One of the many things J’lea Alto remembers about the morning of her car wreck June 2 was Eminem’s Mockingbird blaring on the stereo.
“It’s a sad song; it already tears me up,” she said Friday, six weeks later. “There’s me, sitting there bleeding out and hoping for my life, listening to this song. It means a lot to me, and I’m like, ‘Turn it off! Turn it off!’”
Alto remembers the whole night — the first part of which was the best in her 18 years of life, she said.
She joined a friend with whom she rarely gets to spend time and ventured 16 miles up North Bank Chetco River Road to South Fork Campground to party with about 20 other young people. The party would continue until almost sunrise.
Alto, her boyfriend, Jayden Kidd, and a handful of others left the party at about 4 a.m. Kidd was driving; Alto was a passenger in the front seat. Someone asked how fast they were going; Alto said 35 miles an hour. He responded that he wanted to go slower so the night would last longer.
“It was the vibes; it was just in the air,” she said of the feel of the night’s festivities. “We were all just having fun. Everyone was enjoying themselves.”
What happened next would change all their lives.
Kidd said he thought he saw something on the side of the road and swerved to avoid it. He overcorrected to stay on the winding road, he said. Alto, who was facing the other passengers in the back, was jolted back to what was going on.
“I remember it all,” she said.
We’re all we got in this world
When it spins, when it swirls
When it whirls, when it twirls …
Alto found herself sitting on the ground. Then she stood up, but sat back down after seeing all the blood pouring from an injury on her head. Soon, however, she realized it wasn’t just the head injuries — one required six staples, another seven stitches — but her right arm.
Her arm was flayed open, exposing the bones. Skin doesn’t stand much of a chance against asphalt; the rough roadway had churned her muscles, tendons, nerves, skin to hamburger. Her fingers soon blackened due to a lack of circulation.
“It looked like it’d been put in the blender,” Alto said.
“It looked to me like someone had taken a shotgun to it,” Kidd said.
Alto knew she would lose the limb, but she feared more so losing her life.
I can see you’re sad, even when you smile, even when you laugh
I can see it in your eyes, deep inside you want to cry …
Kidd, whose mother is an emergency specialist, took off his shirt to stanch the bleeding. He tied a shoelace around her upper arm.
The kids knew that 911 would work even if they were out of cellular range and called for help. Alto was transported to Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City, then flown to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California, where she underwent three blood transfusions and surgery to remove the arm above the elbow.
She has left a small stub of her humerus and enough skin and nerves to be fitted for a prosthesis. That day, however, is still a ways off.
Alto is now in physical therapy twice a week. She has her regular doctor to report to, as well as her surgeon and other specialists. The hospital cost $500,000, of which she is not sure how much she must pay.
Her dreams have changed.
She’d hoped to graduate Brookings-Harbor High School this spring, but now plans to get her GED to make her teachers happy.
But she wanted to be a beautician, or a tattoo artist or work with hair or makeup. Those plans are dashed, she believes.
I know sometimes things may not always make sense to you right now
But hey, what daddy always tell you?
Straighten up little soldier
Stiffen up that upper lip
What you crying about?
“I realize if I don’t get an arm, I can’t do these things,” she said of the $60,000 cost for a prosthetic. “Now I want to focus on traveling, being a world photographer. I want to travel the world and set my camera up with Little Stubby” — the nickname she’s given what remains of her arm — “click the button and share beautiful pictures. My friends say I won’t make any money doing that; I don’t care about the money. I just want to travel, make memories. Be happy.”
Alto is sometimes shy, but she’s got grit, too.
Before she can do anything, however, she has to learn basics. As a right-handed young woman forced to use her left hand, she doesn’t always hit her mouth when eating. She has put on socks — but sometimes they fly off her big toe to which she first affixes one. She can tie a shoelace, using her hand and mouth. She can put on baggy clothing, but can’t wash her hair — and doesn’t trust Kidd to be gentle, although he helps her bathe.
“I can type on the phone, but at first, I used to throw it,” she said showing how she would bring the phone to her ear but overshoot her head. “My eating has gotten less messy. My writing is ridiculous.”
Her physical therapist Friday afternoon slowly rotated her shoulder to keep the muscle limber. She asked Alto if her hand still hurt — her missing hand; Alto has phantom limb syndrome and can still “feel” her missing limb. Sixty to 80 percent of people experience that after a limb has been removed, and it’s usually painful, doctors say.
Alto’s tough, but sad. Tortured.
“Why me?” she said. “I’ve been through so much in life, and to lose an arm?”
But it’s just something we have no control over and that’s what destiny is
But no more worries, rest your head and go to sleep
Maybe one day we’ll wake up and this will all just be a dream …
Life on this side of the accident, too, has been enlightening, she admitted.
“Everything is brighter, more open,” she said softly. “I can read people better. The world just seems to much more beautiful.”
Despite the learning curve, Alto still mulls a career in tattooing. She had plans to get another tattoo before the wreck, a quote from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,”: “Too weird to live; too rare to die.”
Now she wants a second: “She’s proof that you can walk through hell and still be an angel.”
“That’s totally it,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “I’ve walked through hell, and I’m trying to become an angel.”
Fundraising efforts have been set up at gofundme/jlea-alto-go-fund-me, and a can drive has been established by Shay Ivana and can be accessed on Brookville on Facebook.