Photographer Alison Wright, 45, has been locked in a day-to-day struggle for survival since January 2000, when a bus she was riding in Laos was struck by a logging truck. According to the medical professionals she has since consulted, she should have died that day. Her recovery (documented in her new book Learning to Breathe, Hudson Street Press) has defied all odds.
"When the truck hit, I slammed my head hard. I know it sounds cliché, but all I could see was a bright white light—I had to ask myself if I’d died. The impact instantly broke my back, pelvis, coccyx, and ribs; my left arm plunged through the window and was shredded to the bone; my spleen was sliced in half; my diaphragm and lungs were punctured; my heart, stomach, and intestines tore loose and actually lodged in my shoulder. When I came to, I looked around the bus, which was on its side, and the endorphins kicked in. I pushed apart the seats that pinned me down and managed to pull myself out of the bus and crawl out onto the road. Then I realized how difficult it was to breathe, and I started to think about my situation in very matter-of-fact terms. Like, I remember not wanting to cry and waste any water with my tears, and I checked to make sure I had my wallet so that if I died, people could ID me. I knew that if I was going to survive, I had to calm myself down and get my breathing under control. I’d studied Vipassana meditation and yoga for years, both of which focus on breathing techniques. I was able to call on that experience to calm my breathing, and as a result, calm myself. I remember looking at the bamboo moving in the wind around me and waiting for help, just focusing on my breaths.
"I was eventually rescued that day by a passing aid worker, who drove me seven hours to a hospital. Back home in San Francisco, though, I faced new challenges. Physically, I had to totally rebuild my muscles, which had atrophied after four months in bed. Doctors told me I should accept the fact that my life would never be the same. Obviously, they didn’t know me. When one told me I’d never have abdominal muscles again, I worked toward doing sit-ups. I eventually did a thousand a day. Every morning I’d wake up and put my feet on the ground and feel gratitude. When you grasp your own mortality, you really feel a bigger force at work. I set the goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which I did in 2004. For years, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had horrible nightmares about the accident. But in 2005, I traveled back to Laos and rode the same bus route again. I realized then what a gift it was to be thrown into adversity and come out on the other end.”
—As Told to Lucas Pollock
Analysis: Doctors I’ve talked to over the years lament that they can’t simply teach people to be like Alison—to move forward against all odds. There are patients who are so good at following instructions that if the doctor tells them they have six months to live, they die right on schedule. Alison certainly took control of her own destiny.
Next: Michael Andereggen: Trapped by Experience