A Rising Star Lives to Shine Again After a Near Fatal Knifing

UPDATED 11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

The attack seemed like something out of a horror movie, but for actress Theresa Saldana the drama was grimly real. The 27-year-old Brooklyn native, best known for her 1980 role as the battered sister-in-law in Raging Bull, bad just stepped out of her West Hollywood apartment last March 15 when she was suddenly and repeatedly stabbed by a waiting assailant Saved from certain death by a passing deliveryman who wrestled her attacker to the ground, Saldana was rushed in critical condition to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. While the actress underwent four hours of emergency surgery, police arrested Arthur Richard Jackson, 47, a Scottish-born drifter and former mental patient who bad been stalking Saldana for several weeks. Last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Jackson was convicted of attempted murder in the first degree, plus related charges, and now faces a possible 13-year sentence. During her two-and-a-half-month hospitalization and again last week after the trial, Saldana spoke to PEOPLE'S Sue Reilly about her near fatal encounter and its tortured aftermath.

I was rushing out of my apartment just a few minutes before 10 a.m. on my way to a music class at Los Angeles City College. I had walked to my car and put the key in the lock when I felt the presence of someone next to me. I was immediately afraid. My parents and my manager had been getting phone calls from someone who said he was a producer and wanted my phone number and address. I turned around just in time to see a man I'd never met with a five-inch knife raised to stab me. The rest is like a nightmare.

I started screaming, "He's trying to kill me! He's trying to kill me!" and he kept stabbing me. One of the thrusts went into my left lung, just missing my heart. I kept screaming and fighting, trying to fend him off with my left hand. He stabbed me about 10 times deeply, most of the wounds to my chest and left hand. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, I remember someone pulling him away and me running back into the apartment screaming, "I'm dying! I'm dying! Help me!"

My husband, Fred Feliciano, called the paramedics and police. They arrived within 10 minutes. All during the ride to the hospital I kept thinking "Live, live, live," as the medics tried to stop the bleeding and put tubes and needles into me. When I got to the hospital I was still fully conscious, but I spent a while in pre-op because my blood pressure was so low and I was losing so much blood. It seemed like about eight doctors worked over me, but the person I remember most is the nurse who held my hand, just tel me that everything was going to be all right.

My lung was punctured four times. I was stabbed in the chest another three times and had cuts on my arms and fingers. I required about 26 pints of blood and hundreds of stitches to close the wounds; the doctors say they eventually lost count. My parents flew out from Brooklyn to be with me as soon as they heard about the attack, and my friends stood by me, calling, sending flowers, visiting. Bobby De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were among the first with offers of help.

The pain was excruciating, particularly when I was forced to use the lung machine after surgery. I had to breathe deeply into a tube to make a little ball rise in a breathalator machine. They made me do that to guard against pneumonia, but at first every breath was just agony. When I was still in intensive care I was made to sit up in a chair, and that, next to making the ball go up and down, was the worst. On the fourth day I was up and walking, pushing both of the stands that supported the IVs. During the first four weeks I was in the hospital, I had an IV in each arm most of the time.

After the initial surgery they took me back and operated on the fingers of my loft hand, which I had used to defend myself. The tendons and muscles and veins were sliced, and the hand is still not 100 percent. I've had two operations to correct the damage. I may need another, and I still go for therapy to retain full use of the ring and middle fingers.

While I was in the hospital I was visited by people from the district attorney's office, which has a program for victims of violent crimes. They were well meaning, but none of them really knew what I was going through. They had never been physically and violently assaulted by another human being. I was very unnerved by being told to keep a stiff upper lip, that it would pass. I wanted to know how long it would take to pass. I kept asking if there was anyone around who had lived through this kind of experience that I could talk to. The D.A.'s office couldn't immediately come up with anyone, so that's when the idea started of forming a "Victims for Victims" program on my own.

After I was released from the hospital at the beginning of June, I went back to New York to visit my family for a couple of months. I needed the time to feel like a human being again. But I still really wanted to talk to someone who had been through my kind of experience. You have questions, like how long does it take to get over the fear of anyone touching you or reaching out suddenly? There's a kind of visceral response after you've been violently attacked that is much more pronounced than a startle response. The answer is, it depends.

What I've found is that you need to keep talking, to everyone. You need to ask your doctor or your lawyer or the police any question that bothers you. And if you are a little fuzzy from the anesthesia, as I was for several months, it's all right to ask the same questions over and over. It's better than clamming up.

When I came back to California, I told the district attorney's office that I wanted to start an adjunct to the already functioning victim's assistance program. They gave me the name of Miriam Schneider, a Los Angeles teacher who had been shot in her classroom in March 1979. We got together, and she helped me get through my fears and anger and feelings of hopelessness. She was the first person I asked to join my Victims for Victims Program.

The D.A.'s office was eager to help me and is now processing calls from people who are willing to work in my program. There are programs for rape victims and victims of ravaging diseases, but nothing like this. We now have a psychiatrist and a nurse and a woman who works with small children who are victims, and we have offered to go into hospitals and counsel other attack victims. We can tell them about our experiences while recovering and advise what aid is available through government agencies. I have to admit it isn't much. I expect my hospital, doctor and therapy expenses will be more than $50,000. Some of it will be paid by insurance, and some assistance will come from the district attorney's victim's fund, but a lot of it I am responsible for myself. That adds to the pressure. Some people are so disabled by this kind of attack that they cannot work and lose their jobs. It just wipes them out.

Being violently attacked can change your attitude on life. I've always been a trusting person. When John Lennon was killed, all I can remember is terrible, terrible sadness, as though a piece of my life had been taken away. But it didn't really make me afraid for me. Now I do not give my phone number to anyone. I do not let anyone know where I live. If someone wants to reach me for a job, it's strictly through my agent. And now that this has happened, I plan to enroll in a self-defense class and to take karate. I now do things with other people and always have someone with me. I'm not paranoid, but I am very, very careful.

I want something positive to come out of all this. I don't want to be bitter and angry and afraid. I still wake up in the night terrified, but now when I do I have the comfort of knowing that it's getting better, that life goes on, and that maybe I am learning about strengths I didn't know I had, to deal with fears I didn't know existed.

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