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.

   

 
 
 

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.


   
   
   

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.


   
   
 

THE TRANSITION TO health care in America was abrupt. The first thing they wanted to do was cut off the Buddhist protection string that a young lama had given me in Tibet. I had worn it around my neck during all my surgeries and I was adamant about keeping it on. It had gotten me this far, I reasoned.

The ER doctors called me "miracle kid," but it's taken fifteen months of hard work and a few more surgeries to recover. On Halloween, which seemed appropriate, I had another surgery to rearrange my intestines. The surgeons sewed my stomach lining up with plastic mesh to hold everything in place. I'm still picking out bits of glass and gravel that continue to work their way out of my arm, giving me these terrible bouts of blood poisoning. After months of physical therapy, I can now walk. I've gotten my lungs back, too, and except for some nasty scars and lingering pain, I should be able to climb mountains and scuba dive again.

People have told me what an awful way this was to bring in the millennium, and I have to agree. But it was also a rebirth. I've been given my life back, and every day now feels like a meaningful postscript. I found a strength within myself, both physical and spiritual, that I didn't know I had. I'm looking forward to getting back out into the world and doing what I love most. For my birthday this year, I plan to summit Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet, you better believe I'll be appreciating each breath.

You can also bet I'll have taken the advice I've been dispensing since even before I left the hospital:

• Always carry your passport—and the phone number for the nearest American embassy—on your person.
• Carry medevac insurance. MEDJET Assistance (800-963-3538; www.medjetassistance.com), for one, promises to fly you to the hospital of your choice anywhere in the world. It costs $175 per year.
• In your medical kit, be sure to include your own suturing needles. Adventure Medical Kits (800-324-3517; www.adventuremedicalkits.com) allows you to assemble your own.
• Finally, if traveling by bus, never ride on the roof, and, if you can, sit toward the rear of the coach.


   
More Travel

Love to Travel?

Thank you!

Pinterest Icon