Fran Townend - from fighting for survival to gold in polo
When Fran Towsend was hit by a car transporter in 2013 she broke almost every bone in her body. At first she wasn't expected to live, then she wasn't expected to walk. Now she's a GB athlete.
Hurtling along at 30mph, Fran Townend deftly tweaks the tension of the reins and her pony wheels to the left as the polo mallets arc through the air with menace. Bumped, buffeted and driven off course, she still manages to break free from the thrashing crowd to charge upfield in pursuit of the ball that is careering over the manicured grass.
At full throttle, the pony glides across the turf to elude rivals and, with three well-executed hits, the ball bounces through the coloured posts to register a crucial goal for Fran’s team. It is another skilled piece of play in the energy-sapping summer heat from one of Britain’s premier women polo players.
A sunny polo field in the heart of Sussex is a world away from the gloomy night when Fran, on the day of putting her application in to become an Army doctor, almost lost her life in a devastating road accident.
Stopping to put her medic’s training into practice to help an injured motorist, she was hit by a truck whose driver failed to see her and her stricken patient. Fran, then just Fran can’t feel anything on the outside of her right leg or below the knee. She also has weakness around her pelvis and in her left leg weeks from sitting her final exams at the end of her medical degree, broke all her ribs, punctured both lungs, ruptured her aorta, right kidney and liver, broke her back in two places, her pelvis in three places, and suffered a severe head injury.
Fran’s injuries were catastrophic; she was airlifted to hospital and her family were told to prepare for the worst. The doctors, who had to drill a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure, also considered amputating both legs below the knee.
“It was a miracle I was alive,” says Fran. “I was told I would never walk again but I wasn’t prepared to accept that.” Eighteen months of rehabilitation at Headley Court were followed by a long road back to fitness.
This year, despite still suffering physical limitations from her injuries, she earned a place on the England women’s polo team that won silver at the European Championships and bronze at the inaugural World Championships in Argentina.
Fran, who was funded by Blesma to pursue her dream of representing her country, credits her Army upbringing, family support and the assistance of military charities for her remarkable comeback.
“I am incredibly grateful to Blesma for believing in me and funding me for the World Championships. The Association believed it was a worthwhile investment and I hope my achievements will help others believe that they can follow their dreams and be independent,” she says.
FRAN TOWSNED POLO STAR
Fran was brought up in an Army family and lived in 16 houses in 16 years as her father rotated through postings with the Royal Artillery. She followed him into service after completing officer training at university before passing out from RMA Sandhurst and joining the Regular Army.
“It was the natural thing for me to do. It is a great career that is demanding and varied, she says. “The value the Army places in pushing you out of your comfort zone and into something that is not without risk was really appealing to me.”
That ethos came under incredible stress when, as a final year medical student, she was driving home from an Army Reserves Centre following a training evening.
“I was overtaken by a van, and as it drove off into the distance I saw dust illuminated by its tail lights,” says Fran. “I realised it had crashed so pulled onto the hard shoulder. I checked I was off the main carriageway, put my car in a fend-off position, grabbed my high-vis and ran to help.
“I almost stepped on the body of a young man. He was conscious and told me that he had been thrown through the windscreen. I began checking his airway, breathing and circulation, dialled 999, and was kneeling to take his pulse when I heard a loud crash.
I thought someone had hit my car, and as I looked over my shoulder I saw a lorry’s headlights coming down the hard shoulder towards me. My immediate thought was that I didn’t have time to move the man I was treating. I knew we were going to be hit.
“I don’t remember the impact; which is fortunate because it means I don’t have to relive that moment. I do remember lying on my back, trapped underneath something, with the guy who I’d been helping lying on his front with his arm over my chest.
“I was incredibly short of breath, really struggling for air, and remember asking a police officer if they could move the guy’s arm because I thought that was restricting my chest. What had actually happened was that I had punctured my lungs and they were filling up with the blood that I was losing from my ruptured aorta.”
TOUCH AND GO
Emergency crews had to work for hours to get Fran and the van driver clear from the wreckage of the transporter that had hit them. She was then airlifted to hospital.
“I remember the smell of diesel and the flashing lights, then a doctor told me we had landed at hospital,” says Fran. “Just as we got there, my vital signs crashed and my blood pressure dropped like a stone. The major trauma team had to replace my circulating blood volume four times before they stabilised me.
“A police officer turned up at my mum’s house in the middle of the night to tell her I had been involved in an accident and that they weren’t sure if I was going to survive. It upsets me imagining being a parent and having to go through that. Every time the police radio crackled, my mum would turn to my sister wondering if they were too late.
It was devastating emotionally for them. That really gets me – how dare someone put my family through that!”
Fran stayed in hospital for five months. Her life was put on hold after the accident as she couldn’t complete her university degree’s final exams and her application to become an Army doctor stayed in a file on her adjutant’s desk. She was initially offered six weeks of physiotherapy on the NHS, but was then allocated a place at Headley Court, where she learned of Blesma.
“They gave me time and help to achieve things. I went from standing for 30 seconds with minimal assistance, to walking five metres using the parallel bars. If I kept improving, they were happy to keep seeing me.
“There were small landmarks like being able to wiggle my toes and lift my foot. Pretty much a year to the day I was injured I went from using a wheelchair to crutches. That was followed by losing one crutch, then swapping that for walking sticks. That took a long time, and I still need a stick today.”
FROM SKIING TO POLO
Fran, a keen sportswoman and horse rider before the accident, got a huge confidence boost from a Blesma skiing trip during her rehabilitation, having also tried wheelchair basketball, rugby, and tennis. She then joined a polo recovery programme led by Blesma Member Elaine Corner, a 25-year Army veteran who took up polo after losing her left leg below the knee after a motorbike accident in 2011.
“I loved it and it was great to be back on a horse again,” she says. “I joined the Combined Services Polo Club at Tidworth and just got stronger and better. My target was to play in an non-disabled team, but it was hard because some of my injuries haven’t healed.
“I can’t feel anything on the outside of my right leg or below the knee. One muscle works below the knee, so I can just about raise my foot. I’ve got weaknesses around my pelvis and in my hamstrings and adductor muscles, and I have a lot of nerve damage – I can’t run or jump, for example.”
Fran uses a supportive ‘stock’ saddle and adapted stirrups to give her more stability and proprioception (your body’s ability to sense movement and action) when playing.
“When we turned up to the European Championships with me on crutches, people were saying; ‘What are England thinking?’ But we won the silver medal there and qualified for the first-ever ladies’ World Championships where we came home with the bronze medal,” says Fran. “It makes me very emotional when I think about what I have been able to achieve with the help of so many people.”
HEADLEY, HELP AND HOPE
The physical scars from Fran’s accident remain, but she is now philosophical about the night when her life changed forever. The van driver suffered similarly devastating injuries, although the lorry driver was only fined £750 and given points on his licence.
“Being able to play polo and compete after what happened to me has given me confidence in myself and what I can do,” says Fran, who has gone on to pass her medical exams and is working in an NHS hospital where her responsibilities include A&E shifts.
“I hope what I’ve achieved with Blesma’s help will inspire others to believe in themselves.