BOISSEVAIN, Man. – Kristen Hiebert has a tattoo on her arm, written in Arabic, that sums up her outlook since the night she and her young daughter almost froze to death on the side of a rural Manitoba highway.
“I lived. I suffered. I changed,” she says, reading it to a visitor.
Almost two years after her car crashed, Hiebert is still adapting to life without her lower legs — amputated due to frostbite — and continues to work to build a better life for herself and her daughter Avery, now 6.
“Avery keeps me going,” Hiebert says.
“I look at my life now and think about when I first got out of the hospital — when I was at my mom’s still. In my mind at that time, there was no possible way I could be living by myself, doing everything I can (now.)”
Hiebert, 28, still has a gap in her memory about the night of Jan. 17, 2016. On her way home from checking on her mother’s house in Glenboro, Man., her car went off the highway and down an embankment near a river.
It was -20 C and dark. Hiebert doesn’t remember the crash, but clearly recalls coming to at the bottom of the embankment. She had several broken bones, a fracture in her neck and bruised ribs. Every movement brought sharp, deep pain. Waiting to be rescued, she held Avery close to keep her warm.
Hours went by. Vehicles passed above. No one came.
“I remember cars going by and me thinking, ‘Why can’t they see?'” she says.
“I had broken limbs and my feet were frozen … it was so frustrating.”
As morning drew close, Hiebert decided to take a chance. She left Avery and tried to crawl up the snowy slope to the guardrail in the hope of being seen by a passing driver. She had doubts she could make it with her broken arms.
“Avery is the only reason I fought to get up the hill,” she says. “Without her, I’m sure I would have died down there.”
She reached the guardrail, heard her daughter talking below — an encouraging sign — and hoped someone would stop.
“I couldn’t raise my arms. I just figured someone might just see me by chance.”
It was 10 hours after the crash when Tina Dubyts saw Hiebert and stopped. An ambulance was called. Remarkably, Avery was largely unhurt except for some treatable frostbite on one foot.
Hiebert was severely injured. She was airlifted to a Winnipeg hospital, where her legs were removed below the knees and she underwent surgery for her broken bones.
She spent two months in hospital and, even now, her recovery is ongoing. She goes to a physiotherapist once a week and travels to Winnipeg for work on her prosthetics about every three weeks. She has gone through six pairs so far and is expecting she may soon need more surgery to her legs.
Hiebert is also working with a psychologist who might help revive her memory about the crash.
“Truthfully, there are parts of me that want to know but there are bigger parts of me that don’t want to know. I think the hardest part for me is thinking about what my daughter went through.”
The community rallied around Hiebert and her daughter. An online fundraising effort raised $90,000. Boissevain residents threw a social that raised $20,000. Service clubs and the RCMP organized other fundraising events.
Hiebert, a single mother, worked as a cleaner before the crash. She is looking at going back to college and finding a career that can accommodate her level of mobility.
She says she cannot thank people enough for the help she has received. It has allowed her to raise Avery in a bungalow in a nice neighbourhood. Avery is now in Grade 1. Hiebert also has a truck that lets her get around.
“Just being able to say thank you to everyone as many times as possible — I’ll take every opportunity to do that,” she says.
“Words can’t even express how I feel about what everyone has done for me. Because of them, I have my house … and we’ve been able to live good.”