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Family eases long road to recovery for Peruvian migrant worker

Edgar Sulla Puma, is visited by his sister Matilde at a Hamilton rehab centre.

Glenn Lowson

Edgar Sulla Puma holds a miniature yellow soccer ball in his hands as he waits for his older sister, Matilde, to take him outside to the courtyard. She's been with him nearly every day since he was rushed to a Hamilton hospital four months ago after surviving one of the worst traffic crashes in Ontario history.

Eleven men died that day, when a 15-passenger van and a transport truck collided on a country road in the Southern Ontario hamlet of Hampstead. Nearly all of the men killed were like Mr. Sulla, temporary migrant labourers from Peru toiling on the province's chicken farms to build a better life for their families back home.

Mr. Sulla survived, along with two others, but his condition was so precarious that doctors told his sister to prepare for his death. His brain was severely injured, shaken violently in the crash, and he had a bad case of pneumonia. Medical specialists weren't certain he'd wake from his coma. But he has.

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"After seeing him in the intensive care, unconscious, not being able to move, this for me is a miracle," his sister said last week in Spanish, her husband translating for her as they held hands in the sun-drenched courtyard of Hamilton Health Sciences Regional Rehabilitation Centre. "I have a lot of faith in God and I believe God does things for a reason."

Mr. Sulla faces a long road to recovery. He'll never be completely like he was, his sister said. He'll always need daily assistance, but she's hopeful her brother will be able to talk and walk again some day. He keeps trying to get out of bed on his own (worrying the nurses), even though he's not strong enough. His limbs are stick thin. He's slowly regaining the weight he lost while in the coma, from which he emerged last month.

The pint-sized Peruvian, who recently turned 27, was the most severely injured survivor of the Feb. 6 collision. The others, Javier Aldo Medina, 38, and Juan Ariza, 35, are recovering from broken bones in a care home in London, Ont.

The crash triggered several investigations, including an Ontario Provincial Police probe and reviews of safety and employment standards by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The employment standards investigation is continuing but department spokesman William Lin said the safety review was completed earlier this month. No safety charges will be laid. (The police probe, also concluded, did not result in charges either.) Mr. Sulla and the other migrant workers, employed by MARC Poultry Vaccination Services, had just finished work on a chicken farm and were on their way to Kitchener when police say their van's driver failed to yield at a stop sign for a transport truck, operated by Chris Fulton.

Mr. Fulton, who was heading home to celebrate his 11th wedding anniversary, swerved to avoid the van, but it was too late. He and 10 MARC farm workers died, including the van's driver.

The tragedy touched off an outpouring of financial support for the survivors and families of the dead. More than $210,000 has been raised through a fund established by the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCW), and nearly $100,000 in a fund created by the Township of Perth East. The donations, which are still being accepted, are being divided into 14 equal portions. UFCW Canada is scheduled to present Mr. Sulla with his share, about $15,000, on Friday. The money will be put in a bank account for him, said his brother-in-law, John Edwards.

Outside, in the rehab centre's sunny courtyard, Mr. Sulla raises his left arm suddenly and clenches his fist. It seems as if he wants to say something.

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His sister caresses his right arm and talks to him softly in Spanish. He's in a wheelchair. Cards with the words si and no are on a tray in front of him, helping him communicate. He can't eat on his own, reliant on a feeding tube. It's uncertain what abilities he'll be able to recover, but each day brings new surprises: an unexpectedly strong squeeze from his hand, turning the page of his nephew's book, recognition, seemingly, of his favourite Peruvian sitcom.

His sister and her husband, who moved to Hamilton from Toronto to be close to Mr. Sulla, hope he'll be able to remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds because they believe they can provide better care for him than his elderly mother and three siblings in Peru. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has been covering his health-care costs.

"Many times I ask why?" his sister said of the crash that nearly killed her brother, her eyes welling up with tears. "There is no way to change what happened. It's better to focus on what can be done now for Edgar."

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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

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