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Nearly fatal car accident reveals how one woman's friends are more than running companions

November 07, 2018

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Alejandro de Santiago knew running changed his wife.

He knew it helped her cope with anxiety, made her feel better physically, and it brought new friends into her life.

What he didn’t know is how important that new community would become to his family in their darkest moment.

“I knew there were many friends she met running,” he said. “But they were just running friends. They never hang out or anything, and they’d just meet for runs or during races. I didn’t know that they really loved Paula to that degree.”

Paula de Santiago began running in 2007.

“She suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, and she’d tried many different things,” Alejandro said. “Nothing could really help her. She was introduced to running by a friend, and she just loved it.” She started with small, community 5Ks and then moved onto bigger races and longer distances, including half marathons, marathons and triathlons.

“She was happier,” her husband said. “She just loved to do it. Then it created a network of friends who loved to do that too. … She introduced me to it, and I participated in a Ragnar and a triathlon with her.”

Alejandro was working in his home office on Nov. 24, 2015, when Paula said she was leaving to pick up three of their children and take them to the dentist. He was working at home with their youngest son, Ben, who was 5 at the time and home sick that day.

“About a half hour later, I got a phone call from a detective telling me to sit down,” he said. “He told me my wife was involved in a very, very bad accident, and they were in the process of flying her out to a hospital. He asked if I was OK with that. At that moment, my heart sunk.”

His oldest son had borrowed his car to go to work, so he called his Latter-day Saint bishop to see if he could give him a ride to the hospital. As they drove, Alejandro saw the road near their house was shut down. She’d crashed just five minutes from her house.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “I didn’t even know what to expect. We have five children, and I didn’t even think about letting them know.”

When he arrived at the hospital, his wife was in extremely critical condition with a perforated lung, fractured neck and a traumatic brain injury.

While friends and neighbors scrambled to inform and care for their children, he listened to medical professionals tell him his wife wouldn’t live.

“From the get go, the doctors told me she wasn’t going to make it,” he said.

They asked if he wanted to turn off the machines that were breathing for his wife. He refused.

They told him she’d be in a “vegetative state” for the rest of her life.

“The neurologist said she was never going to come back,” he said. “But I decided not to.”

She was in a coma for two months, and then a care center for a year.

“She started opening her eyes, and she started slowly moving her index finger,” he said. “She could answer yes and no questions with her finger. It was huge. For us, it meant everything the doctors had said was wrong.”

He said he felt like it was a gift from God.

“I was so happy,” he said. “I definitely thought it was a miracle.”

The other miracle was what those new running friends did near the year anniversary of her accident. They organized a 5K that would raise funds to help the family with medical bills that have been devastating.

“I was drowning in medical bills,” he said. “Even though I had a good job and good insurance, it doesn’t cover everything. … I was, and still am, in a very difficult situation from a financial standpoint.”

But just as important as the financial help, the 5K allowed Paula and her family to feel loved and supported. Because they are both from Chile, they don’t have family nearby to help them. Their church and neighborhood became their extended family, dropping off meals and helping with rides for many months.

And then these running friends organized the kind of event that lured Paula into the sport.

“That first race, we had 300 people,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is unbelievable!’ …People showed up en masse. It was very surprising, and very emotional.”

The race was organized to help them financially, but it also buoyed them emotionally.

“Paula was there and people were all around her, kissing her, talking to her,” he said. “It meant a lot to us, and I’m sure even more to her. … We didn’t have family here, but we didn’t feel alone at all.”

Paula still cannot talk, although she does communicate with her finger.

“She said one word a couple of years ago,” he said. “It was ‘love.’ Lots of things have happened since then, from seizures to other syndromes. It’s been a roller coaster of health issues and emotions. I almost lost her last week.”

Alejandro recently sought medical help for himself.

“I went through a depression,” he said. “I was crying almost every day, and I didn’t have a desire to do anything.”

Now he sees a therapist, takes medication and tries to get out with his friends at least once a week without discussing “anything sad.”

He also started a weekly tradition with his children.

“We have a tradition of going to the movies on Tuesday because it’s cheap,” he said laughing. “And we take Paula. She hated going to the movies, but now she can’t say anything.”

This Saturday, the family will participate in the third Run4Paula 5K in Saratoga Springs, Utah. They had to postpone it a week because of some medical issues that sent Paula back into the hospital.

But he hopes his wife of 22 years will be there Saturday, surrounded by her children, and all of those running friends who he now sees much differently.

“It’s kind of grown into a community thing,” he said. “Our neighbors, our friends in other parts of Utah, even people in Argentina where she served a mission, they participate where they are. … It was a very humbling experience to see them prepare for the race. I feel very, very grateful for those friends."


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