Lonely road to recovery: Being far from home adds isolation to injury for Gabriela Hernandez after a near-fatal crash
By Cynthia Hubert
Bee Staff Writer
(Published Sept. 23, 2001)
The building, with its beamed ceilings and walls of polished granite, is one of the most elegant Gabriela Hernandez has ever seen.

The doctors and nurses and therapists are kind, and the food is mostly good.

But this was not the way young Gabriela had hoped to experience America, from a wheelchair, racked with pain all of her waking moments, and perhaps worst of all, hopelessly alone.

Here at Shriners Hospital for Children, where she is receiving treatment for traumatic injuries from a June car crash that nearly killed her, Gabriela gets no visitors except her lawyer, Thomas Brill. Her mother and father are far away, in her tiny village in southern Mexico. Few here speak her language fluently, she said, or fully understand her culture.

Other than the pain and the knowledge that she may never walk again, Gabriela's worst suffering is her loneliness.

"Tomorrow is Independence Day in Mexico," she said through a translator on a recent morning, her dark eyes fixed on the American flag fluttering outside the hospital on Stockton Boulevard. "There will be parades and men on horses in the streets, and singing and special food. In the morning, they will raise the flag. Our flag is white and green and red, with an eagle and a serpent."

Only 14, Gabriela is an emancipated minor who seems poised and graceful beyond her years. She sits regally in her wheelchair, her long black hair tied in a ponytail and her fingernails painted bright pink. But when asked to describe her daily life at Shriners, her eyes cloud over with tears.

"It's a good hospital, I think," she said softly. "But I am tired of being here. I am all alone."

Her plight is not an unfamiliar one at the Sacramento Shriners institution, which each year treats thousands of young people from the western United States, Hawaii and Mexico for orthopedic problems, burns and spinal-cord injuries. The Northern California hospital is the only one of 22 in the Shriners network offering care in all three specialties, and it receives most of the burn and spinal patients referred from Mexico.

Many of the youngsters, from toddlers to older teens, are marooned for months at a time, struggling to recover from horrible injuries while battling intense feelings of isolation. For political, logistical, financial or other reasons, their parents and other relatives are often unable to come with them or even visit, leaving Shriners staffers to act as their surrogate families.

Shriners spokeswoman Catherine Curran said she could provide no firm figures on the number of young Mexicans who are in situations similar to Gabriela's. Less than 20 percent of the hospital's patients are from Mexico, she said. Most are from Northern California.

Brill, the Sacramento lawyer who is representing Gabriela and six other farmworkers injured in the crash, said he is aware of at least five youngsters like Gabriela who are undergoing treatment far from home and isolated from their families. As with all Shriners treatment, their care is top-notch and absolutely free.

"That is the amazing thing about Shriners," said Brill. "They take everyone, no questions asked."

Shriners has hospital translators and bilingual staff members who are sensitive to the special needs of Mexican patients, Curran emphasized.

"Still, it's very hard for these kids who are immigrants," said Brill. "In general terms, when people come from Mexico to improve their living conditions, there is a lot of dislocation. When you have a child who is all alone and doesn't have the emotional maturity, it is even harder."

Gabriela Hernandez could not wait to come to America. Others had told her about the beauty of California in particular, and she had seen the Stars and Stripes in her history books at school.

"I wanted to come and learn about it," she said. "I wanted to get to know it."

Like many children in Gabriela's rural Mexican village, where her parents raise beans and corn and chickens for food, she finished her public school education at age 13. She married a young man, and they planned to come to the United States for a while to work, as three of her siblings had done. As an undocumented immigrant, "I was scared," she said. "But I needed to go to see the United States, so that I could believe all that I had heard."

Gabriela and eight others were on their way to agricultural jobs in the Napa Valley when her American dream ended in a crush of metal and glass.

Her last memory of the trip is lying on the floor of a battered van that had no back seats and bounced wildly along the roadways. Minutes later, the van crashed on the Mokelumne River Bridge on Highway 12. Gabriela woke up at UC Davis Medical Center, confused and frightened.

"I tried to get up so that I could leave," she said. "But I could not move." Her back was broken in five places, and her skull was fractured. Eight others suffered serious injuries, and the driver of the van faces 11 felony counts of hit and run.

Gabriela talks about the accident only reluctantly. Even when she sleeps, she cannot escape it. "I see myself, and I think, 'Here comes a car!' and it scares me." When she wakes up in the night, "I want my family," she said.

Since the accident, Gabriela has been unable to walk without assistance, though she recently has taken a few tentative steps during physical therapy sessions.

Two of the other people injured in the accident, both adults, are still hospitalized. Gabriela's spouse, who was not in the van, is living in Stockton with an aunt, but he has been unable to visit her at Shriners because no one in the household has a car. The girl has older siblings in New York and in Florida, but they, too, have been unable to see her.

"I tell them, 'Please come, even if you have to walk,'" she said with a faint smile. But so far, no one has.

Gabriela's days, she said, are long and lonely.

She wakes up early and eats breakfast. She goes to school. She exercises and takes physical therapy. She commiserates with another Mexican girl, Griselda, who was injured in a car accident in Tijuana and also is alone. She can communicate with a few Shriners staffers, she said, and has managed to speak with her mother a couple of times. But the family has no phone at home, and Gabriela is no longer allowed to make expensive collect calls to a telephone in a nearby town.

Mostly, Gabriela keeps to herself.

"Some of the girls who work here bring me things to do so I won't just sit around being sad," she said. She is trying to learn some English. "I need pain pills" and "thank you" are two of the phrases she has mastered.

Brill, her lawyer, talks to her two or three times a week. "I can feel her loneliness," he said. He intends to try to bring one or more of the girl's family members from Mexico for a visit, but said he is not optimistic because obtaining emergency visas for that purpose is so difficult.

At the moment, Gabriela's future is a giant question mark.

Doctors are unsure when she will be able to leave Shriners. Maybe October, maybe November. She wonders whether she will be able to walk again. She is uncertain where she will live. Her husband's aunt in Stockton has a small apartment, but it is upstairs and cannot accommodate a wheelchair.

"If I can walk, I still want to work here," the girl said. "In my mind, I am working the grapes." If not, she said, she will return to Mexico as soon as possible, through whatever means she can.

"In my house, at least my mother could take care of me," Gabriela said. "At least then I will no longer be alone."

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The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916)321-1082 or chubert@sacbee.com.