Reprinted from today's Albuquerque Journal:
LOS ALAMOS — She is 25 years old, with sandy blonde hair, an athletic build, and a bright energetic smile.
An outdoors enthusiast from Dillingham, Alaska, close to earning her doctorate from Arizona State University's School of Sustainability, Christa Brelsford is on top of the world.
As Brelsford, a summer intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory, leads a group of six climbers into the dense woods toward the Upper East Fork — a popular climbing spot just outside Los Alamos — their pace quickens upon nearing the Jemez River.
Once there, amid a steady drizzle, Brelsford must cross the stream via a 12-foot-long log.
"I think I'm going for a swim," she says with a nervous laugh.
But she doesn't.
Slowly and steadily — one foot sliding next to the other — Brelsford makes it across without incident.
"That was fun," she said — but this time with a genuine laugh.
Just a year ago, Brelsford would no doubt have traversed the log with the skill of one who has spent nearly a lifetime hiking and climbing through the wilderness. But that changed several months ago, and she now belongs to a new group of those touched by their experiences in Haiti.
She, like thousands of others, is an earthquake amputee. While the memories of the January quake are still fresh, the only physical remnant is found at the bottom of her right capri pant leg.
"Walking around with a prosthetic leg is like walking around in one downhill ski boot — it's heavy and you can't bend your ankle," she said. "It's kind of like wearing (contact lenses) — I take them off in the middle of the night and it's a hassle.
"Like with my leg, I'm helpless until I put it on."
But once she straps on the titanium and carbon fiber prosthetic limb, connected to roughly six inches of shin bone below the knee, she's anything but helpless.
"Climbing — I'm at 95 percent," she said. "Running — I'm probably at like 10 percent. Biking — still scared to try. Stairs are a challenge — can't bend at the knee.
"I still drive a manual (transmission car)," she added. "It's just a matter of applying pressure from the hip, rather than the ankle.
"So, pretty much, everything is still the same. Well, except for all the media stuff."
In the days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed an estimated 230,000, Brelsford was at the center of a media storm.
From television appearances on "Larry King Live" to CNN to the "Today Show," and countless local and regional media outlets camped out at her family's home, Brelsford — in a blue hospital gown from Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital — became the face of perseverance amid the chaos of one of the most devastating natural disasters in history.
Brelsford's story begins when she and her brother Julian were volunteers near Legoa, Haiti — the earthquake's epicenter. Their mission: Try to identify a project to promote adult literacy.
But just moments after setting up Internet access in a two-story building in the Haitian town, the tremors from a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck.
"I'm familiar with earthquakes, growing up in Alaska — so we knew almost instantly what was happening," she said. "The first shockwave hit — I thought it could have been a truck hitting the building.
"When the second shockwave hit, we started to run."
Julian and the three others inside escaped, but Brelsford wouldn't be as fortunate.
That's because the second shockwave threw her across the room from the only staircase that led to safety. Then, chunks of the concrete roof rained down as she began her descent.
Brelsford was trapped.
"Protect my head and neck," she said, "that's what they always told us during earthquake drills."
Julian, who suffered a crushed toe from the quake, immediately began calling out to his sister.
But digging her out wasn't an option just yet.
"I was worried about the building collapsing on her, so I didn't want to do very much," he told CNN in the days after the earthquake. "I did try to take the pieces that I could lift — the small pieces — off. Eventually, by pulling pieces one by one, we got her free."
But most important, stay conscious.
Like a mantra, Brelsford said these thoughts were in the forefront of her mind while Julian and the pairs' host, known only as Gerald, began digging.
"I wasn't looking at a clock, but I think it was an hour or so," she said of the time it took for her to be extracted from the rubble. "The quake was at 4:53 p.m. — they pulled me out of the house before it got dark."
Before Brelsford was freed, she thought something might be wrong.
"When they pulled me out, I didn't know that I was injured; I just knew that I had been stuck," she said. "I did go through (a checklist): My back wasn't injured and I didn't hit my head, so I thought I was fine — I was thinking straight."
Brelsford said she was even able to wiggle her toes — or so she thought.
While no damage had been done to her left leg, a large concrete slab had crushed her right shin bone, nearly separating the section six inches below her knee from the rest of her leg.
"When they were digging me out, I could hear them talking, speaking Creole," she said. "But when they completely dug me out, everyone stopped talking, and I saw why."
24 hours of agony
With no cell phone service, no electricity, and no means to communicate with anyone outside Léoga, Julian put together a tourniquet from an electrical cord to make sure his sister didn't bleed out while they attempted to get her to safety.
But, miraculously, amid the rubble and devastation, one thing was left standing.
"Gerald's motorcycle didn't even tip over," she said, "and it started right away."
So with Gerald in the front, Brelsford in the middle, and a local teen, Wenson George — who lived in a nearby village but rushed to the scene to "check on his American friends" — in the back to make sure she didn't fall off, the troika set off to a nearby hospital.
"But then we heard that the hospital had collapsed, so we re-routed," she said.
The next stop was a Sri Lankan United Nations Peacekeeping base outside the city limits, roughly five miles away.
"I had the tourniquet on my leg, but it wasn't bandaged or anything," she said. "I was afraid (my leg) was going to get caught in the chain."
Once there, Brelsford, amid hundreds of injured Haitians, was cared for by Sri Lankan aid workers, who did their best with the few supplies they had, she said.
And all Brelsford could do from there was wait.
"After they poured disinfectant on my leg, they used an old fence post as a splint. The bigger bone was broken once and the smaller bone was broken twice, clean through. There was never any thought of setting it," she said. "One of the Sri Lankans said to me, 'You'll be fine. In our country a lot of people have lost legs to land mines.' "
About a day after the initial earthquake struck, a U.S. Army ambulance brought Brelsford to the airport, where a private jet brought her and a group of seven other injured Americans to Miami.
"The extremity was crushed so badly, it actually helped her," Dr. Mark McKenney told CNN after Brelsford's initial surgery. "If it were only partially crushed, she would have bled to death from the arteries — and veins essentially were fused from the crush. And her brother put on the tourniquet."
Brelsford remembers vividly when she developed the climbing bug.
"I was 12 years old," she said. "I convinced my two best friends to go climbing with me instead of taking a PE class. It's been all downhill from there."
And even after being resigned to the fact that she would lose part of her right leg, her dream of climbing again never wavered.
"I kept thinking about Oscar Pistorius," she said of the South African Paralympic runner born without legs. "He missed qualifying for the Olympics by a hundredth of a second. If he could do that, I'd be fine."
It would take three surgeries before Brelsord received the first of two prosthetic limbs. And roughly two months later, Brelsford, with a big, bright smile, graced the pages of People magazine above the headline "Brave Comeback."
The article chronicled Brelsford's scaling of Colorado's Ouray Ice Park in March. "I knew I'd do this again," she told the magazine. "But finally, it was real."
Now in July, Brelsford has become well-acquainted with New Mexico's rock-climbing scene, scaling nearly every rock the Land of Enchantment has to offer.
"We try to go at least three to four times a week," she said.
Brelsford then reaches into her backpack, pulling out her newest toy: a climbing foot.
"A friend of mine put this together with a bunch of spare parts," she said.
The foot — roughly two shoe sizes smaller than her usual size 6 — features a textured, gripping sole but, more importantly, allows Brelsford new lateral mobility.
And a few moments later, with a chalk bag strapped to her hip, she was on her way up the approximately 80-foot wall.
While on the surface, it may seem the only difference between her life before and after the quake is a prosthetic leg, Brelsford said there's one other thing.
"Now I find myself doing things just to prove that I can," she said.
Next on the agenda: a half-marathon in December in Phoenix.
When asked what's after that, Brelsford smiles.
When Larry King asked her the day after the earthquake if she would go back to Haiti, she shrugged.
This time — when asked the same question — Brelsford, without hesitation, replied: "Definitely, there's a lot of people that still need help (in Haiti).
"I have two arms and a leg that works — that's more than you can say for a lot of people."
http://markpeterman.com/blog/2010/07/08 ... -survivor/
http://coloradomountainjournal.com/2010 ... ps-on-ice/