How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives

From the Editor’s Desk (Tuesday, April 26, 2016, Gaudium Press) On October 12, 1972, a Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying members of the “Old Christians” rugby team-and many of their friends and family members-crashed into the Andes Mountains. I Had to Survive offers a gripping and heartrending recollection of the harrowing brink-of-death experience that propelled survivor Roberto Canessa to become one of the world’s leading pediatric cardiologists.i-had-to-survive.jpg

As he tended to his wounded teammates amidst the devastating carnage of the wreck, rugby player Roberto Canessa, a second-year medical student at the time, realized that no one on earth was luckier: he was alive-and for that, he should be eternally grateful. As the starving group struggled beyond the limits of what seemed possible, Canessa played a key role in safeguarding his fellow survivors, eventually trekking with a companion across the hostile mountain range for help.

This fine line between life and death became the catalyst for the rest of his life.

This uplifting tale of hope and determination, solidarity and ingenuity gives vivid insight into a world famous story. Canessa also draws a unique and fascinating parallel between his work as a doctor performing arduous heart surgeries on infants and unborn babies and the difficult life-changing decisions he was forced to make in the Andes. With grace and humanity, Canessa prompts us to ask ourselves: what do you do when all the odds are stacked against you?

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of “I had to Survive” follows: 

“Where is the line between life and death?

Through the screen of an ultrasound machine, I study the heart of a child about to be born. I take my time, watching the tiny hands and feet on the monitor, feeling as if we’re communicating somehow through the screen. I’m fascinated at this life that will soon be among us-and at this heart that will have to be repaired in order for the child to survive.

One moment I’m gazing at the ultrasound screen, and the next I’m staring out the window of the crumpled fuselage of a plane, scanning the horizon to see if my friends will return alive from their test hikes. Ever since we escaped from the plane crash in the Andes mountains on December 22, 1972, after being lost for more than two months, I have asked myself a litany of questions, which is constantly changing. Foremost among them: What do you do when all the odds seem stacked against you?

I turn to the pregnant mother, who is lying on a gurney on the second floor of the Hospital Italiano in Montevideo, Uruguay. What is the best way to tell her that the child in her womb has developed in utero lacking the most important chamber of her heart? Until just a few years ago, newborns with these kinds of congenital heart defects, who came into the world stricken through no fault of their own, would die shortly after birth. Their only mark on the world would be a brief agony followed by a lasting trauma for their families. Fortunately, however, medicine took a crucial step forward, and this mother, Azucena, with the look of consternation on her face, can now have hope. There is a long, arduous journey ahead for this woman and her baby daughter, as well as for her husband and their two other children. It is an uncharted path as precarious as the one I made through the Andes. My friends and I were lucky enough to emerge from those mountains finally and reach the verdant valley of Los Maitenes. That’s where I’m trying to lead these children, into their own verdant valley, although I carry the burden of knowing that not all of them will survive the journey…”

This book is at Simon and Schuster

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