An Instant, a Shattered Life : Accident: A speeding drunk driver took the life of an illegal alien's unborn child and left her critically injured, and now, eight operations later, without money for rehabilitation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was around midnight, and Gudelia M. Calva had to have a fish sandwich.

She was eight months pregnant and the craving wouldn't go away, so she quietly left her sleeping family to walk to a nearby fast-food restaurant. Calva was about halfway across the deserted intersection of Harbor Boulevard and 1st Street when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw flashing lights.

The next thing she knew, a drunk driver barreled into her at 90 m.p.h. And in an instant on July 3, the life she had built since leaving Mexico 15 years ago was shattered.

The fetus, a baby girl, was dead. Calva, 31, was critically injured. Her husband had to quit work to care for their two young children, and Calva's three teen-agers were sent to Mexico to be cared for by relatives. She survived eight operations and three months of hospitalization before being released Oct. 3, but can't afford the physical therapy and medicine her doctor has recommended.

"It has hurt me so much I don't even know how I'm alive," Calva said, speaking softly in Spanish. "I know they say life is like a dream, but this is no dream."

Calva and her husband, Jorge Soqui, are illegal immigrants, and thus not eligible for the state program that pays post-hospital medical treatment for poor people. Both Calva and Soqui held jobs before the accident, but had no health insurance. The driver who struck Calva is also an illegal immigrant, now imprisoned, who had no auto insurance and no assets.

Soqui has considered suing, but can't find a lawyer to take the case. His family is on its own, he said.

"I don't see how the system can permit this injustice," Soqui said sadly.

Her doctors say Calva is lucky to have survived, but she isn't so sure. She is pale, nearly as white as the pillows that prop up her head as she lies in bed, unable to move her right arm and leg. Angry pink welts, the marks left behind by surgeons, stripe her body. White gauze masks skin grafts that are still healing on one thigh. Dizzy and continually nauseated, she has dropped in weight from 135 to 87 pounds.

"I was so happy before," she said, speaking softly in Spanish, her black waist-length hair in a braid over one shoulder. "All I wanted was to work, to take care of my children and my husband. . . . I don't want to die like this. I want to die where I can be taken care of, where I know it matters to somebody."

Calva remembers the accident vividly. She remembers the brown eyes and dark brown hair of the drunk driver, Felipe Garcia, a 20-year-old illegal alien from Mexico. Garcia, who had no auto insurance, subsequently pleaded guilty to felony drunk driving and felony hit-and-run and is serving a three-year prison sentence.

Calva remembers being told, "Don't move," and recalls the flashing lights of the ambulance that sped her to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. But then she slipped into a coma that lasted for a month, and awoke to a face she didn't recognize: her husband's.

"The first thing I saw was him," she said. "He told me, 'Your baby girl is with God now.' And that's when I remembered I had been pregnant."

Slowly, faces became more familiar, but Calva was unable to speak because of a breathing tube inserted in her throat. It wasn't until almost two months after the accident that Soqui, who was asleep when his wife left for the fish sandwich, was able to find out why she ended up being struck by a car.

"The only thing I had was the police report," said Soqui, 29. "I was desperate to know what happened."

Soqui and Calva have been married for nine years. They met a few years after Calva immigrated to the United States in 1974, a 16-year-old single mother with three children. Both Calva and Soqui are undocumented workers who managed to find more-or-less steady jobs, she as a factory worker and housekeeper, he as a welder and a vendor. But their jobs were not the kind that offered fringe benefits such as health insurance.

Until the accident, Soqui said he had never sought welfare or food stamps. But without a job and without anyone to care for their children, 6-year-old Nadia and 2-year-old Jorge, Soqui said he was forced to ask for government help.

"I've never done this in my life," said Soqui, a slender, soft-spoken man wearing paint-stained jeans and a few days' worth of whiskers. "It's very difficult for me."

He is now receiving $560 a month, $250 of which goes for rent on the one-room Santa Ana apartment where the family now lives. With the double bed for Calva along one wall and a dresser along the other, there is no room for her wheelchair inside the apartment. A makeshift closet is disguised by a white plastic shower curtain. In the kitchen area, there is a hot plate but no stove.

"I'm still working to repair the place," Soqui said.

But always, there is not enough money. Because Calva was pregnant at the time of the accident, Medi-Cal paid for her $340,000 hospital bill. However, because Calva is not a legal resident, Medi-Cal will not cover expenses for physical therapy, medicine or additional visits to the doctor.

Last week, Soqui said he bought $120 worth of medicine for his wife, but he can't afford the therapy doctors have recommended.

"Look at her. She needs medical attention," he said. "I have done all I can. She needs a nurse to help her. What I have here is only the most basic" supplies and equipment.

Soqui has talked to several lawyers about Calva's case, but none will accept it because neither the driver nor the owner of the car that struck her had insurance. And because Garcia is serving a prison sentence, he is not required to make restitution, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joe Smith.

The family is now planning to file a claim with the state Victims-Witness Assistance Program, which provides restitution to victims of violent crimes. Christine Lopez, a victim specialist with the program, said restitution is available when violent crimes result in a need for long-term physical and psychological therapy.

But as Soqui is discovering, dealing with bureaucracies takes time, and he is worried that when help arrives, it may be too late. On Oct. 23, Soqui had to rush Calva to the emergency room when she was overcome by stomach pains. He believes her internal injuries are far from healed.

"The most important thing is her recovery," Soqui said. "That's all that matters to me."

Staff writers Maria Newman and Carla Rivera contributed to this story.

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