SHE WALKS CONFIDENTLY, with only a slight limp, through the halls of the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute in Santiago, Chile. Parents here for medical and therapy appointments for their special-needs children smile at the young doctor in recognition, especially when they see her hands. Some even point and whisper: “Look – that’s Daniela Garcia!”
In this city of six million – indeed across the nation – Daniela, 27, is well known. She is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book, Elegí Vivir (I Chose to Live). At more than 60,000 sales and still climbing, it has sold more copies than any other non-fiction book ever in Chile. In both 2006 and 2007 Daniela was named one of Chile’s Women of the Year and in 2005 one of the top ten most influential people in the country.
A reluctant celebrity, she is uncomfortable with intrusive media attention. She prefers that strangers who recognise her not try to hug or kiss her in the street. She does not want to be known only as “the girl who had the awful accident.” Nor will she have what happened to her described as a tragedy.
“This is a happy story,” she says.
When her young patients, many of whom have significant disabilities or diseases like muscular dystrophy, stare at her curiously, she doesn’t mind. She knows their conditions mean they, too, will need to find their own brand of courage and resiliency as their lives unfold. Nor does she mind when they ask her with the unaffected directness of children: “Why do you limp? Why do you have hooks for hands?”
“I like that,” says Daniela. “It creates a bond between us.”
UP UNTIL OCTOBER 30TH, 2002, Daniela Garcia had the comfortable and largely trouble-free life of a young woman growing up in Chile’s educated upper class. Her father, Cristián Garcia, was a paediatric radiologist and a professor in the medical faculty at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (PUC) and her mother, Leonor Palomer, was a dentist who had taken time away from her career to raise Daniela, her twin brother Cristián and three younger Garcia boys. Intelligent, athletic and lively, Daniela thrived in the loving environment of the Garcia home.
An excellent student with high marks who loved biology, Daniela was accepted into medical school at PUC, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Chile and with the toughest entrance requirements of Chile’s 16 medical schools. A general medical degree takes seven years in Chile and specialty training adds another three years beyond that.
IN THE LAST WEEK of October 2002, Daniela was 22 and in the final month of her fourth year. She had a steady boyfriend of four years, Ricardo Strube, a handsome and athletic young man who was studying for a business degree at another university. The two loved the outdoors and would spend their spare time riding bikes and playing sports together.
The hot days of summer were approaching in the southern hemisphere and final exams were about to start. It was also the time of the annual Inter-Medical School Games, a yearly competitive tradition in which almost all medical students in the country took part in. Each school vied to bring back the most trophies – with the eager encouragement of the faculty, who wanted the prestige of the most wins. Each year some 1500 students would take part in the four days of competitions that include volleyball, basketball, swimming, tennis and soccer. This year it was being held in Temuco, a city of 260,000 some 670 kilometres south of Santiago.
Daniela wasn’t sure she wanted to go. She was worried about an upcoming dermatology exam, one of her best friends was not going, and the trip down to Temuco was expensive and would take more than nine hours overnight by train. Besides, uncharacteristically, she felt a strange gnawing apprehension about the trip.
For days her classmates badgered her into joining them – they needed her soccer prowess on the team. Finally she relented, knowing that sports for her was one of the best ways to relieve anxiety and stress. Yet when she arrived at the central train station that Wednesday night, her apprehension only increased. To accommodate the hundreds of students heading south to Temuco, the country’s nationalised train system had put on extra trains, bringing old rail cars onto the line. Daniela didn’t like the look of the dirty windows, peeling paint, and broken and burned out lights of the antiquated coaches. Relax, she told herself. Train travel is safe.
As the train began heading south, the students pulled out guitars and began to sing and dance in the coaches. “Dance with us,” some friends urged. But while she loved to dance, tonight she didn’t really feel like it. She sat in her seat and tried to see the passing landscape through the dirty windows and darkening night. Around 10 pm, a little more than an hour into the trip, two friends asked her to walk with them to the other cars to see if they knew any of the students on board.
The train was just passing through the industrial city of Rancagua. As they went between the cars, one friend was in front of her and another behind. The lights overhead were burnt out and it was hard to see. Unbeknownst to Daniela, the walkway that typically covers the gap between the couplings of the coaches was not in place. Her tall friend Diego, with his long legs, could easily step over the opening, but just as petite Daniela was following him in the dark, the train went around a large curve and the gap opened even wider.
Daniela took a step and suddenly felt herself falling through the air.
To her friends, one minute Daniela was with them and the next she was gone. A passenger having a smoke at the side of the coach said, “Hey, that girl just fell!”
DANIELA FELT AS IF SHE was being tugged from side to side. And then, as if waking up from a disorienting dream, she found herself lying in the middle of the tracks on a dark night.
She felt no pain, but her hair and something warm and sticky was on her face – blood from a small gash over her left eye. She moved her left hand to wipe the hair out of her eyes. Nothing happened. She tried again and it was as if her arm just fanned the air. Perplexed, she raised her head and looked. What she saw sent a shock of horror through her: her hand wasn’t there. From halfway down her forearm the rest of her left arm and hand were gone. She then looked at her other arm and the horror grew: her right forearm and hand had been severed too. She was bleeding profusely from the open wounds of two amputated arms. She tried to move and for the first time a surge of pain shot through her body.
Daniela doesn’t like to remember what she saw next. Her left leg was amputated between her hip and her knee. Her right leg was missing from just below the knee. The horror of realising she had four severed limbs was almost too much to endure. As a medical student she knew she must not panic. She knew her loss of blood must be massive.
ANOTHER TRAIN COULD come any minute, she realised. She had to get off the tracks and she had to get help soon or she would die. She was lying in a spot where the railway tracks curved sharply.
On one side was a high hedge; the other side a farmer’s field with a small house. She saw in the distance the lights of what looked like a gas station by a highway. Perhaps she could crawl to the light.
Somehow, despite her massive injuries and pain, she was able to lift her back and roll herself off the tracks so that she was lying in the gap between the north and southbound rail lines. But she could move no farther. She began to yell and scream, “Help me! Please help me!”
By chance, at that moment an itinerant farm worker named Ricardo Morales was enjoying a cigarillo in the warm night air while having a stroll down the tracks, as he did most evenings before turning in. His wife wouldn’t allow him to smoke in the house. He had been beside the tracks when the train packed with students rattled by. He could hear their singing. A few minutes later he heard Daniela yelling, “Help me.” He ran toward her.
“Don’t move, I will get help,” said the startled Morales. He ran to the public phone at the gas station. Seeing Morales and hearing his voice, Daniela felt the first wave of hope. But as he ran off and she waited for help to come, she felt her hope slipping away. “I must not lose faith,” she told herself.
WHEN THE EMERGENCY SERVICES of Rancagua received the call, a team of four was quickly dispatched by ambulance. Paramedic Victor Solis didn’t hold out much hope they would find the victim alive. But it took just four minutes to arrive at the spot where they saw Morales waving his arms between the highway gas station and the railway tracks. Grabbing his kit, Solis quickly followed Morales down a pathway to the tracks while fellow paramedic Patricio Herrera took more supplies out of the ambulance.
A pack of wild dogs was hovering menacingly near Daniela. Solis yelled and waved his arms, shooing them away as he ran up beside her. She was moaning. Despite an astonishing loss of blood, Daniela was still lucid. To his amazement she began to rattle off her name, her parents’ names, their phone numbers and the phone numbers of her uncles, who were also doctors. He had never had a patient so lucid after such a dire accident and so much lost blood.
“Shh! Be quiet. Stay calm,” he said as he knelt by her head. Herrera and the others came running down the tracks with a spinal board and more equipment.
“Is she dead?” Herrera yelled to his partner.
Am I dead? Daniela wondered. Maybe I am dead. But no she couldn’t be. “I am not dead!’ Daniela yelled, startling Herrera with the strength of her voice.
The team worked quickly, staunching the flow of blood with tourniquets on each limb, starting an IV, placing her in a neck brace and putting her on the spinal board. But suddenly they heard a rumbling sound and felt the rails vibrating – another train was coming. They could see the headlight of its engine lighting up both sets of tracks like silver beams. It was not safe to stay beside her, but they didn’t have time to lift her out of the way.
“A train is coming,” said Solis. “We must go. We will come right back.”
“Don’t leave me,” Daniela cried, as the ambulance team darted to safety just in time. Daniela felt the shaking and buffeting of wind as the train roared almost over her. It seemed to go on forever. Standing at the side, unable to see Daniela, Solis too felt the long train would never end. As soon as it cleared they ran back to her side, relieved to find that while the wind from the train had moved her a few feet, Daniela survived.
Eleven minutes after arriving at the site they packed Daniela into the ambulance and sped through Rancagua. She continued to rattle off names and phone numbers of family and friends. They arrived at the hospital a few minutes later. To everyone she saw, Daniela asked: “Am I going to be OK?”