“I cannot give thee less, to be call’d grateful: Thou thought’st to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death to those that wish him live…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, i)

The holiday of Thanksgiving holds some pretty significant memories and anniversaries for me.  Of course the day itself conjures up remembrances of huge family get-togethers in drafty west Texas garages when I was little, and then later, taste memories of my favorite foods that my Mom would cook each year as we grew up (her dressing could seriously win awards).  But it’s actually the day before Thanksgiving as well as the day after it that now both occupy the forefront of my mind when I think of this particular holiday.

Last year at this time I wrote a post about the rainy day I moved to Austin, which was the day before Thanksgiving, five years ago now.  (Read that post here if you missed it.)  It’s hard to believe I’ve been here five whole years now already.  The past year has actually been pretty steady and consistent, which has been a welcome change after the many tumultuous years prior to that.  I’m thankful to have a job that I like, and a business that I’m enjoying building piece by piece, a nice little roof over my head, and of course a family that is both near and dear.  I’ll always remember the day before Thanksgiving as the day I moved to where my family was waiting for me.

The day after Thanksgiving holds a different kind of memory for me, and in fact, part of it holds no memory at all.  It happened in a city with a crazy name – Ouagadougou, when I was about three-quarters of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African country of Burkina Faso from 1999-2001.  Most of us had traveled from our villages into Ouaga (the capital) at the invitation of the US Ambassador, who hosted an incredible Thanksgiving feast for us at his residence.  Our eyes popped out of our heads at the multiple tables heaving with actual American Thanksgiving food, and, after months of having eaten only tiresome rice and millet porridge, we gorged ourselves silly until we were literally sick (or at least I did).

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

The next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up and made plans for the day – first on my list was to head to the main post office in the middle of the city so that I could 1) pick up my monthly living allowance stipend and 2) mail my brother an African poster I’d gotten for him at a recent local art festival.  I felt good, the weather was great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at the American Embassy rec center.  I had no idea as my taxi dropped me off at the post office that I was about to experience one of the worst and most traumatic days of my life.

I waited patiently in the crowded customer area of the post office until it was finally my turn to withdraw my money from my account there, and then stuffed the poster into a cardboard tube and covered it with stamps to mail it.  I put most of my money into a small pouch that I wore hidden under my shirt.  Then I put just a few CFA (Burkina money), enough for a taxi, into a larger purse-type bag that I wore slung around one shoulder.  This bag was worn on the outside and was visible – Mistake #1.

I exited the post office onto a very busy roundabout traffic circle and waited several minutes for a taxi to stop at my signal, but none would.  I was trying to get to the Embassy, which was about a mile away from the post office.  It was 12:00 noon at this time & I was looking forward to a milkshake and maybe some pizza from the Rec Center cafe.  After several more minutes I got impatient of waiting for a taxi and decided to just walk to the Embassy – Mistake #2.  And, I was alone – Mistake #3.

The walk to the Embassy was almost a straight shot – mostly down a long, very busy boulevard, then turn left onto a side street, cross a bridge over a large and deep ravine, then take a right for about a block, and then another left, at which point you’d be there.  I’d walked it before with other Volunteers, so it was a familiar route.  It was broad daylight.  I’d been in the country for about a year and a half by this time, so I felt confident and reassured of doing things on my own.  I was an independent woman.

And then I wasn’t.

I’d just taken that first left turn and noticed several vendor stalls set back from the street on my left, merchants selling their wares.  I saw the bridge just ahead of me, with silver railings on each side and a narrow dirt walkway bordering the pavement.  It happened extremely fast.  I heard him before I saw him – running footsteps on the gravely dirt behind me and his rapid breathing, and then confusion and shock as he grabbed my bag that was slung around my shoulder and across my chest.  He jerked downwards, thinking it would just come off, but it didn’t – it had a thick strap, and I instinctively grabbed onto the bag and fought for it – Mistake #4.

He was Burkinabe, but other than that I don’t know what he looked like.  I do remember screaming – in English, not French, I guess I was too panicked – at the top of my lungs toward the nearby vendor stalls “help me help me help me help me!”  And then, everything just went black.  The next several minutes have been – I hope permanently – wiped from my memory.

I woke up at the bottom of the deep ravine under the bridge.  It was a sewage ditch with running water and raw waste that ran through the city, and I estimate that it was about a 16-foot fall.  I was lying on my back and face up in mud and water and waste and weeds, and the first thing I saw was my attacker’s face as he stood over me.  I would be told later from bystander witnesses that once the thief saw I wouldn’t give up my bag, he pushed me over the side of the ditch that was just before the protective railing, and then he ran to the opposite bank and sidestepped his way down to the bottom of the ravine where I was.  As I lay there stunned, he pulled my bag over my head, or maybe he cut it off, I don’t really remember, but I do remember turning my head to watch him then run with it down a huge round metal tunnel.  I remember several other men were yelling at him and had also jumped down into the ditch and ran after him to try to catch him.  They wouldn’t.

I tried to sit up, and fire ripped through my shoulder.  I remember being very worried for some reason about trying to find my flip-flops, which had fallen off.  I looked up toward the sky, I heard yelling – the vendors had rushed over to the side and were yelling at me to hurry up and climb up the dirt bank.  Their arms were outreached toward me, waving encouragement.  I was able to stand up, but when I tried to lift my left arm to reach toward them, I almost fainted from the pain and stumbled backwards.  I used my right arm and hand to grab handfuls of dirt to climb up the side of the ditch.  I finally was able to grab the hand of a man who pulled me the rest of the way up.  I yelled at him to not touch my other arm.

I asked my helpers to get a taxi to take me to the Embassy.  They frantically flagged one down and told the driver what had happened – he stared at me through the window, and what a sight I must have been.  He drove me the two minutes around the corner and I apologized profusely that I couldn’t pay him…”my money was just stolen, I’m so sorry”…I’d forgotten I had my other bag under my clothing.  He waved me out of the taxi and I stumbled up to the armed guard at the gate – I told him simply “I’ve been attacked, I’ve been attacked, please help me.”  It couldn’t have been later than 12:30 PM by this time – and everyone in the Peace Corps office was out to lunch.

The guard half-carried me inside and the only other person there was a cleaning lady, she was pushing a yellow mop bucket around.  He barked something at her and she ran to meet me with a rolling desk chair.  They eased me down into the chair and while they started making frantic phone calls to try to get the medical team back to the office, I sat there on that blue chair, waiting, shivering from shock, crying.  I remember that I slowly realized I was having trouble breathing – I was taking deep gasping breaths in, but feeling like I was suffocating.  I croaked to the mop bucket lady that I couldn’t breathe, please help me.  Hang on, hang on, she said, they’re on their way, just hang on a little longer.  She asked me if I wanted something to drink; I shook my head no.

The Peace Corps medical officer (MO) would tell me later that when she got word at the restaurant what had happened, that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been attacked and was seriously injured, she literally leapt up from the table and drove back to the Embassy faster than she’d ever driven in the city before.  I was still sitting in that blue chair when she and her assistant burst through the door and into action, asking me questions and taking my vitals and making more urgent phone calls.

I told her I couldn’t breathe, but the pulse oximeter they had on me showed I was getting adequate oxygen.  Eventually she told me she needed me to get up from the chair and into the exam room.  I tried, but I couldn’t get up – I cried out in pain as every muscle and ligament in my back felt like they had been ripped apart (they had).  I couldn’t stand up; she lifted me out of the chair, apologizing for the pain it was causing me, and they shuffled me to the exam room and up onto a table/bed.  It was only at this point that I noticed I was trailing blood from a mangled big toe. It didn’t even hurt, which I thought was weird.  (Adrenaline is an amazing thing.)

The MO told me an ambulance was on the way so they could take me to the hospital for x-rays; while we waited, she started cleaning up my toe and other skin abrasions that I didn’t even know I had.  She took the hair clip out of my hair and brushed it, smoothing it down…a very kind gesture that I only appreciated much later.  (She would tell me later that before she did that, I looked like one of those pencil troll dolls whose hair sticks straight up.)  I remember Ambassador Kolker came to see me while I was in that room waiting, he’d been informed of what happened and he rushed over to see if I was ok – and to tell me they’d do whatever they could to catch and prosecute my attacker.  I think I cried on his suit jacket when he gave me a hug.

Getting into that ambulance was probably the most physically painful experience of my life – every step was excruciating, and then having to climb up into the back of it and into a chair seat…I was sobbing out in pain and I didn’t even care who saw me or heard me.  A few minutes later we arrived at the back door of the x-ray facility, and then more pain as I was manipulated into unending different x-ray positions.  We were pretty sure at that point that my collar-bone was broken, and I know the MO was also worried about my back and my ankle (I had a pretty bad limp by this point).

The damage tally once it was all determined:  a shattered left clavicle (collar-bone), two broken ribs, a fractured ankle bone, a chipped tooth, the previously-mentioned mangled toe, and severe muscle and ligament damage in my back (which is what had been causing the labored breathing).  The ambulance brought me back to the Embassy, and a few hours later I was then transported to a private French medical clinic for three days of initial treatment.  The MO needed to consult with Peace Corps medical headquarters in Washington, show them the x-rays, etc…and they eventually decided to fly me back to Washington DC for surgery on my shoulder.

But I was to remain in Burkina for five days before my flight out.  Those three days in the clinic are a haze; I remember several Volunteers coming to visit me…one of them, Cristina (a certified RN and an angel), even helped me to use a bedpan on that first day because I couldn’t get out of the bed due to my back injuries – talk about going above and beyond.  I was so grateful for her help and her professionalism.  I remember the French nurses being mean and unfeeling the next day, telling me that if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I needed to get myself up and down to the bathroom without their help; I cried as I slowly inched my way out of the bed and wheeled my IV stand down the hall.  My Burkinabe colleagues came all the way from the village to visit me on my third day there, after I’d made an emotional phone call to them the day before to tell them what had happened.  They held back tears and clasped my hands, these people who had adopted me into their families and village, as we said goodbye – we all knew it might be the last time we ever saw each other if I wasn’t able to recuperate fully enough to come back and finish the last seven months of my service.

On the third day, I was discharged to spend my last night at the Peace Corps house and pack my things for my medical evacuation back to America.  On the ride from the clinic, the MO agreed to stop the van at the site of the incident – I gingerly climbed out of the van and walked over to where I’d gone over the edge.  The police had put up orange barrier tape after the incident report had been filed.  The van driver held my arm as I peered over the tape down into the ditch below; it took my breath away how far down it was.  The MO gazed down as well and then turned to me with a shocked look – she was thinking the same thing as me: I was lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured.  It was the closest thing to a miracle that I personally have ever been a part of.  The vendors from the street side stalls slowly approached us as we stood there – they recognized me and offered their well wishes.  One of them apologized, saying he wished he could’ve done more.  Another said that if the thief was seen again and caught, he’d likely be killed by those chasing him down. 

(They never did catch him, but they did find my bag later that day, emptied of its contents and discarded outside one of the well-known expensive French ex-pat hotels; he’d left my Peace Corps ID as the only remaining item inside.)

I was so grateful that Peace Corps approved and paid for Cristina to accompany me back on the flight, since I couldn’t carry my own bags and was still pretty doped up on pain meds.  The day before I left, I finally called my family from the MO office to let them know that I’d been hurt and was heading back to the States for treatment.  It’s a bit mind-boggling to me now that I waited that long to call them, and when I did, I didn’t tell them what had really happened; instead, I told them I’d been injured in a bike accident.  It’s a long story, but I legitimately feared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t let me (a grown 30-year-old woman) go back, and I wanted to go back if at all possible.  I told them the truth years later of what really happened as part of my ongoing therapy to deal with the PTSD issues.

Cristina and I started the long trek home, flying through Paris (in business class no less, so I would have more room for my injured shoulder) and arriving in a freezing cold and snowy DC on the evening of November 29th.  I remember the customs officer who searched our bags laughing at us in our tank tops and flip-flops, no coats, completely unprepared for the subfreezing weather – he correctly guessed we were Peace Corps Volunteers. We were then shuttled to the Peace Corps hotel where all the medical evacs stay – a surreal place of walking wounded, both physical and psychological.  We were thrilled to raid the Peace Corps headquarters travel closet to borrow appropriate winter gear the next day.

The next morning I made my way to the orthopedic surgeon’s office (who by the way was Wayne Gretsky’s surgeon also, he had several signed jerseys on his walls) for an evaluation; he took more x-rays and immediately bumped me to first on the surgery schedule for the following morning at George Washington hospital.  Up until then, my shoulder had just been taped to try to stabilize the bones and injury, but as you can imagine it was very uncomfortable.  On the morning of December 1 – one week after it happened – he opened up my shoulder and put back together the multiple pieces of my clavicle, wrapping them all up neatly with a stainless steel bow that I carry in there to this day (along with its 6-inch scar).  I spent one night in the hospital and was discharged the next day back to Hotel Sickie.  I had a bad reaction to the pain meds and that’s when I broke down and called my Dad to come help me – which he did, arriving that night in heroic Dad fashion to help nurse me back to health.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

When you’re medically evacuated in Peace Corps, you’re usually allowed a total of five weeks for treatment and recuperation.  If you’re not healed by that time and cleared for service, you don’t go back to country and your service is terminated.  I was determined not to let that happen; I wanted to get back to Burkina.  I did all of my exercises and followed doctor’s instructions exactly (and got plenty of physical activity exploring snowy Washington every day for several weeks), and on the very last day of those five weeks, I met my doctor in his office and stared him in the eyes to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was ready.  He stared back at me for a long time, finally looking down to sign the clearance forms on his desk.  A few days later I was back on a plane to Africa; my arm was in a sling and my startle reflex was on high alert, but I was back.  I finished my service, and it made me a stronger person to face what had happened and try to overcome it.

So…that’s my day-after-Thanksgiving story.  I’ve second-guessed myself hundreds of times around the whole thing: if only I’d stayed in my village and not traveled into Ouaga for the holiday; if only I’d been more patient to wait for a taxi at the post office; if only I’d been smarter and not worn my bag where it was visible; if only I’d not been by myself.  I know what happened wasn’t my fault, but I am also not blameless.  I also know how lucky I am that I did not die that day – I could have landed on my neck, or broken my back, or hit my head.  I don’t remember anything at all of the fall itself, and when I explored this issue during subsequent therapy, I was told I probably never will; certain brain chemistry happens during such a trauma in order to help the body physically survive, but in the process wipes out memory aspects.  And that’s ok by me.  And despite what happened, I also don’t regret my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – the good memories outweigh the bad, and in my book, that’s a success.

Just typing the account of this story, I was shaking all over again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever put it all down on paper.  I hardly ever think about that day now, 14 years later – except around this time of the year.  I may not remember the fall, but the vivid clarity with which I can remember everything else that followed that day is astounding to me.  I think that blue rolling office chair sticks in my mind more than anything else – for a time, I really believed I was going to die in that chair.  I was fixated on hanging onto the sides of it, as if I were literally hanging on for dear life.  As I waited there, alone, gasping for breath for what seemed like forever, I focused on the color of the chair, the threads in the cushion, the height of it that left my toes grazing the floor.  That chair is a part of me forever now.  I’m grateful for it, as I’m so very grateful for everyone that day that helped me in all those different ways – the man who pulled me out of the ditch, the taxi driver who got me to the Embassy, the guard that helped me inside, the medical team that took care of me, the friends and family who helped me through the aftermath.  And the mop bucket lady who gave me a chair to sit in. 

I have a lot to be thankful for every Thanksgiving when I think of them.  Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I do, I thank you.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi