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- June 25, 1990
- Vol. 33
- No. 25
One Step at a Time
Fighting to Recover from Her Broken Back, Gloria Estefan Vows to Return to the Stage "Better Then Ever"
Three months after breaking her back in a frightening tour-bus crash on March 20, the Miami Sound Machine star is working hard at getting herself in shape to return to performing. Ever anxious to put a positive spin on things—"last night I only woke up [in pain] twice," she says—Estefan, 32, will admit to some serious discomforts, most of them the result of surgery two days after the accident, when doctors severed her back muscles in order to repair her spine. Her central nervous system, short-circuited in the crash, still sends occasional shocks. Damaged back muscles and nerves still smart; some areas of the skin on her legs remain hypersensitive. But husband Emilio, 37, says the nights when pain jolted her awake every 45 minutes are past. And Estefan says she cannot feel the two eight-inch long, quarter-inch-thick stainless steel rods surgeons implanted to straighten and protect her spinal cord. The vital skein of nerves controlling movement in the lower body was pinched, bent and nearly severed when the impact fractured and dislocated two vertebrae.
Examining her post-op X rays, Estefan can see the rods and their intricate steel clamps, which grip her spinal column like claws. "I try not to think about them," she says. "I used to think saw them in the mirror, jutting out, but it was in my mind. Emilio calls me RoboCop and jokes that I'll need the X rays to get through airport security. I'm very fortunate that the break happened at the waist, so I'll be able to bend my back and dance. I just feel very lucky to be alive and to be able to walk again."
Estefan feels especially lucky to be recovering well from just the sort of injury that she had always feared most. "All my life I've been afraid of becoming an invalid," says Estefan, who in her teens nursed her Cuban immigrant father, José, through a long, degenerative neurological disease doctors attributed to Agent Orange poisoning suffered in Vietnam. He was bedridden for 12 years and died in 1980. "He was a very athletic, strong and handsome man," says Estefan. "For years and years I watched him weaken and die. I saw what it did to the people around him—to his family. I've had a premonition all my life that I would become a burden to the people I love. That's why, when we began building our house [in 1987], I had an elevator put in. I would tell people it was for moving equipment up and down. But in the back of my mind, I knew what it was really for. So when I was lying in the bus, I thought, 'Here it is. This is the thing I've been waiting for.' "
"Oh," Estefan says with genuine pleasure, "it is a beautiful day." Fresh from a shower, she settles into a chair on her breezy poolside terrace, which, like the floors throughout the couple's Miami waterfront home, is composed of white coral tiles. Lovely as the interior is—designed Cuban-style, it features dropped wood ceilings and large open rooms filled with Andy Warhol and Frank Stella originals, sculptures and exotic plants—the Estefans spend most of their time outside on the terrace, accessible by a white spiral staircase from their second-floor bedroom, where sliding glass doors open onto a broad balcony. The terrace and saddle-shaped, hand-tiled pool give way to a lawn dotted with Jamaican and Cuban Royal palms whose fronds click and rustle in the light breeze. Sunlight strobes on the aqua waters of Biscayne Bay, visible beyond a sun-bleached patio and dock.
The setting, certainly, would be tough not to like. But Estefan drinks it in with lucky-to-be-alive relish as she relives the accident that nearly left her paralyzed.
Finishing up the first leg of a world tour, Estefan had no misgivings. The Miami Sound Machine had by then sold 10 million albums worldwide; their current LP, Cuts Both Ways, was sitting comfortably on the charts. "That day," she says, "everything was perfect. I was in the best shape physically. My husband and my son, Nayib, were with me. The tour had sold out everywhere. I was looking forward to the gig in Syracuse. And I loved the bus. I always used to say, if you crash, at least you're not falling 37,000 feet."
Six people, including two Sound Machine staffers and Nayib's tutor, were on board when Estefan curled up for a nap on a couch in the forward cabin. Around noon she awoke when the bus stopped behind a stalled tractor-trailer on Interstate 80, near Tobyhanna, Pa., 20 miles southeast of Scranton. "It was so weird," she says. "I fell asleep on a perfectly beautiful, sunny morning. I opened my eyes and it was dark out and snowing. I saw Emilio standing next to the driver, talking on the telephone. Then, immediately, there was this explosion."
Struck from behind by a speeding semi, the tour bus slammed into the truck in front. "The next thing I knew, I was on the floor," Estefan says. "The impact knocked Emilio right out of his shoes. Two chairs bolted to the floor by the couch were twisted completely sideways. I might have broken my back by hitting those chairs, I don't know. I had a black eye and a strange, metallic taste in my mouth. But the actual second I broke my back, I can't remember."
The next moments were indelible. "I tried to lift my legs, but they would only go so far. I told Emilio I broke my back, but he tried to reassure me. 'No, baby, maybe you just pulled a muscle.' But I could feel it. I remember thinking I would rather die than be paralyzed. But I told myself, 'No way. I'm not accepting this. I'm gonna get through this.' Then I realized. 'As long as I can move my feet even a little, I'm not paralyzed.' "
Even so, the pain was excruciating. "I picked a spot on the ceiling and focused on it, like they teach in childbirth classes," says Estefan. "But believe me, I would rather give birth to 10 kids in a row than go through that kind of pain again."
While waiting nearly an hour for help to arrive, Estefan clung to the hand of Nayib, 9, who broke a collarbone in the crash. "He was very brave," Estefan says. "I think he was really worried for me. Knowing he was not badly hurt helped me. If something had happened to him, I couldn't have handled it." Paramedics had to lift Estefan through a smashed front windshield because the bus door was inches from a steep embankment. The other passengers, remarkably, suffered only minor injuries.
Next came an anxious 45-minute ambulance ride—"hauling ass in the ice and snow"—to a Scranton hospital where morphine injections "just took the edge off" the pain. As important as the drugs, says Estefan, was the balm of public support—a flood that started within hours of the accident and has swelled to more than 4,000 floral arrangements, 3,000 telegrams, 30,000 postcards and letters sent to the Estefans to date. "It definitely helped; so many people concentrating positively, praying for me," says Gloria. "It was like an energy I could feel in the hospital. It helped me bear all that pain."
Flown by air ambulance to New York City's Hospital for Joint Diseases Orthopedic Institute on March 21, Estefan underwent delicate spinal surgery. The operation lasted four hours and required a bone graft from Estefan's hip and insertion of the steel rods to shore up the fractured vertebrae. Although the rods are permanent, they are located in a section of the spine that flexes very little anyway, and will not inhibit Estefan's movements. "I used to have a pinched nerve in my lower back," says Estefan, who no longer does. "The doctors said. 'What the hell, we'll give her a tune-up as long as we're in there.' "
The operation left a 14-inch scar down the middle of her back. "At first I refused to look at it," she says. "I saw it by mistake in Julio Iglesias's plane (lent for the ride home to Miami April 4). I had to go to the bathroom, and he's got mirrors all around! 'Damn.' I thought, 'there it is." I got curious and looked and then I got depressed. But it's healing really well. The plastic surgeon who closed me up said he was getting religious after my accident. He said that the way my spine was mauled, I shouldn't be able to move."
In a business notorious for self-destructive behavior, Gloria Estefan seemed the last person in pop who would find herself in the emergency room. The dynamic Cuban-born singer is one of the Miami exile community's triumphant American dream stories. She was not quite 2 when her father. José Manuel Fajardo, a motorcycle escort to the wife of former President Fulgencio Batista and onetime Pan American Games volleyball medalist, and mother, Gloria Fajardo, a schoolteacher, arrived penniless in Miami. Senora Fajardo, now 60, set up house in a Cuban ghetto "barracks" behind the Orange Bowl while her husband joined the Bay of Pigs invasion force. Captured and imprisoned in Cuba for more than two years, he returned to the U.S., joined the U.S. Army and earned captain's bars before going to Vietnam. Bedridden at home from the time of his return in 1968 until he was hospitalized in 1976, Fajardo was nursed by his little "Glorita." "I took care of Dad from the time I was 11 until I was 16," says Estefan, whose other duties included caring for her younger sister, Becky, and helping her mother learn English. An honor student who earned a partial scholarship to the University of Miami, where she graduated with a degree in psychology and communications in 1978, Estefan also worked as a customs translator at Miami International Airport and taught guitar in a community school. "I didn't have any time for dating," she says. "I never had a boyfriend, until Emilio."
A self-taught accordion player who got his start playing for tips in an Italian restaurant in Cuba before he emigrated in 1968, Emilio Estefan fronted a Miami bar and bar mitzvah band known as the Miami Latin Boys. "We had to change the name," he says, "when Gloria started singing with us [in 1975]."
Estefan credits her grandmother, who encouraged her singing, and her mom, who won an international contest in the 1940s to dub Shirley Temple's movies into Spanish, for her gifts. But it was Emilio who got her into show business after she first saw him perform at a wedding, playing "The Hustle" on accordion. "That really impressed me," she says. "I thought, 'This guy is really ballsy.' "
Renamed and relaunched as Miami Sound Machine, Estefan's band sold millions of records throughout Latin America before crossing over to English language success with the monster hit "Conga" in 1985. "I think we succeeded where so many other [crossover acts] failed because we stayed honest," says Emilio, who quit performing in 1986 to devote himself to managing and producing. "We put out 'Conga' instead of a rock and roll song."
Estefan says she worked with Emilio for more than a year before they started dating. "I thought he was very attractive, but he always went with older women. I never thought he'd be interested in anybody like me. I had no experience at all." Says Emilio: "I liked her, but I wanted to be sure. I thought, 'If she's in love with me and I'm not ready, she will be destroyed.' But then we fell in love, and it's been a great marriage." They wed in 1978.
Affectionate and mutually empathetic—he winces with her: she worries that her pain takes a toll on him—the pair are given to hand-holding and reassuring kisses. While Estefan is anxious to get back onstage "and be better than before, to show people that their prayers were not wasted," Emilio worries about her becoming discouraged during the recovery process, which could take a year. He has stayed home from the office to care for her ever since they returned to Miami. Emilio says a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in April against the driver and owners of the truck that struck them "is being handled by lawyers. No amount of money can make up for what Gloria's gone through."
Since mid-April, Gloria has been working out three days a week, rebuilding her strength and flexibility with the help of exercise machines and a personal trainer, Carmen Klepper, who notes that recovery can be especially difficult for a patient whose body has always been a very sound machine.
"Imagine someone in great shape who suddenly cannot walk," Klepper says. "Mentally, that can crush you. Your body crumbles. But Gloria is recuperating faster than anyone. She has drive like I have never seen." Estefan, a football fan, says she has seen it before, in 49er quarterback Joe Montana. "He had a horrible back injury and came back to set records," says Gloria, who at the moment has no plans to tour or record. "I'm just now able to put my shoes on by myself. But that did wonders for me. It made me feel normal again."
To help buoy Estefan's spirits, Emilio recently presented her with a pair of dalmatian puppies born on March 22, the day she went into surgery. He named them after another famous Cuban-American band leader and his superstar wife—Ricky and Lucy.
Watching Emilio play with "the Ricardos" in the shade of a sheltering palm, Estefan says that during her hospital stay nurses confirmed a pet theory of hers. "They agreed that when there's no real love in a relationship, hardship tends to separate you rather than bring you closer together," she says. "The healthy one loses patience. When this happened, Emilio showed me how much he really loves me. He was there every second for me. "Now," she says, "I tell him, 'I hope I never have to show you the way you've shown me.' "
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