Elephant attack leaves Chandler girl seriously injured - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Elephant attack leaves Chandler girl seriously injured

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Posted: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 3:05 pm | Updated: 10:47 am, Wed Jun 6, 2012.

One of the more poignant lessons in forgiveness that Colleen Bennett has received is exemplified on the walls of her daughter's bedroom.

Lauren Bennett sleeps at the family's Chandler home while surrounded by pictures of elephants.

They remain her favorite animals, three months after she was attacked by one in Thailand. The incident left her with a life-threatening liver laceration and severe anguish for a family stuck half the world from home.

Five surgeries and three hospitals later, Lauren, 12, is home. A sense of normalcy has resumed as she readies for the eighth grade, hopes to rejoin her soccer team soon and possesses an appreciation for life that people her age rarely contemplate.

"People are shocked that I still like elephants," she said.

Lauren's memory of the March 15 incident at Mae Taeng Elephant Park - part of the family's Thai safari during spring break for Lauren and her older brother, Austen - is limited, but her parents have not hid the severity of the injury from her. The Class IV laceration cut across three lobes of her liver.

With his daughter sitting nearby, Allan Bennett said that she could have bled to death during the rush to an outdoor clinic in a nearby village, or during the six days she was in intensive care at a Chiang Mai hospital.

"There were two or three days where we did not think she was coming out," said Allan Bennett, vice president of solar market development for Hydro Aluminum in Phoenix. "She was very lucky."

As Allan Bennett returned to Arizona with Austen so he could resume school, Lauren was transferred to Bangkok General Hospital for a three-week stay. She finally came home on April 18.

"Having something like that happen at home would be traumatic enough," said pediatric surgeon Jonathan Greenfeld, who has supervised Lauren's follow-up treatment at Cardon Children's Medical Center in Mesa.

"But in another country, with the language barriers and other circumstances they had to work through? I have a lot of respect for how Lauren fought through it, and how the family has been so strong."

THE INCIDENT

The safari had featured a visit to a tiger temple, where the Bennett family fed infant animals and walked adult ones around on a leash.

"I thought that would be the most dangerous part of the trip," Allan Bennett said.

Established in 1996, the Mae Taeng Elephant Park is about 50 kilometers from Chiang Mai. Some of its elephants were rescued and relocated.

After the family spent the morning riding, Allan and Lauren were encouraged to visit with a female elephant that was using its trunk to throw leaves on itself. Father and daughter enjoyed the elephant for a few moments, pet its trunk and turned away.

"I think when it saw us do that, it thought, ‘I'm not done having fun with you,' " Allan Bennett said.

The elephant used its trunk to toss Allan about six feet, then bumped Lauren with its head.

"She bumped me into her body," Lauren Bennett said. "I fell down really hard, and it stepped on me. I don't remember much after that."

Typically, female Asian elephants do not have tusks, so Lauren was in no danger of being speared. And her injury was limited to the liver, an organ that regenerates.

There was no injury to the nearby pelvis or spleen, or broken ribs that could have punctured another organ.

"The story in Greek mythology about the man (Prometheus) who was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten by birds, only to have it grow back the next day for it to happen all over again?" Greenfeld said. "Well, they were right about the liver. It's a very resilient organ."

Doctors have told the Bennetts that Lauren's chances of a full recovery are good, but it will take anywhere from six to 18 months for the liver to restore itself.

FAMILY HELP

Another reason the Bennetts visited Thailand was to see Allan's brother, Randall, a regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

Randall Bennett worked previously in Iraq and Pakistan, where he was the lead investigator in the case of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002. Four people, including Al Qaeda lieutenant Sheik Omar Saeed, were arrested and convicted.

"Thailand was the first country he was at that was safe to go see him," Allan Bennett said.

After Lauren's injury, Randall Bennett travelled to Chiang Mai and, with the help of a Thai friend, aided in translation. A doctor and nurse from the embassy helped with Lauren's treatment.

"We had the weight of the embassy behind us to watch out for us," Allan Bennett said. "I'm sure that was a reason we got the head of trauma medicine at the hospital (in Chiang Mai) as our doctor."

Added Lauren: "That doctor had a lot of people watching him."

Randall Bennett, who is retiring and will be in Arizona to purchase a house later this month, offered to conduct an interview via e-mail but was later unavailable.

Lauren underwent three surgeries in Thailand to drain bile leaking from her liver. While at the Bangkok hospital, she underwent painful morphine withdrawal while her mother had to stay on top of her treatment.

"The nurses would come in, and we'd have to ask: What is that? What is it for?" Colleen Bennett said. "Sometimes it was the right medication, sometimes it was for a completely different patient. They could usually express to us what they were going to do in English, but they had trouble answering questions about a procedure. It was stressful."

AFTERMATH

Since returning to Arizona, Lauren has had two procedures to remove the bile drains and insert a stent, which she will have for about a month. Bile leaking from the liver can burn the abdominal cavity and put a person at risk of going into shock, Greenfeld said.

The Mae Taeng Elephant Park kept up with Lauren's care and sent flowers and an elephant painting.

However, Colleen Bennett said, if the non-profit facility has conducted an internal investigation of the incident, it has not disclosed the results to the family. She added that park staff told her after the incident that the elephants "had been a little skittish" since the 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake, four days before.

"I kind of wish they had told us that when we got there," said Colleen Bennett, an information technology manager at Orbital Sciences Corp. in Chandler.

The park office has not responded to an e-mail interview request.

"We asked a consulate if we should get an attorney," Allan Bennett said. "We were told that's not how it works there. Even if we could bring it to court, as a foreigner, you're not likely to win, and if you win, you're not likely to get anything. You reach an agreement with the other party. They paid for our lodging while we were still there and paid medical expenses until their insurance capped out."

The Bennetts' insurance has covered expenses since.

Exclusively on an IV in the days after the incident, Lauren Bennett lost nearly 30 pounds, She remains diet-limited and is not able to lift heavy weights.

The physical strength will eventually return. Her fortitude has been unquestioned.

"I guess I found out that my pain levels were higher than I thought," Lauren said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6301 or dzeiger@evtrib.com

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