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Video: U.S. Haiti volunteer loses leg, but not spirit

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    >> after it collapsed, but first, another american, one of the first rescued in haiti . we'll talk to her in a moment. and i think the smile you'll see on her face tells us an awful lot about her spirit. she's a remarkable young lady . nbc's kerry sanders is in port-au-prince with her story. kerry, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: well, good morning. her story is incredible, and there are others possibly still on the horizon here. as we look behind me, there are some seahawks. they have come in from the u.s. carrier " carl vinson ." they are about to do an aerial assessment to see if they can find an area where there may still be survivors. and the stories from survivors here are at once both uplifting and heartbreaking. in a hospital bed at miami's jackson memorial hospital , krista threlsburg spoke about the first terrifying moments after the quake struck.

    >> first, i wanted to get out of the house, and then when i realized my legs were trapped, my second thought was to protect my head and neck. in alaska, they have it in drills in school every year. that's what they tell you to do, so that's what i did.

    >> reporter: her calm composure, despite an incredible ordeal. the arizona state university student was in haiti with her brother working for a literacy program.

    >> i didn't realize that my right leg had been almost completely cut off.

    >> reporter: her leg could not be saved. this is krista and her brother, julian, before she was evacuated after having raced through the streets of haiti on a motorcycle. krista 's parents are on their way to her bedside. from their home in alaska, they expressed gratitude for those who helped free their daughter from the rubble.

    >> we will be loyal for life to the people who have taken care of a stranger in such a desperate moment. very touched.

    >> reporter: back in haiti , this is the grim scene of the many who are so desperate for help. while the relief operations continue, this american, named laura, was trapped for three hours. we spoke to her before she was evacuated. what was that like as you're trapped under there?

    >> i don't -- i was hoping i would die quickly instead of slowly, because i was stuck.

    >> reporter: today, laura is also back on american soil receiving medical attention . as for krista , the long road to recovery is just beginning, but this morning she's focusing on the positive.

    >> there are so many ways in the last two days that i could have been dead that i'm just thankful that i'm not and i'm terribly sorry for all the people in haiti , the haitians especially, who don't have the medical care that i'm getting.

    >> reporter: it says a lot about krista , that she's worried about the people here after the ordeal that she has gone through, matt.

    >> kerry, it certainly does. thank you very much. i want to introduce krista right now. krista brelsford is at miami hospital right now. krista , how are you doing?

    >> i'm doing very well, thank you.

    >> i understand when this earthquake struck, you thought a truck had hit the building where you were, and then you found yourself pinned. and even then, you didn't think your legs were badly injured at first. had you just gone numb?

    >> yeah. i thought that they were just crushed. i thought that i was wiggling all of my toes. obviously, i wasn't, but i couldn't see them.

    >> i understand when your brother and others managed to free your legs, you realized the full extent of your injuries. that must have been an extraordinarily sobering moment for you.

    >> i was so focused on not panicking and staying alive and figuring out what needed to be done to get myself out of there that i didn't worry about it right then. i just said i'm going to worry about it later . i told julian to put on a tourniquet and work on getting my second leg free and was doing my best to stay calm.

    >> christa , then this trip. i mean, you get extricated from this building. they kind of put you on a moped, and from what i read, someone was cradling you as this moped went through the streets. can you describe that trip to get to medical attention ?

    >> yeah. one of our friends, the owner of the motorcycle is driving, and then our other friend, wenson, was holding me in his arms like an infant. my leg was still flapping around. and we drove about three kilometers in the dark on pothole-rutted dirt roads with buildings collapsed all around, haitians still screaming out for help to try to get out of the buildings, walking down the road very badly injured, as we drove to the sri lankan military , their peacekeeping mission for the u.n. where i was one of the earlier survivors to get there and got some rudimentary medical care . i got the best they could give, which was a splint made out of a fence post and they put disinfectant on my leg and gave me cookies and cough drops.

    >> when you finally were told by proper doctors that they would not be able to save your leg, i mean, how do you respond to that?

    >> i didn't expect my leg to be saved, really ever. i watched over the course of 24 hours as it went from looking like a normal foot to swelling and turning colors and turning cold, which was the scariest part, but i didn't expect it to be saved, and i'm not worried about it. i'm so thankful to be alive that i'm not worried about my foot.

    >> i look at your smile, and christa , i watched you in the hospital yesterday speaking to some reporters, and i saw that smile again. and i got choked up watching you because you clearly have your priorities straight and you have already at such an early time managed to put this into perspective, haven't you?

    >> thank you.

    >> you know, you're remarkable. i mean, it's -- the fact that this -- you see this as kind of an appendage and not how you'll be defined, don't you?

    >> yeah. i'll still get to live my life. there are a lot of people in haiti who won't. and now that i have the best medical care i can get, i'm thankful for that and i hope that we do the best that we can to get medical care to haiti where there are still many, many people who need as much care as i need and more.

    >> and as i say good-bye to you, i just want to stress again, because i think this is so important to the story, that you were in haiti for all the right reasons. you were there trying to help people learn to read . you were there with an adult literacy program. and i know you have strong, strong feelings for the people there. and christa , you're awfully impressive, and i appreciate you spending some time with us this morning.

    >> thank you.

    >> good luck to you.

    >> you said it. it's about

By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/15/2010 9:31:59 AM ET 2010-01-15T14:31:59

When you could have lost your life, a little thing like a foot and part of a leg doesn’t seem as important as it once would have.

That is why Christa Brelsford could smile cheerfully in a Florida hospital a day after her right leg was amputated below the knee. Her leg was crushed when she was caught in a collapsed house during Tuesday’s Port-au-Prince earthquake.

“I’ll still get to live my life. There are a lot of people in Haiti who won’t,” Brelsford told TODAY’s Matt Lauer from a wheelchair in Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“There’s so many ways in the last few days that I could have been dead,” she added. “I’m just thankful that I‘m not. And I’m terribly sorry for all the Haitians that don’t have the medical care that I’m getting.”

A fateful stumble
A 25-year-old doctoral student at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, Brelsford had gone to Haiti in early January with her brother, Julian, 27, to volunteer for two weeks working for an adult literacy project.

When the 7.0 temblor struck Tuesday afternoon, the siblings were in a second-story room at a friend’s house with two others attempting to connect to the Internet. Brelsford initially thought a vehicle had struck the building, but everyone quickly realized it was an earthquake and headed down the stairs to flee the building.

Julian made it out, but Brelsford slipped on the stairs and was caught under falling debris. Having grown up in earthquake-prone Alaska, she didn’t panic when she found that she couldn’t get free.

“At first I wanted to get out of the house,” she told Lauer. “Then, when I realized my legs were trapped, my second thought was to protect my head and neck. In Alaska, they have earthquake drills every year in school. That’s what they tell you to do, so that’s what I did.”

She knew her right leg was trapped, but didn’t realize how badly it was damaged.

“I did not realize my right leg had been almost cut off,” she said. “I thought that I was wiggling all of my toes. Obviously I wasn’t.”

Trying to stay calm
When the shaking stopped, Julian and the other two people in the house started to dig Christa out. As they pulled chunks of concrete away and eventually got a pick to break up some larger pieces, they had to deal with the fear that their actions would cause the house to collapse completely, burying them all.

Christa Brelsford and her brother, Julian, were volunteering with a literacy program in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Julian made it out of a collapsing house in time; Christa did not.
Christa’s damaged leg was bleeding heavily as everyone worked for 90 minutes to free her. Lauer asked her if she was aware of the severity of the damage to her leg.

“I was so focused on not panicking and staying alive and figuring out what needed to be done to get myself out of there, I didn’t worry about it right then: [I thought] ‘I’m going to worry about it later,’ ” she said. “I told Julian to put on a tourniquet and work on getting my second leg free, and was doing my best to stay calm.”

Once Christa was pulled from the rubble, she needed medical assistance. One of the Brelsfords’ friends owned a motorbike, and they decided to try to take Christa two miles to a U.N. peace-keeping mission garrisoned by Sri Lankans.

Video: Crying Haitian children fill makeshift hospitals As one friend drove the bike, another sat on the back with Christa, “holding me in his arms like an infant. My leg was still flopping around. We drove about three kilometers in the dark on pothole-rutted dirt roads with buildings collapsed all around, Haitians screaming out for help to try to get out of the buildings, walking down the road very badly injured.”

Christa was lucky to be among the first to get to the mission.

“I was one of the earlier survivors to get there and got some rudimentary medical care. I got the best they could give, which was a splint made out of a fence post,” she said cheerfully. “They bandaged up my leg and put some disinfectant on it; gave me cookies and cough drops.”

‘Thankful to be alive’
From the Sri Lankan mission, a U.S. military ambulance transported Christa to the airport, where she was put on a plane to Miami and better medical care. Her parents, Terry and Taylor Brelsford, were preparing to fly down from Alaska to be with her.

“We will be loyal for life to people who have taken care of a stranger in such a desperate moment,” Terry told NBC News before leaving for Miami.

Lauer asked Christa when she realized she could lose the leg and how traumatic that was. She said it never bothered her.

Though she lost part of a leg, Christa Brelsford is grateful for the quality health care she received in Miami, and hopes similar care gets to Haiti.
“I didn’t expect my leg to be saved, really ever. I watched over the course of 24 hours as it went from looking like a normal foot to swelling and turning colors and turning cold, which was the scariest part,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be saved. I’m not worried about it. I’m so thankful to be alive.”

She also understands how lucky she is to have access to top-quality medical care.

“Now that I have the best medical care that I can get, I’m thankful for that,” Christa said. “I hope we do the best that we can to get medical care to Haiti, where there are still many, many people who need as much care as I need and more.”

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