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 calmWhen 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’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.
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.
“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.”