Locked-in survivor Leah defies the odds and graduates
A SURVIVOR of locked-in syndrome, who was told she would never walk, talk or breathe again unaided, walked onto a stage on Wednesday to receive her university degree.
Leah Batchelor (25), with her mother by her side, collected her degree in graphic design from Ulster University four years after a one-in-ten million brain stem stroke led to her developing the devastating condition.
The student from Dundonald became ill on the eve of her final exams and gave doctors' permission to turn off her life support in the event of suffering another seizure.
The only muscle she could move was her eyelids but was conscious of all that was going on around her.
Her recovery has astounded medics and despite being wheelchair bound, she told the Irish News earlier this month that she was determined to "walk across that stage" to collect her certificate after returning to complete her studies part-time.
During Wednesday's ceremony, hundreds of students and their families gathered at the main hall at the University's Jordanstown campus.
There was a pause after Leah's name was read out by Professor Ian Montgomery, followed by sustained applause which grew louder as the young graduand rose to make her way across the stage.
After being congratulated by Vice Chancellor Paddy Nixon, Leah was embraced by her mother, Allison, who touched her face reassuringly.
Her father, Tom and older brother Ryan, who is her main carer, were also there to witness the moving event.
Speaking after the graduation, Mrs Batchelor spoke of her "extreme pride" in Leah.
"This day should not have happened. When Leah became so ill and we didn’t think she would survive, we signed the papers for her organ donation," she said.
"Her recovery has been unbelievable but the fact that she also completed her studies and got her degree is just amazing.
"It got a bit emotional earlier as it is such an achievement. We are very proud of her."
Leah said she was "glad she got through it" and attributed her intensive rehabilitation in London last month to her increased mobility.
"The ceremony was very good, I enjoyed and I am glad I was able to do it - but I was hopeful after all the rehab."
The young Dundonald woman and her family travel to a specialist private London clinic once a year for a fortnight's rehabilitation treatment as no similar service is available in Northern Ireland. It costs the family £6,000 each time they attend.
Also joining Leah on stage was Michaela Hollywood from Crossgar, Co Down, who graduated with the seal of approval from British prime minister David Cameron.
Wheelchair user Michaela, who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy and deafness, received an MSc in Communication and Public Relations.
It is the latest achievement in what has been an incredible life.
Earlier this year Michaela was awarded a Point of Light Award from Mr Cameron, who invited her to London for a Christmas reception followed by the Downing Street Christmas lights switch on.
"Encouragement, inspiration, hope and support are all key parts of my time at Ulster University and the staff and fellow students have been phenomenal," she said.
"I've added up that over the four years I've been at Ulster University, I've had hospital treatment around 21 times.
"That has included chest infections, which left me requiring oxygen on top of my life support machine I use regularly, to an anaphylactic shock that almost killed me in my first year.
"I am starting work as Trailblazers Campaigns Officer in the new year.
"I hope to continue campaigning and fundraising and plan to return for a PhD at some point as I've thoroughly enjoyed academic life at Ulster University."