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Refusing to Close Any More Doors

She's an actor-filmmaker. She swims to stay in shape. Pretty standard. But Stephani Victor is anything but.

November 21, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She had come to Hermosa Beach to say goodbye. Stephani Victor and her boyfriend had broken up six weeks earlier, and he was leaving the following day for a new job in Houston.

It's hard to say which feeling was stronger the night of Dec. 19, 1995: The pain of a shattered relationship or the love she still felt for him.

They were standing behind his Ford Explorer, getting ready to leave for dinner, when she was struck from behind by a van, whose driver had lost control in a construction area. Pinned between the two vehicles, Victor was carried about 30 feet before she dropped to the sidewalk.

"I saw my legs scoop up underneath me, and they just exploded," the 27-year-old actor-filmmaker says. "I saw the fabric of my pants rip apart. It was like the Incredible Hulk, how he would just burst out of his shirt, and I remember the feeling of spray hitting me in the face. It was the soft tissue and the blood."

Her first instinct was to get up, brush herself off and hope that no one had noticed, the way a child stumbles over his feet on the playground and bounces up as if the whole thing were choreographed.

But Victor could not get up. She lifted her head and saw her legs split apart, mangled and bent. Her feet were positioned on either side of her, almost even with her shoulders. Her ex-boyfriend ran to her. She could see the panic on his face and, very calmly, she said, "I'm going to die."

She could see people running, looking down at her from balconies. Against the dark sky, she saw fluffy, white clouds. She thought it was the white light. Then she blinked and everything went dark.

"Everything was just sucked out of me, and I went to this place of jet black. . . . I wasn't panicked and I wasn't anxious. I just surrendered, and I closed my eyes."

When she was 9, she had a near-death experience following a bicycle accident, and so she knew the feelings well.

"You don't smell, you don't hear, and you don't taste. It's just energy, and I felt this pulling, like a plane of energy pulling from my chest, like it was going from the earth, through my chest and straight up to God . . . and I thought, 'I can't leave like this,' and as soon as I made that decision, it was like, whump, right back into my body, and I opened my eyes and the clouds were back and I remember thinking, 'OK, I just have to breathe. I just have to breathe.' "

Both legs were amputated, and tonight Victor will stand on prosthetic legs before a sold-out house at the Hermosa Beach Comedy and Magic Club, where friends will gather for a fund-raiser to help cover ongoing expenses for physical therapy, prostheses and other equipment needed for her recovery.

One smile is all it takes to make you think she has risen to high ground amid this flood of change and struggle, but she will point to her chin and tell you how close she sometimes feels to sinking.

It has been a year of lawyers and doctors, conflicting information, HMO battles, mounting medical bills, therapists, nights when she had to be held down through fits of pain. And, still, there's the dream of Hollywood.

Every ounce of her strength is needed to get through a day, so she has neither time nor energy for sympathy. Not even a second. She exudes a no-nonsense demeanor--boundless determination, impenetrable tenacity. Victor, you see, is a very good actor.

Her tenacity is not impenetrable, and sometimes her determination falls short, and there are brief moments--less frequent now--when she wonders why she didn't die.

*

The night before the accident, Victor, her roommate, Meredith Escabar, and mother, Chloe Victor, visiting from Oklahoma, hosted a Christmas party. Late in the night, after everyone had gone home, they were sitting on the floor in Escabar's bedroom.

They extended their legs in front of them so that their feet touched. A bit loopy from wine, they laughed and giggled as they critiqued their toes. It's funny the things that stick in your memory, Chloe Victor says. It was the last time she touched her daughter's feet.

When doctors explained after the surgery that they had to remove Victor's legs to save her life, Chloe dropped to her knees and prayed. Escabar doubled over feeling sick.

A doctor told Chloe that her daughter hadn't been told that her legs had been amputated, and it would be best to wait, so a surgeon could explain her injuries.

"There were huge casts on her residual limbs, and she had a silver heated blanket over her," Chloe says. "There was still blood in her hair. She looked at me with all those tubes in her mouth, and she was trying to mouth, 'Are my legs gone?' and I said, 'Yes, baby, they are.' "

When Escabar entered the room, Victor shaped the words, "I chose to live," and that is how Escabar knew her friend would survive.

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