If I Can Only Breathe

She was making her way across Laos, when a jury-rigged bus slammed into her. A survivor's tale—and some hard-won advice.

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

SOMEONE TOOK MY hand. I don't know how much time had elapsed; it could have been minutes, or hours. With an English accent, he introduced himself as Alan. A British national, he lived in Kasi, where he and his Laotian wife, Van, had started their own local relief organization. Among other things, he detonated mines and bombs left behind from the Vietnam War. More important, he and his wife had a truck. He told me he would drive to Vientiane, the capital, 150 miles south, and there get me an ambulance. Later he would tell me that as he held my hand and looked into my eyes, I mouthed, "There isn't time." He knew I was right. It was now 10 P.M., and I'd been lying there for almost eight hours.

Alan warned me that he had been drinking all day because of the New Year. I laughed weakly. Did I have anything to lose? Only six weeks earlier I'd had my palm read in Nepal. The fortune-teller had predicted that I would be in a terrible car accident. "That's an awful thing to tell me," I'd said, snapping my hand back. It felt strange to be living out the premonition. Now I remembered that she'd also said I would be all right.

Alan kicked everyone into gear and they loaded me into the back of his SUV. He did his best to avoid the potholes. Bouncing on corrugated metal in unbearable pain (there was no carpet), and resting my head on the wheel hub, I meditated on my breath the whole way. Roel and Meia came along in the truck. From the front seat, Roel occasionally called out my name so I wouldn't slip into unconsciousness. "Bless your heart," Alan told me later. "We put you back there and you didn't say a word for five hours."

I focused on the stars. How beautiful they seemed. The feeling that I wasn't alone, that I was being watched over, stayed with me. Another miracle: Alan was the only person in the area who had a car phone. He called the American embassy and they were initially reluctant to meet us because of a curfew. (Night travel was officially discouraged, in part because of recent guerrilla warfare in the area, waged by ethnic Hmong rebels.)

"You had better meet us by the side of the road," I heard him say. "She's got serious spinal and lung injuries and is not going to make it to Vientiane." Hours later, when Joseph DeMaria and Michael Bakalar, representatives from the embassy, finally opened the back of the truck, I was never so glad to hear an American accent in my life.

As the medical facilities in Vientiane were extremely limited, the plan was to get me to Thailand, which was still about a two-hour drive south. I was placed in one ambulance, which took me as far as the Friendship Bridge, on the border. Once there, I was transferred to a second ambulance, which drove me yet another hour to the Aek-Udon Hospital in Udon Thani, Thailand. It was three in the morning when I got there, 14 hours since the crash.

I was still unable to have painkillers because they might have made me drowsy, or even knock me out, and so interfere with my breathing. Dr. Bounsom Santithamnont, a recent transfer from Bangkok, immediately resutured my arm with more than 100 stitches, picking out some of the glass, gravel, and metal. Looking at the X-rays, he told me in heavily accented English that in "another two hours, I'm sure you wouldn't be here."

He stopped counting the broken ribs after six. He confirmed that my lungs were collapsed, and my diaphragm punctured. I had fractured teeth and sustained huge contusions all down the left side of my body. My spleen was also ruptured, my back, pelvis, and coccyx all broken. Most alarming was that all my internal organs, including my heart, and even my bowels, had been smashed up into my left shoulder. What a visual. Listening to this litany as they prepped me for surgery, I managed to plead, "Please don't take out anything unless you really have to."

Once the American embassy contacted my family, my brother booked a flight to Thailand. He arrived two days later, joining two of my friends who had raced down from Laos, so I was never alone in intensive care.

The nurses were all sweet, except for the one who kept flipping the bed up and down at an alarming rate. (Unable to speak through my respirator, I made a cross with my fingers whenever she came near.)

Morphine-induced dreams haunted me for weeks. Reliving the accident would jolt me out of sleep with such force the bed would jump, sending the nurses into giggles. I dreamed of the window shattering, of bloody bodies, but worst of all was the dream in which I am waiting for the bus with friends. When it arrives I am so paralyzed with fear, I can't get on. Everyone leaves without me.

Two weeks later, Dr. Santithamnont thought I was strong enough to be transported to a hospital in San Francisco. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to do before I left Asia. I told him that I wanted to visit a temple, and was surprised when he actually arranged for an ambulance to take me to Wat Pa Ban That, a monastery famous for visits from the Thai princess Sirindhorn. Using two canes, I managed to walk to the altar on my own. Thai families made offerings as the giant gold-leaf Buddha smiled down on us. I sat meditating, trying to take in all that had happened, when a young man invited me to have tea with the head monk. It was such a comfort sitting with them.


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