/ Tara Russell
SARA Payne thought it was the moment she would be reunited with her murdered daughter.
The mum-of-five was fighting for her life after suffering a sudden stroke that left her in a coma and paralysed down the left side of her body.
But Sara survived and for that she thanks her eight-year-old ‘angel’ daughter Sarah who was abducted and murdered by a known paedophile 17 years ago.
On Wednesday the mum-of-five will be the guest speaker at a Bournemouth leisure centre where she will talk about her recovery and showcase the exercise equipment that helped her regain some movement and ‘pulled her out of a dark place.’
“I never thought I’d recover but something inside me fought back again," she said.
"I chose to live because I owe it to Sarah. I owe it to her to survive, to keep striving forwards because so many innocent children like my daughter are denied life’s precious moments.”
Sara first needed brain surgery after suffering a brain aneurysm or swollen blood vessel.
However 18 months later, the week before Christmas 2009, she fell ill again at home.
Her partner sent for an ambulance recognising her face and arm had drooped.
She underwent brain operations and was given just a 50-50 chance of survival.
“It was just awful but what else can you do? You can’t just lay there and die," she said.
Despite the odds, Sara pulled through but as well as the loss of movement, she also suffered other severe effects including speech difficulties and memory loss leaving her suddenly unable to do everyday tasks.
“I didn’t handle it very well to start with. I wasn’t very good at being a disabled person.
"I notice now how people treat me differently when they see I walk with a limp and a stick, rather than see the person.
"It took a while to sink in how close I was to not being here anymore. It’s scary that everything can be gone in a crack of a second.
"It's made me much more aware of my vulnerability.
"I wonder sometimes whether I caused my stroke. I was Gung-ho before. I was relentless. I kept going and going and going. I never just sat back. That was my way of fighting for Sarah."
Little Sarah was playing hide and seek with her brothers and sister among tall crops in a field near her grandparents' home in West Sussex when she was abducted by convicted paedophile Roy Whiting on 1 July 2000.
For 17 days Sara was numb as she waited for news of her missing daughter only for her world to be ripped apart when she heard her worst fears had become reality - that her body had been found in undergrowth.
“I try not to remember the way she died. I try to think of her smiling angelic face. Sometimes you do think ‘why me?’ but then who else would it be?
“Everyone’s pain is relative. Mine no more than anyone else’s. It did make me question the evil out there and how these people could walk the streets but I realise now there is far more good than bad.
“It’s amazing to join together and see how loud single voices can be heard together."
Determined Sarah did not die in vain, Sara, who became the country’s first Victims’ Champion — an independent voice for the victims of crime, found the strength to fight to protect the lives and innocence of other children by campaigning vigorously in her name.
It led to Sarah’s Law in the UK, which allows parents to check if someone with regular unsupervised access to their children has a criminal record for abuse.
Sara, who was awarded an MBE in 2008 for her child protection work, also founded the campaign organisation The Phoenix Post.
“I’m incredibly proud of what Sarah has achieved since she died.
“Sarah is still very much a part of me. She has been gone longer than she was alive which is hard.
“It’s like any kind of pain. It’s not as raw as it once was but it is still unbearable. There are times that it hits you in the face. You can’t speak and you can’t function.”
After Sarah was murdered, Sara also lost her brother, mother and father.
Testament to her strength though, the 47-year-old believes the stroke happened for a reason.
“One thing the stroke did was empty the plate. I couldn’t concentrate on anything than getting better. It made me take a deep breath and a big step back.
"It helped me learn that it's not about what you haven't been able to do but to focus on all the things you have. Sometimes that can mean getting through the day and feeling thankful to wake up tomorrow."
Sara owes her recovery to Shapemaster equipment which she says has enabled her to regain some movement in her arm.
“I need a lot of help but regaining some independence pulled me from a dark place. I'm in a good place right now and I feel happy. There is hope for the future. I hope to get my left side back one day. I believe if my brain can disconnect, it can reconnect. It’s just lost its journey and I’ve got to help it along its way.
“There is nothing I love more than spending time with my family. I love to cook, I love making pizzas, watching a film, just doing nothing but being cosied up all together on the sofa.
When you have lost a child though, something will always be missing.
“There will always be an empty place in my heart.”
*Sara is the guest speaker at a free event at BH Live Pelhams Park Leisure Centre on Wednesday, February 8 at 2pm and 6pm.
She will talk about her experience of her stroke and how she regained mobility with the help of power assisted Shapemaster exercise equipment.
Sara hopes to increase knowledge about the impact of strokes and to showcase the facilities available in the local area to help with rehabilitation.
For information call 01202 055501.