M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
A life of 'what-ifs' 

Susan Rajic, 44, takes in the sun outside her home in Sunnyvale. Her life changed the day Omeed Aziz Popal used his SUV in a run-down rampage that injured Rajic and thirteen others. Rajic is now paralyzed from the neck down.

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( Maria J. Avila / Mercury News)

By Julia Prodis Sulek / Mercury News

If only Susan Rajic had eaten that bowl of salmon pasta she made for lunch before she took that walk. If only she had chosen a different day to take off from work. If only she had stayed in Puerto Vallarta where she worked as a massage therapist in a grass hut on the beach instead of coming to San Francisco for the summer.

Susan goes through her daily routine with the help of caregiver Mizan Tesfay, 33, of San Jose.

(Maria J. Avila / Mercury News)

Then she wouldn't be a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair with the shades drawn and a wool shawl wrapped around her in the back room of a tiny bungalow in Sunnyvale. She wouldn't have been on the San Francisco sidewalk a year ago when a Fremont man in his black SUV was mowing down pedestrians. She wouldn't have been hit.

"I always think about that," she said, "not eating that pasta."

She has nothing but time now to think about what she calls those "wrong moves," to dream about the life she used to live on the beaches of Mexico, and to come to terms with what she has left.

"It was the most uncomplicated, simple life," Rajic, 44, said, her breathing shallow because she has lost muscle tone in her diaphragm. "Now I have the most complicated life."

Each morning, her caregiver gets her out of bed, dresses her in a compression suit to keep her blood circulating and tends to her most basic needs. She returns each night to put her to bed. A year of physical therapy has given Rajic limited movement of her arms. Her hands are paralyzed, but she is able to tap a computer keyboard and punch a cell phone pad with her pinkie. Born in New York, Rajic has few friends locally.

The story of the hit-and-run rampage was big news on Aug. 30, 2006. Omeed Popal — angry at his parents who wouldn't let him join his bride in Afghanistan — plowed through 19 people from Fremont to San Francisco, killing one pedestrian in Fremont.

Of all the victims who survived, Rajic sustained the worst injuries. Paralyzed from the neck down, she needed a respirator to breathe. Over the next three weeks at San Francisco General Hospital, Rajic hallucinated that the balloons tied to her bed were dead people floating above her; that someone's legs were pressing down on her chest and she couldn't get them off.

Within a month, she was transferred to Valley Medical Center in San Jose, where she stayed for eight months and her nightmares turned to vivid dreams. There she was, walking on the Mexican beaches again, eating tacos, dancing with friends at a nightclub. It all seemed so real, those dreams, until she would realize she needed to stop the dancing and get back to her wheelchair.

"I would dream that every night," she said.

Rajic had moved from Manhattan, where she worked as a waitress, to Mexico when she was 28, and got a job first as a personal trainer, then as a massage therapist. She rented a palapa, an open-air grass hut, with two massage tables, on the beach in front of the Fiesta Americana Resort.

"I had no bills, no car, no credit cards. I made my own schedule," she said. "I'd walk on the beach asking people, 'Do you want a massage?' It was a very carefree life."

She came to San Francisco to avoid the hot Mexican summer, moved into an apartment in Pacific Heights and got a job at the San Francisco Airport spa. Two weeks later, she was hit. After being discharged from Valley Med in July, she lived at a group home for three months, but the regimented schedule felt overbearing. The Sunnyvale family of one of her Mexican friends invited her to live with them. The mother, Patty Hernandez, wakes up each night to turn Rajic over in bed so she doesn't get bed sores.

The story of the hit-and-run rampage was at the top of the news for days. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom visited the victims at the hospital.

"She's almost forgotten now," said Michelle Tipton-Burton, her case manager at Valley Med. "This isn't fair."

Rajic's father, a retired chauffeur, lives in Atlanta. Her mother died three years ago. She still hears from a few friends in Mexico and New York. "They still think it's amazing I'm happy half the time," she said.

It's hard to imagine what would bring her joy again.

But Wish Book readers could help her feel better by donating to purchase a special pressure-reducing mattress ($1,350) and a hydraulic-assisted standing frame ($2,658) that would allow her to continue with her range-of-motion and strengthening exercises. A portable ramp ($800) would make getting her outside easier for her caretakers. Each donation of $50 would help make these purchases possible.

She also would like to be evaluated for a couple of pieces of customized equipment. One is a voice-activated unit that would control a wide range of electrical devices, such as lights, the phone, computer and TV. Another is a motorized cycle that would exercise her arms and legs.

"I don't even mind to be like this, at least if I feel good," said Rajic, who used to work out at a gym six days a week. "I just want to feel good."

Sometimes, she finds the Fiesta Americana Web site and looks at the photos of her old life — the palm trees, the hammocks, the palapa on the sand.

"In a way I think it's great I did so much. I can always look back on those memories," she said. "Now, it's like I'm just resting."

Questions about Wish Book stories? Call coordinator Holly Hayes at (408) 920-5374.

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