Even as she lay trapped inside an overturned bus in the middle of Bolivia’s salt flats – two hours away from civilization – Sarah Dean was not afraid to die.
The 26-year-old trauma nurse from Plainfield saw others in need of help.
“Everyone was evacuating the bus. I could see through the emergency exit and I could see people walking and I could see people were bleeding, but I couldn’t help them,” said Dean, who at the time was heading into her second week on a Christian medical mission trip in Bolivia. “I was what they needed. I mean, I’m a trauma nurse. That’s my skill.”
What was supposed to be a bus trip to bring medical supplies to another faith-based ministry in the remote town of Llica quickly turned into a deadly accident March 16 along Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats.
Two hours into the trip, a sports utility vehicle clipped the bus, turning it over on its side. The bus slid several yards with Dean’s left hand trapped between the window frame and the salty ground before coming to a stop. Three people in the SUV died and 16 were injured on the bus.
Dean’s instincts as a trauma nurse kicked in immediately, she said, but she couldn’t do anything for those around her as she suffered a head injury and her left hand was trapped.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to die here if I don’t get out.’ I just prayed to the Lord that if I die, it’s OK. I’m ready. I told God I wasn’t afraid to die,” she said. “But I prayed for him to either take me or get me out of here. That was my mentality at that point.”
She now had her own life to worry about. She was losing blood fast, she said, because a major artery in her arm was cut.
An ambulance was at least an hour out, so Dean took matters into her own hands. To stop the bleeding, she made a makeshift tourniquet out of string pulled from a friend’s cowboy hat. She and another woman used a soup spoon to dig out Dean’s hand from the hard, cement-like salt.
Once freed from the bus, Dean spent several days in the hospital, undergoing two surgeries in Bolivia before being released back to the U.S. She lost four fingers on her left hand, and the fifth had to be amputated.
Strength through adversity
While doctors were unable to reattach her fingers, Dean is on the road to recovery at her parents’ home in Plainfield.
Since the accident, Dean has worked to build up her strength and range of motion through twice-a-week, at-home occupational therapy.
She’s optimistic about her upcoming appointment with Dr. Todd Kuiken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, considered one of the best rehabilitation centers in the country. Kuiken, who serves as director of RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine, specializes in prosthetics, she said.
“I don’t know what’s in store for my injury, but it’s one day at a time. It’s one moment at a time. Their goal, as my team, is to get me back into my career field, whatever that may be,” she said. “If anything, I can relate to a trauma patient more than ever before because I’ve walked through it. Maybe I can do counseling with them or pain management education. I don’t know what’s in store.”
<SUBHEAD>The big picture<SUBHEAD>
Dan Hennenfent, executive director of the Sheridan, Ill.-based Cup of Cold Water Ministries that Dean traveled to Bolivia with, said he’s amazed by the progress Dean has made since returning to the U.S.
“Of course there are days of discouragement, but in the big picture, Sarah is coming out even more capable and stronger than would have been thought otherwise,” Hennenfent said. “Looking ahead for Sarah, I think having lost part of a limb will only allow her to help even more people.”
Dean’s mother, Cindy Dean, said she’s grateful for the love and support the family has received, and the care her daughter received overseas. She’s optimistic about Sarah eventually returning to her career as a trauma nurse or similar field.
“Sarah will continue to wait on the Lord and watch for opportunities to serve and help people as she has done in the past,” she said. “She is a nurse. And that’s what a great nurse does.”
Sarah Dean said the accident also put everything she had been doing in Bolivia up to that point — saving the lives of those who otherwise have little access to health care and building upon her own relationship with God — into focus.
“Whether I’m out in Bolivia or at my job in the hospital as a trauma nurse, I’m serving the Lord. I always consider it holy ground whether I’m working in a hospital room here in the states or whether I’m on a dirt floor in the middle of the jungle in Bolivia,” she said. “God loves people and I love helping people. He said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ ... I look at it like I’m doing it for the Lord, too, because these are his people.”
Dean said she hopes to inspire others through her experience.
“I would do this all over again. I think of the people I did get to help and meet through this entire process,” Dean said of her time providing medical care to the people of Bolivia. “It’s not my story. It’s God’s story. If one person can know God or Jesus through this, it’s all worth it to me.”
To help Sarah Dean and her family with medical bills, visit the family’s fundraiser at www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/support-and-prayers-for-sarah/151487