Michelle Merritt’s life has had its share of storybook chapters. Perhaps one of the best integrated Americans in Mexico, she was brought here at the age of six by her mother and father, a petroleum engineer with Pemex.
She was educated in Mexico, New Jersey, England and France (at Université Paris Sorbonne), married in Guadalajara, had two sons, one of whom became a doctor, and she boasted a long career as a beloved professor in two BA language programs, English and French, at the University of Guadalajara.
But on August 19 last year, all that seemed to drop away as fast as the elevator – with its signage indicating it was for use by the disabled – which plummeted down with her inside it.
It wasn’t that the 75-year-old hadn’t already faced challenges. A botched ankle operation a few years ago had left her needing a cane. Plus, for years she had been in charge of her husband, Angel, who had begun to suffer from Parkinson’s disease and later cancer, which metastasized.
Angel was brought to visit her in the hospital where Merritt was taken in an ambulance after the accident, which occurred at a restaurant in the upscale Providencia neighborhood, where she had gone to have a break from the considerable care needed by Angel and to celebrate with women friends the return of one of them home to France.
“It was really hard seeing Angel when I was in the hospital,” she said recently. “He wasn’t himself.” But Merritt didn’t have long to continue seeing him.
She stayed in the hospital two weeks and embarked on a series of procedures and six surgeries to repair her two crushed knees, broken hip and fractured ankles. When she returned to her small home, she and Angel stayed in hospital beds in two different rooms, requiring full time nursing care and continuous help from family and friends. After about three months, Angel died.
“It was a blessing,” Merritt said. “He was suffering and I too had started to suffer from what is called depersonalization. That’s a term used to describe a recurring characteristic among caregivers. Your patient requires full attention, so you’re no longer the person you were and can’t perform the activities that formed your personality. The problem even extends to not getting enough sleep, nutrition and potty visits. In other words, you’re no longer yourself.”
But of course, Angel’s death, despite lightening Merritt’s load of caring for him, came as an additional blow to her.
“Having to go from an autonomous being to be fully dependent on nurses, family and friends for every need is very tough. And not having my life partner merely adds to the despair, the feeling of not wanting to go on, the emptiness.”
But Merritt, a tall woman with a firm manner, has never been one to fold. Immediately after the accident, with the help of her sons, she initiated legal action against the restaurant, whose name indicates ownership by a well-known Mexican show business family.
“We hired a lawyer immediately following the accident because the person in charge of the restaurant accompanied us to the hospital and gave us his identification information, which later proved to be false. The first setback came from Fiscalia [the state prosecutor’s office]. They refused to take my case, arguing that when one uses dangerous contraptions, ingests harmful substances, and so on, it is at one’s own risk. My lawyer has continued to argue the case. He met with three different judges at three different times and was told the case didn’t hold water because it’s not a criminal case – the law states five factors to validate this point.
“Another problem, according to judges, was the other party has never been present in court. It’s been nine months now and my lawyer keeps on insisting, but to no avail.”
Information has since come out suggesting that the restaurant’s link to the show business family. And it closed soon after the accident, leading Merritt to wonder if it was due to her lawsuit. The closing makes it all the harder to identify the persons responsible for the accident.
In April, after hip replacement and many other procedures, she had knee replacement surgery, “after a long wait to get my leg bones strong enough to hold it. There’s still one to go.”
As for her emotional and financial state, she says, “I’m filled with anxiety over the medical bills that aren’t covered by my insurance, over the tension this has caused my sons, who’ve been on call now for three years, over the probability of needing a walker to get around from now on, over having another fall, over reflecting on my every move so that I don’t damage the prostheses that are in my body.
“I wish people would be responsible for the civil injustices they cause,” Merritt summed up, adding, “and I wish the wheels of justice didn’t churn so slowly.” She noted that whenever she thinks about it, her blood pressure rises – another medical problem.
But “I will not give up,” she promises.
On Facebook, look for Michelle Merritt-Ascencio, where you can see a February 10 interview with Televisa.