ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Blinding headlights flashed across the highway, then receded into the night on that dark stretch of old Route 66 east of Albuquerque.
But even in the darkness she saw something that she knew had changed her life.
“My leg is gone,” Kim Strain told her boyfriend. “I lost my leg.”
Strain’s daughter, Karlee Strain, relates her mother’s words as we talk about the motorcycle crash that took her mother’s left leg and nearly took her life on the night of July 2.
Details of the crash are murky, and who, if anybody, is most at fault remains undetermined. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Joseph Montiel said the traffic report is incomplete, and no more information is available.
But what is known is that Strain and her partner had gone dancing that night at an East Mountain establishment and were headed home to Albuquerque, each on their own motorcycle, sometime before 9 p.m. when Strain’s motorcycle collided with a truck on Old 66 between Carnuel and Tramway.
The impact tore off her left leg halfway between the knee and pelvis and crushed her left arm from shoulder to finger.
The impact also severed her femoral artery, sending blood gushing onto the asphalt and her life ebbing away into the ether.
She was dying in that darkness.
But someone was there to save her. Karlee calls him her mother’s angel.
He was also the driver of the truck involved in the crash.
“Everything happened so fast, and he knew just what to do,” Karlee said. “He told Steve, my mother’s boyfriend, to give him his belt and he made a tourniquet with it to slow the bleeding. We are convinced he saved my mom’s life.”
He almost certainly did. Such a serious injury can cause a person to bleed out in as little as five minutes.
At the University of New Mexico Hospital, Strain underwent emergency surgery and was given four units of blood to replace what she had lost, her daughter said.
It was hard to imagine her mom that way. Strain is a 55-year-old woman as unstoppable as the wind, exuding an easy energy and warmth and a tenacious desire to enjoy life in every way imaginable.
She lives by a Tibetan proverb she had posted on Facebook: The secret to living well and longer is to eat half, walk double, laugh triple and love without measure.
“She is just a loving, bubbly, fun person who loves to sing and dance, listen to live bands and be around people,” her daughter said. “She’s always happy, very outdoorsy. She brightens the room.”
Everybody seemed to know Strain from her days as a waitress at Molly’s Bar in Tijeras (where she was not dancing the night of the crash) and now at her job in Albuquerque at B2B Uptown.
Then came the COVID-19 shutdown and unemployment. Even that couldn’t bring Strain down for long.
Not much had – not even the polycystic kidney disease she had struggled with for much of her life. The inherited disorder, which had also afflicted her mother, brother and sister, can cause pain, high blood pressure and eventual kidney failure.
For 10 years, she waited on a kidney transplant list, undergoing regular dialysis to keep her alive. In June 2015, she finally underwent the transplant surgery.
Maybe that’s why living well and longer was such an aspiration.
In photos, even one taken of her moments after the transplant, she is always smiling, her blue eyes always twinkling. She is skiing, walking along a beach, hiking, dancing, laughing with friends, holding a grandchild, hugging a daughter. She is sitting atop her red Yamaha V-Star 650, a motorcycle she recently bought and named Rambling Rose.
She was riding the Rose the night of the crash.
Strain has already undergone surgery to repair her arm, wrist and hand, and remains largely sedated on pain medication, Karlee said. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, she is allowed only one visitor one hour a day. Karlee alternates with her mom’s boyfriend and a sister.
In those short, groggy minutes, they have talked a little of the future. Already, plans are being made to make Karlee’s home more wheelchair-accessible. Strain’s 2-year-old grandson, whom she is raising, has already moved in with Karlee.
But Karlee knows her mom won’t stay forever.
“She’s too independent,” she said. “She likes helping people, not the other way around. Eventually, she’ll want to move back to her own apartment.”
Her daughter thinks that same tenacious desire to enjoy life will pull her through the rough times ahead. “She’s accepting that this is going to be her new life,” she said.
She still has a life because of that truck-driving angel, who knew his way around a tourniquet.
His name is Pete, an older man, Karlee said, with previous medical training and the memory of two friends losing legs in motorcycle-related crashes.
“He was an awesome guy and was so happy we reached out to him to let him know she was OK,” she said. “Said it comforted him knowing that she made it and was alive.”
Repeated calls to Pete’s home in Torreon went unanswered. Like many angels, he apparently prefers to remain in the wings, receding into the night.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.