Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

WORLD HEALTH DAY-URUGUAY: When Loved Ones Become Accident Statistics

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, Apr 6 2004 (IPS) - While experts around the world are discussing how to prevent traffic accidents, which claim an estimated 1.2 million lives worldwide every year, families in every nation quietly try to survive the pain of losing their loved ones.

”You have to just continue on,” says Virginia Montes, who lost her 23-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister in a car crash in 1990 but tries to look towards the future as she raises her small children.

”They are not there,” says her father Eduardo Montes, gazing at photos of the son and daughter he lost. But he has a strong grip on his emotions, and has provided a lifeline for his wife with his gentle smile and jokes, his strength and his determination to pick up the pieces of their broken lives.

The Montes’s live in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, a South American country of 3.3 million sandwiched between two giant neighbours, Argentina and Brazil.

According to a 1998 report by the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), traffic accidents are the main cause of death among people under the age of 35 in Uruguay, with most of the victims between the ages of 23 and 27.

In its ‘World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention’ released ahead of World Health Day, which is celebrated Apr. 7, the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out that low- and middle-income countries accounted for 90 percent of traffic crash fatalities in 2002, despite the proportionally smaller number of cars than in high-income nations.

The theme for World Health Day this year is ‘Road Safety Is No Accident’.

The 1998 'Review of Traffic Safety – Latin America and Caribbean Region’ funded by the Inter-American Development Bank reported that Uruguay had one of the highest rates of deaths per 10,000 motor vehicles – 33.4 – in Latin America and the Caribbean, ranking in fourth place after Venezuela (58.4), Colombia (54.9), and Belize (34.2).

Virginia’s brother Fernando and her sister Analía came to form past of those statistics on May 30, 1990.

At 16:30 on that rainy autumn day in Montevideo, Fernando set out in his car to collect Analía at high school. On the way home, they dropped by his workplace to pick up a few things.

The phone in the office rang. It was Mirta, their mother. ”Is Fernando there?” she asked.

”He’s just leaving,” the secretary answered. ”He’s on his way home. Do you want me to call him over?” But Mirta said she would talk to him when he arrived.

He never did.

Two other youngsters, speeding along the Montevideo coastal avenue known as the ‘rambla’, lost control of their vehicle, which rolled into a car in the oncoming lane – the station wagon Fernando was driving.

In a split second, the lives of two families were changed forever.

After the crash and the deadly silence, the shouts – ”Don’t touch anything!” – the sirens, the commotion, the ambulances rushing the wounded away to the hospital. A few minutes later, Mirta and Eduardo pulled up in their car frantically searching for their children.

Mirta ran towards the totalled vehicle, to find that her son and daughter had been taken to the hospital.

”If only I would have insisted that he take my call, made him lose just a few seconds,” she has repeated endlessly since then, without finding either an answer or any sense to the question.

Eduardo turned towards the other car to take his rage out on those guilty of causing the accident. But he couldn’t: they were dead. Another family destroyed just a few metres away.

The desperation and uncertainty, the rush to the hospital, where they found out that Fernando was dead and Analía was mortally injured.

While Mirta sat by Analía in her last few hours of life, Eduardo went to the hospital morgue to identify his son’s body.

”When I saw him, I found peace, because I realized that this was not Fernando. Everything he was, that vitality and energy that characterised him, was not there in the body; he was with God,” he recalls today, with a sad smile.

Identifying the body, making arrangements with the funeral home, taking care of what was left of the car – Eduardo found he was able to continue moving forward by taking on the tasks that someone had to take care of.

He wept, but he was determined not to give in to his grief, and to remain strong for his wife and the daughter they still had.

But Mirta slowly collapsed. She stopped uttering the names of her lost son and daughter, and struggled in vain to wipe them out of her memory. However, they kept coming back.

Virginia found that she had not only lost her brother and sister, but her mother as well, who turned in on herself in her grief.

The remorse was overwhelming. If she would have just done this or said that. If she would have asked the secretary to call Fernando over to the phone. But she finally understood that reproaches and regrets would slowly strangle the family.

Mirta and Eduardo found out that ”the doctors’ route” – as they call it – was not the best way to go, because sleeping pills don’t calm the soul. At home, silence, or quiet weeping, reigned, as well as Mirta’s indifference towards Virginia and her grandchildren.

The first five years were sheer torture. Mirta felt the call of her dead children and tried three times to follow them. But her husband’s vigilance and strength pulled her back from the brink of death.

One day, Virginia simply couldn’t take it anymore. ”I should have died with them, maybe then you would remember me,” she told her mother, and it was like a slap in the face that revived Mirta, who understood that she was sinking, and led her to set out on a new phase in her life.

Eduardo and Mirta found a group of parents who had also lost sons and daughters to accidents, and discovered that they were not alone, and that by helping others, they could help themselves.

Mirta was finally able to talk about the crash, and name her daughter and son, as she tried to find a way to help others.

”Only someone who has lived through this can really understand, and that’s why we have to help others,” she tells the parents who visit her, showing them the photos of Fernando and Analía as she takes her husband’s hand. They both have tears in their eyes, but they are calm. They have said their good-byes.

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