Survivor Story: Healing After Haiti

HAITI DISASTER

 

It's late on a Sunday afternoon, and sunset has crept up on Christa Brelsford. The 25-year-old is trying to clean the grapefruit juice she spilled on the kitchen floor, fold the laundry she left cooling in the dryer, and do a few things around the house before Monday sweeps in and carries the weekend away. The Arizona sun shines through the sliding glass door, bouncing off a flagging welcome home balloon hanging behind the couch.

While a typical Sunday should have involved a run or a long bike ride, today Christa is focused on more manageable tasks like household chores. Taking a break, she sits down on the couch, picks up her laptop, logs on, and then notices her cat settling down comfortably on the floor in front of her. It's impossible, she thinks to herself. There's no way the cat can be sitting right there–my foot is supposed to be there.

Supposed to be. Christa is now an amputee, her right leg missing from the shin down. And every now and then, she almost forgets.

Christa's life was transformed during what is being described as the worst natural disaster in recent history. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake in and around the densely populated capital of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and affected millions of others. Christa was among those who narrowly survived.

Christa had traveled to Haiti in early January with her brother Julian, 27, a volunteer with Heads Together Haiti, a literacy and environmental organization. He needed her help designing a retaining wall in a rural town just outside the city; the wall would be a barrier to help protect the town from the flooding caused by hurricanes. Christa was eager to spend some quality time with Julian, so it hadn't taken much convincing to get her to go, and she was perfect for the job: She was a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University, working on a degree in sustainability, the study of international development, infrastructure, water resources, and climate change. This wasn't the first time she'd volunteered her time abroad. Before studying civil engineering as an undergrad, she'd spent four months in Guatemala teaching English and math at an orphanage. This strong sense of purpose had been instilled in Christa and her siblings by their parents, who raised them in Alaska in the Quaker tradition, a religion that emphasizes selflessness and social justice.

Christa was also in great physical shape to take on the challenge. She had been involved in sports her whole life, and athleticism runs deep in her soul: "If I'm not moving, I'm not being," she says. After completing her undergrad degree, she had taken a year off to rock climb, her true passion. She loves everything about it–the feel of the rocks, the soaring heights, even the inevitable falls. "Falling is the closest you can get to flying. I know the rope isn't going to break," she says. An accomplished climber, she had been featured in several climbing magazines and had just run her first half marathon.

On the warm, quiet morning of January 12, Christa and her brother were visiting a friend. "Earlier, Julian and I had walked an hour and a half up the mountainside to help with medical relief for a different project," says Christa. "We were walking back down, and we went to someone's house that had an Internet connection." The two sat down, and Julian was just opening his laptop when the building began to shake. Christa dropped the book she was holding and began to run, following Julian toward the staircase. The rumbling turned to wild shaking, the walls lost their purpose, and the floors began to give way. Julian stopped beneath a metal door frame to protect himself, but Christa didn't make it as far. She fell and found herself pinned under a large concrete slab.

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