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Carol Briggs comes back from the brink

Shot and left for dead in Kenya almost a year ago, the Tigard woman is well on the road to recovery
by: Jaime Valdez, VALLIANT LADY – Fragments of bullets fired by bandits at Carol Briggs on Feb. 4 in Africa remain in her brain along with pieces of bone, and although she has lost teeth, the sight in one eye and the ability to taste and smell, her sense of humor and indomitable spirit remain intact.

BEAVERTON - Carol Briggs' life was turned upside-down almost a year ago when she was shot and left for dead on a road in Kenya, but now she wants the world to know that she is well on the way to recovery and even hopes to volunteer again in the future.

Tigard resident Briggs moved to Kenya in late November 2006 to work with AIDS orphans and met up with Kenyan natives Joe and Elizabeth Bwayo. Briggs had met Elizabeth Bwayo once through Elizabeth's sister Grace Kuto, who attends Tigard Community Friends Church with Briggs.

'I always wanted to go to Kenya,' Briggs said. 'I wanted to help the kids there.'

Briggs volunteered in the children's wing of a hospital in Lugutu and even paid for the hospital expenses of a 2-year-old boy with fluid on the brain whose surgical fee was donated. 'That surgery kept that boy alive,' Briggs said.

She also helped a sister of Grace and Elizabeth who lives outside of Ketalli and takes care of 'a bunch of kids' and learned a lot about the diagnosis and treatment of HIV and AIDS patients in Kenya.

While in Lugutu, Briggs got a call from Elizabeth Bwayo asking her to come to Nairobi for a week to help them, and on Feb. 4, Briggs and the Bwayos went out for a day of sightseeing with a World Vision worker from Australia.

'Elizabeth and the doctor wanted to go get some charcoal, and they wanted to show us the countryside,' Briggs said. 'It was getting along towards evening.

'The (armed) men stopped a car that was two ahead of us, and the doctor knew something was going to happen. The last thing I remember was Liz (the World Vision worker), who was driving, trying to get the car into reverse. The doctor was in the front seat with her, and he reached over to put the car in reverse.'

The bandits shot all four occupants of Briggs' car, killing Joe Bwayo, a leading AIDS researcher, instantly. Briggs and Elizabeth Bwayo were both shot in the face and Briggs was shot in the hands as well, while Liz was shot in the arm.

The next memory Briggs has is of Liz, who was the least wounded of the three survivors, telling her to unfasten her seatbelt and get out of the car.

'They took our car, our cameras and our cell phones, although somehow Liz managed to keep her cell phone,' Briggs said. 'The doctor was dead - he was covered in blood. We owe our lives to Liz. Five minutes before, she had called Joel, the doctor's son, to tell him where we were, and she called him back to say we had been shot. I just remember her calm voice.'

Liz got the two women into a ditch by the side of the road, where they waited for about 2½ hours.

'I asked Liz later what had happened, and she said, 'God was with us in that ditch,'' Briggs said.

Finally a van came to pick them up. 'I was laid on the floor of a van,' Briggs remembers. 'My face hurt. The only reason I'm alive is because they thought I was a United Nations worker and took me first to a small hospital before going on to Nairobi.'

Ironically, Elizabeth Bwayo was the UN worker, but because she is black and Briggs is white, the people who picked them up assumed that Briggs worked for the UN because of her color.

'I was critical, and Elizabeth wasn't,' Briggs said. 'Elizabeth got transferred to Nairobi.'

Following surgeries at Nairobi General Hospital, Briggs was in intensive care for a week and then in a high-dependency care unit.

'I don't remember much,' Briggs said, although she does recall the concrete surgery rooms that were hosed down after each operation.

Despite all her pain and suffering, Briggs still managed to find humor in her situation from time to time.

For example, Kenyan women wash their hair every two or three months, Briggs said, so her hair was washed only once between the shooting and when she returned to Oregon on March 14.

'We basically had to shave her head when she got home,' said Briggs' daughter Traci.

Briggs added, 'Instead of washing their hair, they add another pin.'

During the 5½ weeks that Briggs and Bwayo were hospitalized, 'Elizabeth and I had our surgeries at almost the same time,' Briggs said. 'And then we were either across the hall from each other or in rooms next to each other or sharing a room.'

Because a bullet went through her mouth and up into her head, Briggs said that her palate was destroyed.

'My leg is up there,' she said, explaining that flesh was taken from her leg to create a new palate.

For the long plane flights home, 'they packed gauze in the hole,' Briggs said. 'The doctor told my kids, 'Your mom will be OK because she has a nasty look in her eye.'

When Bwayo and Briggs flew home, a nurse and Briggs' grandson Derek, who had flown to Kenya to help her, accompanied them.

Briggs' medications consisted of boxes of samples that had been put in plain brown paper bags, and nothing was written in English. Derek carefully ground up what he thought were Briggs' antibiotics and gave them to her, only to learn once they landed in Oregon that he had been giving her muscle-relaxant medication the whole time.

'You were smiling when you got off the plane,' Traci said, and Briggs responded, 'I don't remember anything about the flights home.'

Once Briggs and Bwayo were in Oregon, they both had more surgeries at Oregon Health and Sciences University Hospital. Briggs said that she has lost count, but Bwayo said in November that she had had eight surgeries.

Briggs' daughter Jill, in whose Beaverton home Briggs has been staying, detailed her mom's injuries after Briggs returned to Oregon: There were three holes from the roof of her mouth into her brain, although the holes in the brain had healed by the time Briggs flew home, and she lost the sight in one eye as well as teeth.

Briggs also lost the senses of taste and smell.

Doctors at OHSU were very pleased with the care the two women had received in Nairobi, and the two patients had made such an impression on their Nairobi surgeon, Dr. Eric Kahugu, that he even flew to Portland to see how they were doing.

Almost a year later, Briggs has had time to reflect on the shooting and how it changed her life and affected her friends.

'Dr. Bwayo was a king,' Briggs said. 'I wanted for him to come here to meet my family. Elizabeth had such a good marriage.'

As for the four men who attacked Briggs and her friends, three were shot and killed by either police or local villagers, and the fourth committed suicide.

Briggs does not bear any ill will toward the bandits, although she cannot return to live in Kenya because of bullet and bone fragments that remain in her brain, which could cause problems in the future.

However, Briggs vows, 'I will go back for a wedding,' and she hopes that her health improves to the point where she can do volunteer work here in the Portland area.

'We have come so far thanks to the love and support we have gotten,' Briggs said. 'I'm glad I'm alive, but my dream (of helping kids in Kenya) is gone.'