24 / Babel / Love

She'd been shot, on a bus, between jungle and mountains, and we had to get her home.

Nothing like having a loved one take a bullet to start a vacation off hot. To collapse the gap between news and life. Not that you asked, but here are my first 24 hours away from the microphone...

It started beautiful. We few into San Francisco, headed over the Golden Gate Bridge, and sat down for lazy lunch in Tiberon with Number One Son. He'd just run, that morning, in the San Francisco marathon. Exhausted, but still on a runner's high. Happy. Sparkling sunshine on the bay. Sweet downtime. We're driving back through the eucalyptus-scented hills of the Presidio. Cell phone rings. It's his young bride. She's been shot in Honduras.

Liza's a med student, off to Central America for summer weeks, studying medical Spanish and working in an emergency room in La Ceiba, northern Honduras. She had grabbed a public bus with a few friends for a day trip to Trujillo. Somewhere along the way, a guy gets on the bus, walks up to the man sitting right in front of her, and starts filling him with bullets. Many bullets. Shoots him dead. Looks like a drug hit. One bullet, says Liza — her voice high and far away on the iPhone — tore past, or through, its target or something and slammed into her. Right leg, below the knee. There was blood, mayhem. Passengers jumping out the windows. She did, too. Bullet in her leg. Shattered bone. Bleeding.

Dylan almost dropped the phone. "Where are you now?"

The line was breaking up. Her voice sounded brave but weak. She'd been lifted into the back of a passing pickup truck, bounced an hour and a half back to La Ceiba, leg wrapped in God knows what, in pain, her friend Zoe (hero!) with her all the way. She was in a hospital of some kind. Still bleeding.

The line dropped. She was gone. And straight out of the blue, we were in movieland's "Babel." Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett took their Hollywood bullet in Morocco. But the story felt the same. A bullet flies far, far away and crashes into one beloved. And our 21st-century media put us there but not there. Through the movies, through the cell phone, through the web. Aware, but imperfectly. Plugged in, but not there to stop the bleeding.

In minutes we were on five phones, on the web, tracking the roads, the city, Honduran gangs and bus murders, staring at her hospital in old photos. Staring at the nearest runway on Google images. Banging through the list of air evacuation services from California to Texas to Florida. On the phone to her parents. Imagining the best scenario. Imagining the worst. Life. Leg. Blood. Infection. Can a bullet be tainted if it's passed through another body? Hepatitis? Worse? "I'm still bleeding," she had said. A mention of surgery as the line broke up. And pain. We had to get her out of there. Up in the air. Home.

Day and night merged. A blur of calls, e-mail, fear, hope, coaxing, shouting, beseeching. Medical evacuation doesn't happen by snapping your fingers. Lots of hurdles, clearances, insurance mazes — and money — before the planes will move. "We'll see in five days," said one insurance rep. And the lines burned. At midnight, we were downtown, high in Dylan's San Francisco office, faxing out medevac releases. Tracking jets in Texas. On the phone with Liza's UC San Francisco medical school dean (hero!). Dylan had run in a marathon that morning, and now was burning up the lines all night to save his wife's life. I was in awe.

By dawn, things were moving. By noon, a jet was on its way. By mid-afternoon, Liza was on it, wheels up, jungle and mountains falling away below. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, we all cheered and hugged in their apartment when the call came. Wheels up! The bullet was still in her leg. We didn't really know the damage. But she was on her way.

"What about the other people on that bus?" Dylan wondered aloud, again, as he had all night. Good question. But you do what you can for the ones you love. And he'd done it for Liza. "You have to prioritize your traumas," said one doctor in the whirl. A phrase I'll remember. And this, from another doc and news to me: "Bullets are sterile. From heat. From velocity. Bullet wounds are clean wounds." OK. Good to know.

The phone just rang. She's out of the surgery room in San Francisco. Things are looking good. Thank God.

So, that's how I started my summer vacation. Murder. Medevac. Crisis. Relief. In 24.

This program aired on August 5, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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