'I'm just half of me right now': a Stittsville mother's new life as a double-leg amputee after the OC Transpo double-decker bus crash
There are moments in life we all ask: what if I had done things differently?
Marcie Stevens knows that feeling all too well.
“I had to go to the bathroom, but thought I’d miss my bus. Well, maybe I should have gone to the bathroom,” Marcie says with a laugh from her trauma unit bed at the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic Campus.
In the two hours we spent with Marcie and her husband Christopher, we realized the Stittsville couple laughs a lot,
“We love stand-up comedians,” says Christopher.
It’s that love of the lighter side of life that may be what has gotten them through this last month.
“You can’t change the shoulda, woulda, coulda and that’s part of your healing to not dwell,” says Marcie. This is important for Marcie, because she has a lot of healing to do.
It was Friday, Jan. 11. Marcie, a federal public servant with Public Safety Canada, did what she did every weekday afternoon: prepared to board her bus, Route 269, from downtown Ottawa to the Kanata Park & Ride.
She had done the trip every day for the last year: a choice to commute by bus to help save money for her family, and cover the ever-increasing costs of before and after school daycare for the couple’s two boys aged 5 and 12.
“So I walked to Bank Street and Albert, got on the bus from the back door and walked up to the upper level of the double-decker.”
Marcie often chose to sit on the upper deck of the bus. “There was a lot more windows. You could see where you were.”
On that Friday, Marcie found her seat, on the right side of the bus, about five-rows from the back, the ride seemed just like any other.
“I didn’t notice anything strange. I looked forward to going home and spending time with my family.
“I had just put my phone away and I was relaxing because for me, a bus ride is I’m not driving, I’m just going to relax and enjoy the scenery.”
And then, without warning for Marcie, at 3:51 p.m. everything changed.
“All I remember is the screaming and all the seats coming back in accordion fashion. And then I could see the seat come towards me and crunch me and then it kind of stopped. I was pinned between two seats.”
The impact was so forceful, Marcie couldn’t move and couldn’t break free from the seat's hold.
“I knew it was bad. I mean, I saw the people who were pinned in between just like me. ... A lot of people smooshed, a lot of people hurt, and a lot of people almost in a dazed fashion.”
Incredibly, Marcie was awake through the whole ordeal, and had enough mobility to grab her phone and make an emotional call to her husband Christopher.
“Telling him that I was in a bus accident and that I love him greatly and please let my boys know that I love them too.”
For Christopher on the other end, it was a living nightmare.
“There was a pause on the phone and all I heard was screaming, shrieking, and there was a lot of voices and it was very loud and I had no idea what I was listening to until Marcie’s voice came on and she said ‘I’ve been in a very bad wreck, I’m pinned, I can’t move and you have to take care of the kids, I love you.’ And then click, it was silence. She hung up.”
Christopher says he then went in to panic mode. He called Marcie back immediately, but there was no answer. It turns out Marcie was already on to her next call, a colleague she works with, to let them know she likely wouldn’t be into work on Monday.
Marcie says her next hour was spent waiting for rescue on the bus.
“My instinct was to actually not try and get out, it was actually to try and stay mobile in case something was wrong.”
She watched firefighters and first responders work desperately to pull out bus seats as quickly and safely as possible to remove passengers one by one. Marcie says she was so focused on her own survival; she had no idea just how horrific the crash would be.
“I tried to feel my legs to see if I could still feel them but I couldn’t see my legs because the seats were so pinned.
“I was just basically thinking to myself, am I going to get through this? And if not, is he (Christopher) going to be ok?” Marcie says in one of her rare moments of breakdown, biting her lip to hold back tears. “I’m just worried about my family and the financial impact this has on them.
“I was sure I was coming home, but I didn’t know in what condition.”
It was then Marcie’s turn to be freed.
“Firefighters did an extraction and they put a tourniquet on both of my legs and the tourniquet really was painful and then they started pulling me and right there it’s like the pain was excruciating. They brought me down the side in a tarp ... and the ambulance being told to bring me into the Civic.”
What Marcie didn’t realize at the time through all the chaos, is that her left leg wasn’t just crushed by the seats, but it was severed off and left on the bus.
“I didn’t realize that until one of the doctors came and asked me and said ‘I’m going ask you a stupid question but I need to know what you want me to do with your legs?’ and I was kind of put off and she said one of them was extracted from the bus and brought here.”
No time to process, Marcie was rushed into surgery, where doctors worked hard to save her and her right leg. But the damage was too much. Christopher says doctors had had no choice but to amputate, but first needed his consent.
“I had no idea how bad it was and the physician said ‘no, no we need you to tell us to take the second leg we do not think we can save it.’ and I said 'Well, we have to save her life,' and he said ‘Yes, so we have to take the leg.’"
"I’m not blaming myself. I don’t feel guilty, I trust the physicians implicitly but I’m not happy that I had to be the one to say it,” says Christopher about the life-altering decision. “I want to always be the one to tell her things are okay and that I’m taking care of her and that I’ve got everything under control and that I fixed the broken things. I can’t fix this."
When Marcie woke up from surgery in ICU two days after the crash, Christopher was tasked with the difficult conversation, telling his wife she is now a double-leg amputee. Both of Marcie’s legs had been removed, above the knee, life as they knew it was changed.
“And she said ‘Oh no’, and she just broke right down.”
“It was very emotional, it was surreal,” Marcie says, “You don’t expect to lose two limbs.”
Just moments later, though, Christopher says his wife’s passion for life and positive outlook took over, “and she started saying well I hope they make prosthetics for two legs,” he says with a smile, “move right to the fixing,” he laughs, “and that’s what I like best about her, she can fix things.”
And that’s what Marcie is now focused on: fixing her 'new normal' enough to get home with her husband and sons.
She will likely remain in the hospital for months, to heal. Her left leg is her greatest health concern right now, the wound still open, it must heal before any skin grafts can be complete. If it doesn’t heal properly, there’s a chance doctors will have to remove more of her leg, making it hard to fit prosthetics in the future, limiting Marcie’s mobility.
The hospital stay, while needed, is difficult. A mom separated from her sons.
“My five year old was worried that he wasn’t going to be able to get ‘up hugs’,” the term the family uses when Marcie lifts the boys up to a big embrace, “I told him it was just going to be a different up hug. I told him it’s still me, I’m just half of me right now, but we’re going to get through this, and everything is going to be ok.”
While the Stevens’ wear their brave faces, the couple is nervous.
“I’m just worried about my family and the financial impact this has on them,” says Marcie as tears roll down her face. “This accident has changed our lives so dramatically.”
Marcie will need intense rehabilitation, wheelchairs, prosthetics and either a new or retrofitted home. She worries insurance may not cover everything.
“Just the basic needs. I want to be able to cook with my sons again but I can’t do that in my house now. The simple things in life, picking apples with my son is going to be difficult in a wheelchair, going on hay rides, taking a bike out, and it’s not going to happen.”
Christopher’s colleagues and friends have started a GoFundMe page for the family.
And while the Stevens don’t know yet what caused the bus crash that killed three people and injured 23 others, they now have a lawyer, and plan on filing a lawsuit against the City of Ottawa, OC Transpo and the bus driver.
“This is life changing,” says Stevens' Toronto-based lawyer Meghan Hull with Howie, Sacks & Henry Personal Injury Law, “I’ve been doing personal injury litigation for 14 years, some cases hit you more than others. This one hits close to home. This is a public bus, a mother of two going home to her family with catastrophic life-altering injuries. That’s going to impact her and her family for her lifetime, for their lifetime, it’s just such a huge tragedy and an expensive uphill battle for her.”
Other victims have already filed lawsuits. Hull says all those injured, like Marcie, need to realize they have the right to look for future support.
“They’re not litigious people, they don’t have a choice. They have some insurance available to them but there is no alternative but to start a lawsuit in order to recover all the expenses associated with all those incredible care needs.”
Marcie knows she not alone in this journey to recovery. There are other passengers still on the trauma unit floor who have also lost limbs. Marcie hasn’t met any of them.
“There are a lot of us who have lost limbs I’m told, I don’t know the exact number because we’re trying to be treated separately and not as a whole ‘we are the bus victims kind of thing’,” Marcie says. “I know they’re around me. I’m pretty sure I’m going to see them when we go to rehab and connect there. Right now in this hospital it’s just focusing on getting better.”
“I look at my legs and I look at my stumps and say, 'Well, this is reality, so let’s move forward and let’s find out how I can go forward with this and see how I can deal with it.”
And Marcie is making improvements daily. With help, she is now able to be moved into a wheelchair, Christopher and other family members take her to different spots inside the hospital for several hours each day.
“The food in the cafeteria is much better,” she says with that familiar and contagious laugh.