Life as we know it can change in an instant
|On the night of April 17, 1988 at 7 o'clock in the evening my life changed forever. It probably took just five seconds, maybe less. But during those few moments my life changed in a way that today, twenty years later, still seems like a plot from a motion picture.
I was 23 years old. I was seven months pregnant with our first child. I'd met my husband when I was 20, and we'd been married for nearly four months. My pregnancy was progressing well, I was healthy and life was very good. We owned our own house, had two cars and our lives were easy and uncomplicated.
We'd recently bought two German Shepherd puppies and they were just six months old. They were still getting three meals a day. My husband is a fisherman, who has represented his country at international fishing competitions in Namibia, South Africa and the United States. That weekend he was fishing at a dam about 25 miles from our home city Harare. I wanted to go out and see how he'd done on the first day of the tournament, so after feeding the puppies, I locked the house up and took a leisurely drive out to the weigh-in.
He and his partner had done well and caught enough fish to put them among the top ten teams. This was a really good achievement considering there were over 200 teams competing. I spent a couple of hours with them before starting on my journey home. I was concerned about feeding the puppies, so I wanted to get back to them before it got too late to drive. My husband saw me to the car and I kissed him goodbye. The last thing he remembers me doing is fastening my seat belt before driving off.
The road from Harare to the dam was almost completely tarred, apart from the last six miles which was a fairly wide dirt road. It had been graded to cope with the increased traffic for the fishing competition, so there was a good pile of soil on the verges of the road. There were also a lot of grooves and potholes in the dirt, and the inside of the car was rattling with the vibrations caused by the rough road. I could see the road was a bit smoother from the tyre marks of vehicles that had previously driven down the road, so I moved the steering wheel so the car wheels would be on the smoother surface.
The car's wheels caught the loose soil from the verge and the back of the car slid into a skid. I panicked. I was an inexperienced driver, who'd only had my licence for three years. Instinct kicked in and I slammed on brakes. I know now that is the worst thing you can do on a dirt road. The car did not slow down. The skid worsened and I could feel the steering wheel pulling to the right in my hands. I tried to hold it straight, but could not. The last thing I remember is a sheet of white in front of my eyes. I lifted my hands off the steering wheel and covered my face.
Later the insurance company reconstructed what happened when the car left the road. There was a tree stump in the long grass, just high enough to catch the front wheel arch. The left front wheel arch hit the stump which acted as a fulcrum and lifted the car. The white sheet I saw was the windscreen breaking as the car began to roll. The theory was that the car boot lifted into the air and flipped the vehicle. It landed back on its four wheels. The entire roof of the car, apart from the section covering the driver's seat was crushed flat onto the car seats. The area where I was sitting when the car began to roll was actually raised, so I should have walked away from the wreck with relatively minor injuries.
However I was not in the car when it stopped rolling. At some point I was thrown out of the car through the windscreen after the seat belt snapped. I don't know if the car rolled on top of me. But I do know that if my seat belt had held perhaps the ordeal that followed might not have been so terrible.
Nobody could see the car from the road. The grass in the bush was long and it was night time. There were no street lights on that dusty road and there was very little traffic. There were no houses nearby, only farms. The farmhouses were so far away from the road nobody would have heard the accident. The campsite where my husband was staying for the competition was perhaps three miles away. So nobody heard the sounds of the car accident.
I spent the night in the bush in front of the car. I don't remember anything specific about that night, but I did think I was having a nightmare from which I would eventually waken. I felt no pain, but I wondered why my bed was so hard and scratchy and why I couldn't find my blankets. I've been told this is what shock does to a person - it is nature's way of helping the body through a traumatic ordeal.
The nightmare was a recurring one I'd experienced from a young age. I was trapped in a dark room with no light, surrounded by huge bags of grain. I could not find the door out of the room and the silence as the bags towered over me was terrifying. I'd had this dream so often that by this time I knew it was a nightmare and that at some stage I would wake up. In the nightmare I'd stand by one of the giant bags and wait for it to end.
I woke as the sky lightened before sunrise. I was lying under a tree. I saw the car in front of me, headlights and grill intact. There were some young African children around the car and I tried to sit up and call them. I thought I was shouting at them but they didn't acknowledge me. I tried to sit up but couldn't move my left leg. I looked down and when I saw what had happened to my foot I realized I was in serious trouble.
The bone above my ankle had broken. There was about three inches of grey bone protruding from the flesh on the inside of my ankle. It was covered in specks of blood, and the end of the bone was ragged and black with dirt and dry crusted blood. I was puzzled at first because my shoes were missing. I think I passed out when I saw this injury, because the next two weeks of my life are unclear. What follows I have put together from the people who helped me and from my family and friends.
The children around my car were selling fishing worms on the side of the road, and they'd seen the car as they walked down the road early that morning. They told the first fisherman who stopped to buy worms on the way to the competition that there'd been a car accident and there was a dead woman in the bush. One of the fishermen came over and found I still had a pulse. He was unable to help me because he was driving a flatbed truck and had nowhere to put me. He drove to the campsite at the dam and alerted the National Parks officials about the accident.
A farmer who'd spent the night at the campsite with his son was told about the accident as he left that morning to return home. The Park's officials told him where the accident was and asked him if he could help me. I owe this man my life.
He picked me up and put me in the back of his Mercedes. He then drove me to hospital in Harare. He got me to Harare in 40 minutes - the journey normally takes one hour. He was driving so fast he was stopped at a police roadblock for speeding. He pointed to my body on the backseat and they just waved him through. Later he told me he talked to me during the entire journey, but I didn't move and I didn't answer him. His little dog was on the back seat with me throughout the journey. At one point my injured leg fell off the seat, and I used my good leg to lift it back. He said that was the only indication I was still alive.
I was taken to the casualty department of Zimbabwe's largest hospital. The medical report I was given after the accident records that I was moribund. I did not know the meaning of this word until after this accident. The dictionary definition says: "in a dying state". An orthopedic surgeon, Mr Mutale, was on duty when I was brought in, and he took charge. He stabilized me, cleaned up my ankle and admitted me to hospital.
By this time my identity particulars had been found in the car and my husband had been contacted. He called his mother and she came to the hospital to see me. By the time she saw me I was awake and the ankle seemed to be the worst of my injuries. My right collarbone was broken and I'd fractured three ribs. But my baby was alive and I was talking to people. When my husband arrived at the hospital I was declared stable. He was sent home.
I woke up very early in the morning of April 19. Everything was very clear - the lights were bright and there was a heavy silence around me. I sat up, feeling desperately frightened. I had no idea what made me feel like this. A huge weight was pushing inside me. There was no pain, but some desperate emotion told me to hold everything inside me. I sat up as a rush of liquid seemed to burst from my body. I put my hands down and caught my daughter as she was born. I must have cried out because a nurse rushed over to help me. She gently pushed me back against the pillows, telling me not to worry because it was only my baby.
Instinctively I knew she was dead. Nobody had to tell me. They called my husband to the hospital, and I remember apologizing to him for losing our daughter. We were going to call her Natalie. My heart was breaking that she had never even drawn a breath. I didn't see her. I didn't get a chance to hold or kiss her or say goodbye. Today that is still one of the biggest regrets of my life.
My parents lived about 300 miles away in Bulawayo, and they arrived the evening after Natalie had died. I'd been left in the ward that day, sedated so I could sleep. Mr Mutale was called that evening, because my stomach had started to swell at lunchtime and my vital signs were fading. He decided to operate to see what was causing the swelling. I saw my parents that evening before I went into the theatre, and remember apologising to them for having the accident. I have no idea why I kept apologising to everyone; perhaps it was shock?
The operation revealed the full extent of my internal injuries, which were so bad I was moved to the intensive care unit. I had two drains inserted into my stomach to drain the internal bleeding. Apart from my uterus every single organ was damaged. The worst injuries were to my liver, which was torn, and to my kidneys, which were were badly bruised. There was a massive blood clot on my brain. I had also fractured two vertebrae. The wound on my leg had got worse, so more bone was be removed.
Whilst in the intensive care unit it was discovered my heart had been damaged, and a drain was inserted to clear the chamber which was filling with blood. This was done whilst I was awake - I was on so many drugs and antibiotics they could not risk another anesthetic. My parents and my husband sat outside the ward listening to me screaming as they cut my chest open and pushed in the drain. After this I was put on a ventilator to assist my breathing.
It may sound strange, but for two weeks I believe I was the lucky one in this whole mess. I was on morphine, unaware of what was happening. My family had to watch me, listen to my drug-induced rantings, wondering if I would survive and how much brain damage I had suffered. They watched me trying to pull out drains and catheters, swearing at the nurses. I had two brain scans to monitor the clot and wept through each one. For two weeks I was comatose, unaware of the terrible things that were happening to me. During the night of April 30 my heart stopped twice, but somehow restarted before they could use the defribillator. The third time the defribillator had to be used. The doctors could do nothing else to help me, and they told my family that if I had a strong enough will I would survive.
The staff went to the hospital chapel to pray for me. I have learned since this ordeal that many of the doctors and nurses working in the intensive care units of hospitals all over the world are very religious because they see so many miracles in their wards.
On the morning of May 1, I woke up in a bright room surrounded by tubes and bandages. I had absolutely no memory of the last two weeks, so I immediately wondered where I was. A nurse came over to my bed, and told me I'd been in a car accident and was in hospital. The day of the accident a Korean Airlines aeroplane had gone missing in Russian airspace. There'd been a lot of speculation about the fate of the aircraft, which had been headline news in Zimbabwe. When I asked the nurse what had happened to the aeroplane she told me she had no idea, but she could let me see a newspaper.
I didn't look at the date of the newspaper. I remember looking over the front page and seeing no article. At that moment the chief anesthetist walked into the room. He told me later he expected to see my bed empty because my condition had deteriorated so much the previous night he did not believe I would survive. When he saw me lying on my bed reading the newspaper he'd walked out of the room in shock.
He told me I'd been in a car accident two weeks ago and I was in the intensive care unit. He told me I was very lucky and that my injuries had been so serious there was no medical reason to account for my survival. I was astounded that I'd lost two weeks of my life, and asked him when I could go home. He told me it would be a while yet as I had a lot of healing to do and was facing more operations.
Over the next few days my immediate family came to see me. They helped me piece together some of the events that had taken place since I'd driven away from my husband that evening. I knew I'd lost my baby, and I accepted her loss and grieved for her in my own way. Perhaps the painkillers and various drugs I was taking helped me cope with the loss. I learnt that she'd been the reason I'd survived the night I spent outside the car in the bush. My internal injuries were so bad that had I not been pregnant and in such good health I would have bled to death that night. As it was I received 13 units of blood during my time in the hospital.
I spent another five days in intensive care. The doctors were very worried about the lack of feeling in my left foot, and told my husband I was facing years of constructive surgery as they rebuilt the bones above my left ankle. They'd removed four inches of bone, the maximum amount of bone that could be rebuilt. This meant at least ten years of operations and reconstructive surgery. I was offered the option of amputating my foot, which would mean I'd be walking in six months. I was horrified and upset, and told them I'd already lost so much I didn't want to loose my leg.
On May 5 I began to feel twinges and slight shocks in my foot. I was due to be transferred to a private ward the next day - 6 May, 1988. I remember telling my husband excitedly that this must mean I was getting better. Moving out of intensive care was a huge step towards my recovery.
How wrong I was.
I woke the next morning in agony. My leg was burning and very painful. I was moved into a semi private ward while my private room was being prepared for me. The pain got worse and worse and Mr Mutale was called. He gently unbandaged my leg while I gripped my mother's and my husband's hands, trying not to cry. As the bandage fell from my leg a terrible smell of rotting flesh filled the room. I looked down at my left leg, and burst into tears.`
The flesh below my knee was dark purple - almost black - and the wound on my ankle was oozing a yellowy green liquid. I watched Mr Mutale gently press the skin on my leg with his index finger. I did not feel his finger, but as he lifted his hand from my leg he left an indentation in my leg. The skin was dry and crackled like tracing paper. I looked at his face. His eyes were downcast as he stared at that terrible limb.
"You're going to cut my leg off, aren't you?" I asked him.
A tear rolled down his cheek as he answered: "Perhaps not. But we need to go in and see what has happened."
"It's alright. I don't mind if you cut it off," I told him. "Just take the pain away, please."
Things moved very quickly. My husband had to sign the operating consent form, which included a clause that he agreed to my leg being amputated if necessary. He has said it was the hardest thing he's ever had to do. I was scheduled for surgery at 3 o'clock that afternoon, but there was a very sick newborn baby who was having heart surgery in the theatre booked for my operation. I spent two hours waiting in the recovery room. I was awake during the entire time as the staff could not give me any tranquilizers because of the possible amount of time I'd be under anesthetic and the amount of drugs in my system. I was very frightened. I cried a lot, partly through fear and mainly because of the dreadful pain. When I went into the theatre I remember crying while the anesthetist told me I was brave and that I had nothing to be afraid of. I think I told him I just wanted no more of the burning pain and asked him to help me. He reassured me that when I woke up all the pain would be gone.
I woke up at 8 o'clock that night, and my first thought was that the pain was gone. I looked down at the bed, and saw a cage over my legs. As my bed was wheeled upstairs to my room Mr Mutale came over and took my hand.
He told me that I'd developed gas gangrene, a rare but extremely dangerous condition that, if not treated within 24 hours of onset, is fatal. Gas gangrene rapidly attacks the tissues and produces gas that remains trapped within the infected tissue under the skin. Gas gangrene develops very quickly and there is no cure. Treatment is removal of the infected tissue or limb.
I'd had my left leg amputated through the knee. The gas gangrene hadn't infected my upper leg, and because the condition is extremely contagious and spreads very easily the decision was taken to remove my lower leg, without cutting through healthy bone and tissue and risking spores from the disease infecting my upper leg. I didn't really pay too much attention to him, although I understood my leg was gone. I was just so relieved the pain was no longer there.
Within six weeks I was out of hospital, walking on crutches and attending physiotherapy sessions at a local rehabilitation clinic. Three months after the operation I was fitted with my first artificial leg. The day after the fitting I walked without crutches for the first time in nearly five months. That evening I walked into a stadium with almost 100,000 people to watch Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Tracy Chapman headline a human rights concert at Harare's National Sports Stadium.
The road to recovery has not been easy. My colon was damaged when the doctors opened my abdomen the night I was transferred to the intensive care unit. This was only discovered after my bowel kinked and blocked some years after the accident and I had to have my stomach pumped out to relieve pressure on the bowel so it could work again. I have slight scoliosis of the spine from lying on my back for nearly two months, and then using crutches for five months. I was not able to have children because of scarring to my fallopian tubes and lack of treatment for my miscarriage. I had counseling sessions from a psychologist to help me come to terms with the accident and my disability.
But today, as I write, the accident happened nearly sixteen years ago. I have learnt so many things from the experience. When I left the hospital I felt very sorry for myself. I didn't think I'd be able to live life with one leg. At my rehabilitation centre I saw people who were confined to a wheelchair for life. They'd never be able to stand up or walk again. One of the patients was paralyzed from the neck down, and would never hold or kiss her three children again. She couldn't turn the pages of a book, or go to the toilet by herself. She still had a smile on her face. I could still move and touch and hold those I loved - why did I feel sorry for myself?
About two years after my accident I was coordinating a function for Zimbabwe's leading finance house. The function was held on the mezzanine floor of the Harare Sheraton Hotel. Access to the function was via a spiral staircase tiled with marble or an elevator. I don't feel safe walking on slippery surfaces, so I got into the lift and pressed the button for the mezzanine floor. There was a man in the lift, and as the door closed he passed a comment, saying I was obviously too lazy to use the stairs. As the door opened for me I turned to him, smiled and said: "Actually I have one leg". He blushed red and mumbled his apologies as I walked away. That's another lesson I learned - don't judge people you don't know.
My closest friends all tell me they forget I have one leg. This to me is the greatest compliment I could receive. I don't want to be treated any differently to anyone else. I don't walk well, as it has been very difficult to find a prosthesis for a through knee amputation. It's a rare amputation, so I limp slightly when I walk because my knees are on different levels. Most people say they think I've hurt my foot or my hip. It means people accept me just the way I am, and that makes me happy.
People have asked me how I cope with my life, saying they'd never be able to live with something like my disability. My answer is that everything happens for a reason, and I truly believe you find the strength to handle so many of the obstacles life throws at you. It's not easy, and I still have moments when I feel sad at all the things I lost. But they don't last long, and they're becoming more infrequent as I get older. I could have given up and not gone on, but I survived.
I have had a second chance at life. I chose life. And I will always choose life.