Injury can't end her journey

Injury can't end her journey

After the boulder pierced and crushed her left leg, Miriam Young, pinned between two rocks, lifted her head and looked to the west.

There it was, beyond the heap of black volcanic rock: the Atlantic Ocean.

Waves pounded against the steep sides of Madeleine, an ancient island off the Senegalese coast.

That was when Miriam realized how far from home she really was.

She screamed. It echoed. She had never heard herself scream like that before.

From nearby, her friends called to her, "Don't look down. Don't look at it."

Her foot was barely attached to her leg.


"Nit nittaay garabam" is a Wolof proverb that translates to "Man is man's best medicine."

Miriam can't forget it.

"It literally has proven true to me. I carry that (proverb) with me, that we are responsible for each other," Young said.

The 22-year-old University of Illinois senior set out in the fall of 2004 to spend a year learning the culture and history of Senegal and working with a women's group in literacy and job-training programs.

She had been planning for the year abroad for a long time.

Born in Ecuador to a Canadian father and American mother who were on a two-year development project with the International Voluntary Service, Miriam spent her early childhood years in northern Saskatchewan. The family moved to the Chicago suburb of La Grange Park when she was 7 years old.

She always knew she wanted to study abroad. France, perhaps.

Throughout her early college years, not only would she travel to Latin and South America, but she would also study in India and Scotland. It wasn't until she participated in volunteer projects in Ecuador and Guatemala, such as helping out at rural health clinics or clearing land for a playground, that she realized she wanted to do more than just spend a year at a university abroad.

She wanted to work in international development. She wanted field work. She wanted to make a difference, help people.

It turns out she was the one who would need help.


On a sunny, late-October day two years ago, a group of students studying in Senegal boarded a small boat to Parc National de l'Ile de la Madeleine, an archipelago about 2 miles from the coastal city of Dakar. They planned to spend several hours swimming in lagoons and hiking several cliffs. Before the day ended, they planned to return to shore.

That morning, Miriam wondered: What if something happened out here?

The island, a national park, is home to cormorants, tortoises and sea urchins. Not people.

The land of algae-covered rocks juts out of the ocean. With so many rocky inclines, there are few spots for boats to come ashore. Visitors usually come for the day and bring their own water and food.

Now, Senegal can get hot, but September and October of 2004 were especially hot, even along the coast, with its Atlantic breezes.

With that said, the group spent the first part of their day trip swimming in the island's cool lagoons.

While swimming, Miriam sliced her finger open on a rock. Then a sea urchin got stuck under her toenail.

In hindsight, maybe she should have stayed on the beach, Miriam said.

But the group was intrigued with the island and its whirlpools, baobab trees, caverns and cliffs. They went exploring.

That's when the rockslide happened.

While one of the students was climbing parallel along an incline, some rocks came loose. A rock tumbled down and dislodged many other rocks. A boulder rolled down and pinned Miriam.

It knocked out three inches of her tibia, the inner bone that stretches from the knee to ankle. The left side of her leg was essentially an open wound. Her foot dangled from her leg, attached only by some layers of skin.

There was a lot of blood, Miriam remembered. She heeded her friends' advice and didn't look right at her leg.

They had to stop the bleeding, but the students packed lightly that day. They were wearing swimsuits. So a friend yanked off one of her bikini straps and they tied a tourniquet around Miriam's leg. Another friend held her foot and leg up while they waited for help.

They were far from where the boat was scheduled to pick them up. Below where they stood: rocks, cliff, ocean. There was no way a boat could come ashore nearby. And they couldn't move Miriam.

Her friends, who escaped the rockslide without major injuries, started dialing their cell phone. They called the American and French embassies. They called American Marines they had met in Senegal.

And they waited.

That day, the sun's rays were sharp. The black volcanic rock surrounding them didn't exactly make things easier. There was no shade.

The friends formed a circle around Miriam to block out the sun. Later, Miriam would see her friend's back blistered.

To pass the time and to keep Miriam from thinking about her leg and the pain, one girl recited poetry she had written. Another prayed. One friend sang "Big Rock Candy Mountain" to provide some comic relief; his voice was squeaky.

"I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends to be stranded on an island with," Miriam said.

Sometimes she would close her eyes, but her friends wanted to keep her conscious. They peppered her with questions and asked her to tell stories. To her surprise, random thoughts came to mind while lying there on the island. She told them about a tea-drinking cockatoo at her grandparents' house. Later in the hospital, she would receive a framed photo of said cockatoo.

A group of French tourists who were also exploring the island that day came to offer help. One of them was a firefighter.

At a rather emotional moment, when Miriam remembers the pain being particularly unbearable, the French firefighter, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, belted out Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender."

Eventually, a helicopter from the French embassy arrived, and they ushered Miriam to a hospital in Dakar. A Senegalese surgeon and French doctor stabilized the leg. She wouldn't know until she had arrived in the United States that she might lose her foot.

Before flying back to the U.S., Miriam stayed on the hospital's malaria floor for four days. They didn't have nurse call buttons, and when Miriam needed something, a roommate, who was recovering from giving birth, would rise from her bed to help.

Before she left the hospital, the woman told Miriam she would miss her and she wished her well on her journey.

At that moment, Miriam was reminded of the Wolof word for family: 'Waa ker gaa."

Literally it means "people of the house."

"But how do you define a house? Is it a structure? Your neighborhood? Your country? Your world?" Miriam said.

In Senegal, she learned all about community. Anyone who came to a house was considered family, as her host family had welcomed her and any other guest into their house.


Back in the U.S., doctors asked Miriam if she wanted to amputate or try a series of operations to rebuild the leg, muscle, tissue and skin. She opted for the latter.

Miriam underwent at least 10 different operations. To replace the lost bone, surgeons took bone from her pelvis. A skin graft from her thigh was used to repair the broken skin on her leg and an abdomen muscle replaced some of the lost soft tissue.

In the summer of 2005, she returned to the UI to take summer session classes. She took her first steps about a year after the accident.

And she has not forgotten about Senegal.

"I do feel I have to go back," she said.

Before leaving for Africa, she heard a number of comments that reflected common stereotypes about the continent. Are you scared? Is it safe? What if you fall ill over there?

Upon her return, crutches and all, she still had to counter that attitude.

She could have broken her leg anywhere, she told people.

She's still an advocate, an enthusiastic one at that, for studying abroad.

This past summer, Miriam led a volunteer project in Ecuador with the UI student group International Impact. They helped the indigenous community of Gualapuro build an elementary school.

And she works at the study abroad office as a peer adviser.

While preparing to graduate this spring with a degree in international studies and commercial French, Miriam is working on establishing a community-building project in Senegal.

Her "Small Steps" project is modeled after a Croatian Red Cross project that builds playgrounds in areas formerly dotted with land mines.

The idea is to create a safe place where people can come together.

Miriam is focusing on the Casamance region, which is rebuilding after years of conflict with the Senegalese government.

A lot of land mines are in the region, and many children have become victims.

"Life was so disruptive for so long," Miriam said. And perhaps a small thing, a playground in a mine-safe area, "would bring back a sense of unity to the community."

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