Activist, Ashley Judd - and star of ‘Double Jeopardy’ and ‘Divergent’ - was medevacked to safety by MAF on 5 February after sustaining a severe leg injury during a wildlife research trip in the DRC. Ashley recounts her 55-hour ordeal to New York Times journalist, Nicholas Kristof….
MAF flies Ashley Judd to the Democratic Republic of Congo several times a year. She accompanies a team from America’s Harvard University who study endangered bonobos – great apes located deep within the DRC’s jungle.
On 16 January, MAF had flown Ashley and the team from the capital Kinshasa to Djolu in the north, with plans to retrieve them three weeks later on 8 February.
Whilst out walking in the jungle, Ashley’s plans were dramatically cut short when she tripped over a fallen tree and badly injured her leg.
‘I had to physically hold the top part of my shattered tibia together, and we did that for six hours. I was at the edge of my very edge.’
Ashley Judd, actor and activist
Unable to walk, she was carried for hours in a makeshift stretcher, followed by a harrowing six-hour motorcycle ride, before finally being medevacked by MAF back to Kinshasa on 5 February.
With MAF pilot, Jonathan de Jongh, at the helm, the 964 km flight took around three hours. Ashley’s leg was stabilised at a hospital in Kinshasa and again in South Africa, before she had to take a further four flights (another 22 hours) to reach America where she had an eight-hour operation.
Unbeknown to Ashley, she had broken her leg in four places and suffered nerve damage.
Biting on a stick to control the pain
In an interview with New York Times journalist, Nicholas Kristof, she describes her ordeal from her hospital bed in South Africa:
‘I was doing what I always do – up at 4.30 in the morning with two of our world class, trackers, walking in the dark. My headlamp was not quite working properly. I can walk in partial light, but accidents happen. There was a fallen tree on the path, which I didn’t see and I had a very powerful stride going and I just fell over this tree.
‘I knew my leg was breaking. What came next was an incredibly harrowing 55 hours. It started with 5 hours lying on the floor with Dieumerci, one of our trackers, with his leg under my badly misshapen leg, biting my stick, howling like a wild animal.’
The name Dieumerci means ‘thanks be to God’.
In the absence of strong painkillers, Ashley was forced to bite down on a stick to control the excruciating pain:
‘They couldn’t offer me ibuprofen, but they offered me a depth of understanding because they know what suffering is.’
Transported by hammock and motorbike
Ashley’s other tracker, Maliko, ran back to wake up Martin Surbeck, who heads up the ‘Kokolopori Bonobo Research Project Camp’. Five hours later, another man called Papa Jean, finds them and resets Ashley’s leg:
‘Papa Jean puts his hands on me to reset my bones. I’m going into shock, I’m passing out, the pain is really bad, my teeth are chattering, I’m in a cold sweat, I think I’m gonna vomit. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. I believe that Father God is with us in our suffering.
‘Then it’s an hour and a half in the hammock being carried out of the rainforest by my Congolese brothers who are barefoot, up and over hills, through the river and then we’re finally back at camp. That’s just getting to camp.’
It would be another 49 hours until Ashley reaches South Africa:
‘Once I get to camp, there’s another hour and a half through the rainforest in the hammock with all my brothers hoisting that thing on their shoulders, taking turns, encouraging me. Then comes the motorbike ride.
'It took courage for someone to ride with me because they had to physically hold me up. One man driving and another sitting behind me and I said: “I would like a man of God” and so Maradona got on the bike. He had to hold my leg and I had to physically hold the top part of my shattered tibia together and we did that for six hours. The motorbike really tested me and sometimes it just felt like a pure crisis in my head.’
‘A beautiful deep act of human service’
On what seemed like a never-ending journey, Ashley was also carried across a series of rickety bridges:
‘They had to take me off the motorbike and put me back in the hammock to walk me over these rickety bridges that are very fragile and tenuous. There was an old man who was very thin and wire-y. He was bare foot and stopped what he was doing. He didn’t really look like he had the physical stamina or strength, but he picked up the hammock because he’s good at walking across these slippery bridges.
‘There were four bridges in a row and there was a fair distance between them, so he had to carry my weight and he just walked and walked and walked. He balanced me so well. When he set me down, I looked in his eyes and said: “Merci papa” and he looked back and said: “Je suis Papa Freddy”.
‘It was a beautiful deep act of human service and I wouldn’t have made it without the Papa Freddies along the way.’
In pain, but privileged
In spite of her agony, Ashley remembers how privileged she is:
‘We had the Congolese franc to pay someone to drive us to Djolu. For a Congolese person, this would have been the end of their options. They would have got as far as the ancestral villages in the bonobos range and that would have been it. It would have been the end of their leg and probably their life.’
Ashley has faced the stark reality of what it takes to access urgent medical care from deep within the world’s second largest tropical rainforest. But for the Congolese women with no means who need to see a doctor, severely inadequate healthcare is their daily reality.
Ashley has been using her platform to shine a light on the plight of Congolese women and is particularly passionate about maternal health. In the DRC, according to the UN:
- 1 in every 24 women die in childbirth
- 258 babies die every day before they are one month old
- 1 in 4 women aged 20 – 24 give birth by the age of 18
- Only 6% of newborns in rural areas receive postnatal care within 2 days of being born
MAF continues to work with partners across the DRC to alleviate suffering and support the most isolated communities.
Long road to recovery
Following Ashley’s six-hour gruelling bike ride, she spent the night in a hut in Djolu where MAF met her and flew her to Kinshasha. She spent 24 hours in DRC’s capital before completing the next leg of her journey to South Africa where she had a blood transfusion in Intensive Care.
Ashley’s journey home has been long and difficult, but her journey to recovery has just begun:
‘I thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and support. The walking is going to be tricky, but the bone will heal – I have a wonderful trauma orthopaedic surgeon.
‘Right now, my right foot is lame and it’s going to take some time for that nerve to heal and there’s going to be intensive physical therapy. There’s not really a time frame. I will walk again because I am determined and I believe in modern science and miracles. I have a journey ahead of me.’
We wish Ashley well and pray for her speedy recovery.