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Originally published Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 7:55 PM

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Bus-crash victim says love of family sustains her

A Lynnwood woman who was severely injured in the tour-bus crash in Oregon in December remains hospitalized in Seattle, while family members are giving her all the love they can.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Eun Sook Uhm, of Lynnwood, may have survived the tour-bus crash in Oregon Dec. 30 that killed nine passengers and injured 39. But almost every second since has been filled with physical agony as she continues to fight for her life at Harborview Medical Center.

A crushed rib cage, dislocated collarbone and cracked spinal vertebrae have made it difficult for the 74-year-old to even breathe, according to her son, Dan Uhm. When her torso is moved only slightly, her ribs crack as she yells in pain, he says.

“I have to just leave the room,” said Dan, 49, who has spent no less than six hours every day visiting his mom since the crash.

He wondered what motivates his mother to endure pain so severe that not even the strongest medications can numb it. So he asked her.

At first, before she was extricated from the bus, it was wanting to see her three grandchildren grow up, she told him in faint Korean, her primary language.

But now, it’s because she’s never seen her friends and family love her so well, especially her husband, Do Sung Uhm.

On Feb. 17, the couple will have been married for 50 years.

During one of Dan’s hospital visits, Eun Sook told her son nothing has taught her to value her marriage as much as the past month has. Displays of affection are rare and reserved between Korean couples of his parents’ generation, Dan said, but there’s been no shortage of tender devotion from his father in the past few weeks.

“She told me, ‘I’ve learned things about him in the last month that I haven’t known for the last 50 years,’ ” Dan said.

Before the accident, the Uhm family had planned to make the anniversary special with a giant celebration in mid-February. But the party has now been downsized and fast-tracked. It will be an intimate gathering of close friends and family — including a daughter who has flown in from Germany — at the hospital on Tuesday.

6 months in bed

Though some days Eun Sook feels well enough to smile for a photo with a grandson or to celebrate Dan’s birthday inside the hospital, there have been times when it wasn’t clear she would survive.

At least four times since the bus crash, her family thought she might not pull through a new complication or surgery. When she was first airlifted from a hospital in Walla Walla to Seattle’s Harborview, doctors told her family it was imperative she not develop pneumonia. Then she did. But she survived it to experience other, worse complications that made overcoming pneumonia seem the smallest obstacle to her recovery, her son said.

“Every week you think she’s turned a corner ... there’s a complication, and it starts all over again,” Dan said last week.

The best-case scenario for Eun Sook’s recovery, her son says, is likely another six months of waiting in a bed to see if her bones will heal. Only after that will she be able to attempt sitting or walking, which will be a challenge on its own depending on how long she is bedridden.

But, from what her son can tell, Eun Sook is as determined to get out of the hospital as she was to get out of that crumpled bus alive.

A fun trip with friends

Eun Sook and a couple of Seattle-area friends thought they’d have fun on a nine-day tour of the western United States. She and her friends saw an ad for the Green Travel agency in a Korean-language newspaper and signed up for the tour, operated by British Columbia-based Mi Joo Tour & Travel.

The group had been to the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boise when, on the last day of the trip, the bus hit an icy, downhill stretch of Interstate 84 in Oregon. Sitting in the fourth row with her friend of more than 20 years, Yong Ho Lee, of Lynnwood, Eun Sook remembers other passengers asking the bus driver to slow down.

Not long after, the bus spun out of control, burst through a guardrail and flipped what felt like three or four times down a steep embankment, she told her son. When the bus came to a stop, twisted metal had pinned her somewhere near the back next to Lee. Eun Sook knew from years of being a nurse that just staying conscious was the top priority if she and those around her were to survive. She tried to keep Lee awake but at some point Lee lost consciousness. She was one of the nine who died in the crash.

A section of the bus had to be pried apart to remove Eun Sook. Dan was told his mother was the last person, dead or alive, to be taken from the crash site.

Million-dollar medical bills

Investigations by the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Canadian counterpart, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, found that not only had the driver, Haeng-Kyu Hwang, been going too fast in icy conditions, but that he had been working more hours than legal that week. Federal regulations require drivers to work 70 hours or less in a week; Hwang had worked 92.

Last week, Eun Sook and her husband joined several other survivors and representatives of those killed in the crash — most from the Puget Sound area — in filing lawsuits against Hwang and the tour operator, Mi Joo Tour & Travel, citing all the same allegations. More lawsuits are expected soon, according to their lawyer, Scott Breneman.

Eun Sook, though insured, needs assistance paying medical bills that are already nearing a million dollars, Breneman said. The same goes for at least two other survivors still in hospitals with debilitating injuries, according to Tacoma lawyer Charles Herrmann, who is representing them in their lawsuits.

Herrmann says Mi Joo’s $10 million Insurance Corporation of British Columbia policy only covers $150,000 in medical expenses per person before any further liability is established in court. So far, Mi Joo’s lawyer, Mark Scheer, has maintained that the main cause of the crash was black ice, not the bus driver’s amount of rest.

Proving Mi Joo isn’t liable for any wrongdoing in the accident could get harder for its insurer if criminal charges are eventually filed against Mi Joo or Hwang, the driver. The Umatilla County District Attorney in Oregon will not make a decision until after the Oregon State Police complete its investigation of the crash, said Lt. Gregg Hastings.

A deepening of love

Eun Sook is already thinking about a day when she can volunteer as a nurse to help others persevere through what she’s experiencing now, her son said.

But, for now, her goals consist of little things, like getting her nutrition from 4 ounces of hot cereal instead of through an IV.

In a little over two weeks, she hopes to reach that precious milestone — a marriage that’s lasted half a century.

“Fifty years is a big deal — not many Koreans make it to that milestone, not because they’re not loyal; they just usually don’t live long enough to see it,” Dan said. “In the last few weeks, one of the positive things about this accident is this has given [my father] a deeper and better understanding of how important she’s been in his life.”

Dan has had similar realizations as he’s spent many sleepless nights watching over his mother at the hospital.

“She has that nurse’s personality that always had her going the extra mile and sacrificing every day through our childhood,” said Dan, who has twin sisters and a brother.

“You do a lot of thinking in situations like these and you realize the least you can do is be there and sacrifice, at least as much as she did for you.”

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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