For four days and nights, with much of his body shattered by a hit-and-run driver, Juan Francisco Camacho lay near death in the median of Interstate 5 in Oceanside, while hundreds of thousands of motorists passed by without seeing him.
At first, as the lines of cars whizzed endlessly by on both sides, the 20-year-old migrant worker shouted for help in Spanish and rattled a small tree branch overhead in the hope that someone would see him.
But, as the days passed, and as shock from his broken pelvis, arm and shoulder and internal injuries began to set in, Camacho lay listlessly, talking to himself, imagining that the telephone wires overhead were answering his calls.
Finally rescued after a passing motorist called the 911 emergency number, Camacho is recuperating from his numerous wounds and subsequent infections, a survivor of a painful roadside vigil that emergency-room doctors have called a miracle case of staying alive.
"I was shocked. It's really incredible that he's still here," said Dr. Edgar Gamboa, a trauma surgeon at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. "Even if they get treatment within the first hour, many people still die from these types of injuries.
"And here he's still alive, despite lying by the side of the road for so long, with all the bacteria and infections that had set in his body. Even after we got him in the hospital, we half expected him to die for the first two days."
Even highway authorities are shaking their heads at Camacho's gritty determination.
"This is the only instance I've ever seen in which a pedestrian has been hit on the road and didn't get immediate help, was forced to lay there for days, and then suddenly shows up on the roadside--alive," said Michael Tomasik, an accident review officer for the California Highway Patrol.
The case of Camacho--who says he was simply headed home--is distinct from those of many other undocumented aliens who have been struck by vehicles farther north along I-5 while attempting to evade the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint at Camp Pendleton. Since 1988, according to the CHP, 22 undocumented aliens have been struck and killed along I-5 directly north and south of the checkpoint.
Lying in his semi-private hospital room, his repaired pelvis in traction, tubes running from various parts of his body, Camacho described the ordeal that apparently began the night of May 5 as he tried to cross the busy freeway.
The undocumented worker from Oaxaca, Mexico--who has lived in the United States since 1986--said he had come to Oceanside that Saturday from a migrant camp near Bonsall in the hope of finding work.
About 8 p.m., after a frustrating day of job hunting, he decided to take a shortcut across the freeway to catch the bus back home. Just after dark, Camacho ran across the southbound lanes south of Harbor Drive and was walking along the inside shoulder of the freeway when he was hit.
Camacho said he never heard the car coming. "The only thing I heard was music," he said in Spanish. "American music."
Doctors say the car apparently hit Camacho from behind, shattering his midsection. The driver sped away.
Camacho recalls crawling off the road to avoid being hit again. "I crawled so I could get beneath a tree," he said. "I was rolling and dragging myself."
The next 92 hours--until he was rescued by authorities on the following Wednesday afternoon--have become a blur in Camacho's mind. He recalls seeing the houses that line the opposite side of the freeway and calling out to them. His only SOS signal was to rattle the branches of the nearby bushes.
Dressed only in a thin, zippered jacket, Camacho shivered at night and sweated during the day. Eventually, he said, he lost the feeling in his legs. All the while, the pain of his broken body came and went.
He had nothing to eat, but soon noticed a water sprinkler nearby. Crawling on his side, his body dirty and wracked with infection and fever, Camacho sipped water to stay alive as the cars whipped past.
Tomasik said the freeway median in that area is shrouded by thick oleander bushes that often hide the shanties of homeless men and women. "If he got in there, it's not surprising no one saw him," the officer said.
By the last day, Camacho had entered a daydream state. He recalled talking to himself, and hearing the telephone wires answering back. Finally, he said, he decided to crawl back out by the road to become more visible.
Shortly before 4 p.m., as yet another rush hour began along the north-south artery, Camacho was rescued. Authorities say a northbound motorist apparently spotted the worker and called 911 from Camp Pendleton.
"When we got him, he was in shock from loss of blood, his blood pressure was down to about 60, which is about half the normal pressure," said Gamboa, the doctor. "He was dehydrated, he had a dislocated knee, and his pelvis was cracked open like a book. There was bacteria and infection from all the dirt in his wounds."
Doctors say the low blood pressure in such a young man indicates his wounds went without treatment for many days. But Camacho's good physical condition and low cholesterol and low-fat diet--along with the fact that none of his vital organs were crushed--probably saved his life, they say.
That and a determination to live.
"How long could he have survived?" Gamboa said. "There's no way of telling. I guess it was up to him."
Camacho's recovery is expected to take months. Meanwhile, he hasn't written or called his mother in Mexico, he says, because she is sick, and he doesn't want to upset her.
So he'll spend his days simply feeling lucky to be alive, wondering just who it was that hit him. And why they never stopped.
"I'm not angry," he said. "For me, it's not a problem. I just thank God I'm better."