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


THE TWO BUSES looked as if they had been split open like overripe watermelons, their bloodied human contents tumbling from all sides. A big blond girl was suspended awkwardly between them. A young dreadlocked backpacker lay by the side of the road looking up, a long metal rod piercing his cheek. A Laotian woman with severe facial lacerations groped blindly. Stunned passengers stumbled in a daze.

The air was heavy with dust and smelled thickly of burned rubber: brakes and tires stretched beyond their limits. The midday sun was fierce. Birds screeched from the bamboo forest, echoing the anguished cries of the injured. In the distance voices called out repeatedly, "My God, someone do something! This woman is bleeding to death!" I silently prayed that someone would help her. I turned my head to look at my watch and saw the gashes. My arm looked like it had been attacked by a shark, the denim shirt soaked red. It was then that I realized the woman they were yelling about was me.

January 2, 2000: I had just left friends after celebrating the new millennium in Lovangphrabang, Laos. I'm a travel photographer, and I was making my way across Asia. I'd been on the road for 12 weeks. That morning I had gotten up before dawn and met with a fellow photographer, to take pictures of the Buddhist monks begging for alms in the streets. Suddenly realizing the time, I put my cameras away and raced to the bus station to catch the next coach to Vang Vieng, where I would continue traveling south on my own.

Something about the bus made me uneasy. I changed my seat three times. I didn't like the look of the glass for some reason, and kept the window open. I remember feeling bad because the girl behind me was cold and wanted it closed. Leaving it open would save my life.

We were about five hours into the journey when I put my Lonely Planet guidebook down. Having just decided where I'd stay, I was anticipating reaching Vang Vieng in time to take some pictures during the golden hour. Looking out the window, I noticed that every turn along the narrow road was breathtaking. I saw green, undulating hills adorned with bamboo wisps, deep valleys, and limestone caves. I shifted my gaze from the scenery when I saw a hefty blue truck cab rounding the corner toward us. It was towing a logging trailer full of people—a jury-rigged rural bus. As it approached, I saw the faces of the passengers, and I remember thinking, What a near miss.

Then came an explosion of crunching glass and metal, people shrieking. Four seats behind the driver, I sat at the point of impact. The oncoming bus had cleared the front corner of our coach, but as we took the curve, it slammed into us. I felt my head bash the metal frame with a thud, then felt my whole left side break, twist, and snap. I had to pause and ask myself if I had died.

My next thought was to grab my film, but I had no strength. I couldn't lift my body. I was sandwiched between two seats that had crumpled into each other. The bus was enveloped in dense smoke. People were shouting and pushing their way down the aisle in a panic. It was then that I decided to forget my bag. With an adrenaline rush, I managed to pull myself off the bus through the open door. I fell to the ground and just lay by the side of the road. Watching. Breathing in, breathing out.

MY BACK FELT BROKEN. There was a stifling tightness in my chest. I noticed blue paint smeared down my pants leg—paint from the other bus. Between gasps I talked someone into going back onto the bus for my film and money belt, which I had slipped off momentarily. A couple of uninjured passengers stopped a passing pickup truck, and those of us most battered were loaded onto its open bed. We bounced along for nearly an hour until we reached the small town of Kasi, where there was supposed to be a clinic. I knew that if my back was broken, I would be in real trouble after that ride.

Throughout my ordeal, I meditated on my breath, and I'm convinced this is what saved me. A practicing Buddhist, I had been headed to a three-week silent-meditation retreat in India. Instead, meditating on my breath now turned out to be the practice of my life. For my life. I never lost consciousness, and I never went into deep shock. Never have I felt so aware.

The driver of the pickup helped carry me from the truck into what an English-speaking fellow passenger told me was a "health clinic." It was nothing but a bare cement room with cobwebs climbing the walls. I had lost so much blood that I felt faint, and I made no attempt to get up from the dirt floor. As I lay there with a few other of the wounded, the severity of the situation hit me. "This is bad," I mumbled to myself. "This is really bad."

Local people came up to us. They had no idea what to do. Eventually, a boy in a T-shirt doused all of my wounds in alcohol and stitched up my arm without cleaning out the glass or gravel. There were no painkillers. I have no idea if the needle he used to sew me up was sterile. The pain was more than I would have thought possible to endure. "We're in the Golden Triangle, for God's sake," I gasped. "Don't you have any of that opium you're all smoking up here?"

I was angry that I was going to die just because no one was able to get us out of here. It occurred to me that I could ask people to call the American embassy until my dying breath; they simply wouldn't understand. None of the locals spoke English. Anyway, where would they get the embassy number? There were no phone books. This thought also hit me: It doesn't matter how much money or how many credit cards I have, I'm stuck here just like everyone else. From another passenger I heard that about 20 others were injured in the crash. I was told that I was in the worst shape of anyone who'd been moved to Kasi. (I have since found out that at least two people were killed, including one of the drivers.)

A young Dutch couple, Meia and Roel, had been sitting in back of me on the bus. Meia had broken her arm and had a concussion. I recognized Meia as the woman who'd been suspended between the two mangled buses. Roel, who had just proposed to her the day before, was anxious, but otherwise fine. He was the only person who would listen to me. I kept saying that I couldn't breathe. When I could no longer speak, I wrote notes. Apparently there were no phones in Kasi.

Hours passed. No one got help. A woman I was told was from the German embassy came by in a car. I still don't know why she didn't drive for help. She kept telling me that I couldn't breathe because I was afraid. Finally someone came in and said a helicopter was coming—then no, it couldn't fly at night. Opening my eyes, I was surprised to see that darkness had fallen.

That was when I knew I was going to die. It wasn't resignation, just an incredible clarity. My last note to Roel was, "I'm not going to make it through the night. I simply can't breathe anymore. Please call my brother Andrew. His number is in my phone book. Please tell him what happened to me."

Then I closed my eyes and let go. And here is the surprising thing: I let go of fear. An amazing calm came over me, a peace I had never experienced before. I had total trust in the universe, an assurance that everything was exactly as it was meant to be. There was nothing left to do, nowhere left to go. I didn't even feel sad as I thought of all those I love. Instead, I felt certain that I would see everyone again.