In January 2000, while I was traveling through Laos on a Southeast Asia photo assignment, the bus I was riding in was sheared in half by a logging truck. My seat was at the point of impact. The force of the crash instantly broke my back, pelvis, coccyx, and ribs; my left arm plunged through a window, shredding it to the bone; my spleen was sliced in half; my diaphragm and lungs were punctured; my heart, stomach, and intestines tore loose and lodged in—yes, it’s possible—my shoulder. I would have bled to death if it hadn’t been for passersby, including a British aid worker, Alan, who drove me seven hours, bouncing and jarring over potholed roads, to a hospital in Thailand.
AS A DOCUMENTARY photographer and adventure traveler for more than 20 years, I had often been forced to test my limits. Years ago, I covered a brutal revolution in Nepal, when the army opened fire on demonstrators. Dozens of people were shot and killed, and tear gas was flying. I threw my shirt over my face and raced into the crowd. "If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room," I used to laugh to my friends. Now I had to live up to my words. There was no harsher edge than lying eviscerated on the roadside in Laos.
At Aek Udon Hospital, in Udon Thani, Thailand, I underwent numerous surgeries to repair my heart, lungs, and internal organs. My surgeon, Dr. Bunsom Santithamanoth, resutured my arm with more than 100 stitches, trying his best to clean out the innumerable shards of glass and bits of debris that the Laotian kid had left in.
Finally, I was medevacked to Kaiser, and my chart was translated from Thai.
"You realize you should be dead," my doctor there told me.
"Yeah, I’ve heard."
"No, I’m serious," he scolded. "You have to be aware of the extent of your injuries—the sutures inside, the scars outside, the broken bones to heal."
The day I scrubbed the blood off my camera bag was the first time I really cried. It had been three months since the accident, and life seemed intolerable. Insomnia was killing me. When I did sleep, I was tortured by violent dreams filled with lacerated bodies, screeching metal, and, for some reason, drownings. Finally, I decided that though my body might not be functioning, I could at least clear my fogged mind. I ceremoniously flushed my painkillers down the toilet.
Over the next few weeks, I bought every book I could find on alternative healing and studied medical texts in between. I found supportive doctors and incorporated acupuncture, meditation, homeopathic medicine, hypnosis, yoga, Pilates, and massage into my rehabilitation. I tried magnets for my back pain, and even cupping, an ancient Chinese practice used to stimulate blood circulation.
In the past, I’d thrived on jogging, kayaking, hiking, skiing, scuba diving, and yoga. Now, lifting a two-pound weight was a challenge. But I refused to give up. When one doctor told me I’d never have abdominal muscles again, due to all the surgeries, I started doing as many sit-ups as I could. Over the next year, I worked up to more than 1,000 per day.
In the fall of 2001, I managed to jog three miles on the beach in San Francisco. I was so happy, I hugged a startled Vietnamese fisherman.
THERE IS NO END to getting your life back—eventually, you have to come down the mountain. A few months after my climb, I realized that the physical healing had demanded so much energy, the emotional repair work had taken a backseat. My sleep was still plagued by nightmares. I often dreamed that I was with friends in Laos, and they all got on the bus. At the last minute I would become too paralyzed with fear to board, and I’d be left behind.
Exactly three years after the crash, on January 2, 2003, I was back in Thailand on a magazine assignment and got the chance to rewrite the past. I traveled north to the hospital in Udon Thani where I’d spent three weeks and waited patiently in the hallway. At first, Dr. Santithamanoth walked right past me. I stood to get his attention. When I told him who I was, his face lit up.