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Family Faces Promise, Cruel Reality of Life in America After Bus Accident

Times Staff Writer

Just off the freeway in a small house where the back seat of a wrecked van serves as a sofa, Esther Esquivel de Buenrostro adjusts the barrette in her daughter’s hair and confesses that for the first time in her life, she is genuinely afraid.

“I don’t mean afraid of little things,” Esquivel says, sending off her 4-year-old with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Here, everything is so uncertain. Here, I don’t speak English. Here, I have my (four) daughters and no husband. I don’t have a job.

“And here . . . well, I’ve never been alone before.”

Nine months after her husband was left paralyzed and comatose by a freak accident en route to seek illegal work in the United States, Esquivel is slowly beginning to put her life back together.

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She brought her children to San Diego soon after the accident last December, while her husband was still hospitalized there. Now she has qualified for legal U.S. residency, enrolled in English classes and rented a one-bedroom apartment in east San Diego. The three eldest daughters--Dulce, 5, Leslie 4, and Jasmine, 3--will begin school next week. The electricity bill that comes next month will be the first she has ever paid in dollars.

Strapped to Bus Frame

Her husband, Juan Jose Buenrostro, remains at his mother’s house in Tijuana, unable to feed himself, talk or even control his body functions. Doctors say that he will probably never speak or walk again and that it is uncertain whether he even understands what has happened to him.

Tall, thin and dark-haired, Buenrostro was 31 when he tried to smuggle himself into the United States from Tijuana by climbing under a U.S. school bus and strapping himself to the frame as it passed across the border and into the United States.

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He was gravely injured when his left arm became entangled in the drive shaft as the bus headed north on Interstate 5. As he screamed for help, his arm was slowly chewed off. Buenrostro eventually fell from beneath the bus and was run over by its rear wheels.

The family speculated later that Buenrostro had tried to sneak into the United States to earn money to support his family. His wife was pregnant with the couple’s fourth daughter at the time.

It was a bus from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa that Buenrostro chose as his vehicle to enter the United States. Soon after his accident, the college’s Spanish Club began raising money for the family. It did not take long for the donations to pour in.

As of last Friday, the Orange Coast College Foundation reported receiving $32,301 in donations from more than 700 people across the country. The money will be turned over to the family, to be used for Buenrostro’s medical care in Tijuana and to provide schooling and clothing for his wife and children.

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How to Spend Money

Esquivel and Buenrostro’s mother, Enedina Montero, have yet to receive any money or to decide how they will spend it when the college turns it over.

Although she is alone in a strange country, where the customs and traditions are as foreign as the language, Esquivel considers herself fortunate. It is testament to her good fortune that she is in San Diego at all, she says: It was part of her husband’s dream to have the children grow up in the United States, to benefit from its schools and opportunities.

“We always knew that the schools were better here and that our children would be so much better off,” she says. “Please tell everyone how thankful we all are for their help. Tell them on behalf of my husband and my children. Tell them how grateful we all are.”

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Esquivel says her children still do not comprehend what has happened and often ask for their father.

“The last time I took Jasmine there, she just then noticed that Juan’s arm had been amputated,” she says. “She came home and told the others. Sometimes things are fine, but then one will see his picture and say, ‘When is papi coming home?’ ”

At the Tijuana home where Buenrostro remains bedridden, his mother says publicity about the accident has brought offers of support and sympathy.

A wheelchair has been donated so Buenrostro can be moved from his bed into the hallway of his mother’s house. A group of nurses and physicians in Ventura County pitched in and bought adult diapers and other medical supplies, and busboys at a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles collected food and old clothes for the family.

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One who offered his aid was Robert Jerskey, a 32-year-old occupational therapist from Tri City Medical Center in Oceanside. Jerskey, a physical therapist and a nurse have visited Buenrostro three times, bringing down medical supplies and teaching his mother how to administer physical therapy to her comatose son.

‘Critically Underweight’

“He is critically underweight, but his family has taken very good care of him,” Jerskey says. “You can tell that he has had a lot of love and care from the family, which is working on a very limited budget. They need a lot of things. The only problem is that he isn’t getting enough nourishment.”

Jerskey says he recommended a change in diet--Buenrostro is fed through a plastic tube in his stomach--and is searching for a Mexican physician willing to provide long-term care.

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With proper care, he says, Buenrostro may learn to swallow his own food again and even say a few words.

It is not clear, however, just how much he currently understands, Jerskey says: “He does respond to some kind of stimuli. I have to almost assume he can hear. You have to assume that unless you know otherwise.

“On the other hand, if the family asks me what is the likelihood of him getting better, I don’t want to raise any false hopes. It is really guarded right now, almost grim.”

The wheelchair that was donated, Jerskey says, was important in that “it is stimulating for him to change rooms so he’s not sitting there staring at the ceiling all day. The family is now putting him in the chair two to three hours a day, taking him outside, and this is important.

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Continuing Physical Therapy

Although the long-term prognosis is unclear, Jerskey says, it is important to continue physical therapy to improve the chances “of at least improving the quality of his life.”

“I am hopeful,” Jerskey says. “Maybe we will see some swallowing, maybe some speech. But I am cautious about raising false hopes. At the same time, there has to be some hope about some sort of a recovery. The family has to keep motivated.”

To hear her speak, Buenrostro’s mother needs no additional motivation. “I can see it in his eyes,” she says. “I know that Juan, my little baby, hears us and knows we’re near.”

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His wife shares that hope, but for her it must be tempered by the very real possibility that she will have to raise her daughters on her own.

“We have to survive,” she says with a tremor in her voice. “Nobody can assure me of anything.”


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