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The ordeal of 'Disaster Victim #16'

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2007 - 9:24 PM

Mercedes Gorden kept a souvenir from her stay in the hospital. It's the plastic ID bracelet that she got the day she arrived, Aug. 1, when she was known simply as "Disaster Victim #16."

Gorden, 31, of northeast Minneapolis, has come a long way since rescuers pried her out of her 1998 Ford Escort from the wreckage of the Interstate 35W bridge, with her legs mangled and a broken bone in her back.

Within two weeks, all but a handful of the injured had left the hospital. But Gorden stayed for five. Now, after six operations to rebuild her shattered legs, she's been told it will be months before she'll be able to walk.

But on Sunday, she'll be out celebrating with friends, and some of the strangers who helped rescue her, at a benefit at the Fine Line Music Cafe in downtown Minneapolis.

Her fiancé, Jake Rudh, a disc jockey, is helping to organize the event, which will feature local bands and a silent auction.

Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to the American Red Cross; the rest will help pay for Gorden's recovery.

Although she has health insurance, Gorden and Rudh face thousands in uncovered expenses, including costs of refitting their 1929 Tudor home to make it wheelchair friendly.

Already, they've been awed by people's generosity.

Neighbors built a wheelchair ramp on the back of their house.

Her co-workers at Accenture, where she's a human resources specialist, donated more than 900 hours of paid time off -- the equivalent of about six months.

At the same time, the couple, who plan to be married in October 2008, never expected to be in this predicament.

Gorden, who wears a body brace 23 hours a day, spends most of her day in bed and wryly points to the plastic tray that sorts her medications by day and hour.

"All these lovely happy pills," she says. "This isn't very 31-year-old."

And Rudh, 33, is "a caregiver now, he's not just a fiancé."

Gorden, who loves to dance and exercise, is struggling to make the best of it.

Her only visible scars are on her legs and feet, and when she's had enough rest, she's talkative, vivacious and cracking jokes. But there's no doubt it's been rough going.

"From the knees down, everything broke," she said. "They said I have an 85 to 95 percent chance of walking again."

Her memory of Aug. 1 is crystal clear. She recalls the face of a construction worker as the bridge began to sway ("sheer terror") and shouting "No, no, no!" as the pavement jackknifed below her.

When her car landed on all fours (and her airbag deployed), she counted her blessings. Then she realized she couldn't move her legs. Her car had crashed headlong into a stone wall at the base of the bridge.

Rescuers used the "jaws of life" to free her.

A bystander's photo shows her on a stretcher on a pickup truck, with her left foot cocked at a horrific angle. (Photos are posted on her CaringBridge website, www.caringbridge.org/visit/mercedesgorden.)

Since coming home Sept. 7 from the University of Minnesota Medical Center, her days have been filled with therapy and doctor's appointments and planning for Sunday's benefit.

And everyone seems encouraged by her progress.

"It's amazing," Rudh said, "considering what's been done to her."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

Maura Lerner • mlerner@startribune.com

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