been to receive positive feedback both from Jean, Headway and other individuals who have dealt with traumatic brain injury. To know that my novel has been recommended to the partners of those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, as a novel which gives an insight into what life may be like for them, gives me a huge sense of satisfaction.
Since And Then It Happened was first published eight years ago, the success of books like Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, has demonstrated that readers want to read moving stories which reflect real life and they don’t require a Hollywood-style ‘happy-ever-after’ ending. I think that’s an incredibly positive thing and it’s been great to see more novels dealing with difficult issues being published.
I was honoured to be able to dedicate And Then It Happened to Jean and John and I hope the book continues to shine a light into the difficult lives faced by some people and the incredible resilience and love demonstrated by extraordinary women like Jean.
A huge thank you to Linda Green for this moving piece.
And Then It Happened is out now and just 99p in eBook: