An adventurous traveler. A gregarious friend with a hearty laugh. A 500 princess-turned-IU med student working with impoverished children abroad. Then she became something else: a casualty in a tragic accident at sea, and a sad and powerful memory for her parents to keep alive.
Editors Note: This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Indianapolis Monthly.
ABBY BRINKMAN SCOOPED UP THE BROWN-SKINNED TODDLER waiting with her mother outside the clinic. “Oh, I’m going to take this one home with me,” she teased. The little girl’s arms and legs were covered with open sores, a bad case of scabies, common to the children of southern Belize. While other volunteers at the Hillside Health Care Center sometimes hesitated—just a fraction of a second—before picking up a sick or dirty child, Abby never did. “Uh, are you sure you want to do that?” someone once asked her. But Abby didn’t mind. These were children, after all, and children—healthy or sick, clean or dirty—need to be held.
Welts the size of nickels marched up and down Abby’s arms and legs, too, but hers were mosquito bites. She slathered on DEET so strong it burned her skin, but the mosquitoes drilled right through it. In an e-mail to friends she weighed the pros and cons of shaving her legs: Was it better to expose the bumps or look like Sasquatch?
That week, she had gone with other volunteers on three “mobile clinics” into the rainforest and had treated an entire Mayan village for head lice, picking nits off the scalps of 540 men, women, and children. A young mother had told Abby that she had given up treating her children because they just got reinfected the next day. So Abby and a public-health nurse rounded up 500 bottles of permethrin shampoo and set up an outdoor hair salon.
By the end of the week, between picking nits and scratching her own mosquito bites, Abby itched from head to toe and was ready for a break. She and a friend, Andrew Tenenbaum, a pediatric resident from Portland, Maine, planned a dive along Belize’s storied barrier reef. Hurricane Wilma sat about 250 miles offshore, but it was moving north toward Cancun, and at the Hillside clinic, the skies were sunny. “If the weather holds out, I’ll be heading for Placencia this weekend,” she wrote friends and family in Indiana. “I can’t believe how quickly my time is going down here.”
When the last patient left the clinic Friday, Abby grabbed her navy canvas duffel bag—the one friends called her “magic bag” because she could pull anything out of it: snacks, aspirin, maps, strappy heels, matching scarf. She and Andrew dashed for the afternoon Placencia bus, a yellow-orange-and-green-striped coach that played tinny ’80s music. Medical director Elizabeth Fitzgerald glimpsed the two of them as she closed up the Hillside clinic for the weekend. “I remember them scrambling to catch that bus,” she says.
It would be the last time she saw Abby.
Abby’s footprints have long since disappeared from the dirt road to the Hillside clinic, scuffed away by dozens of new medical volunteers and washed by three years of rains. Not everyone remembers the tall blond woman with the full-body laugh and irresistible smile, but Joyce Lopez does. The Hillside executive director thinks of Abby every day as she watches the frame of Abby’s House, a new dormitory, rising next to the clinic. “I keep thinking that out of every bad thing, something good will come,” Lopez says. “So when I see the building going up, I think about keeping Abby’s memory alive, like she’s still here with us.”
That’s why Roger and Jan Brinkman will join Lopez and many others November 16 at the Hillside clinic to honor the life of the daughter they adored. They hope their efforts will allow generations of young men and women to continue the work Abby did in the last weeks of her life. In this small village on the edge of the Belizean rainforest, they hope to leave their daughter’s footprint.
Abby first traveled to Belize with her tropical-biology class at Hanover College in 1997. She was dazzled by the colors of the reefs, the rainforest, and the open-air markets. She loved the easy laughter of the people and the open faces of the children. She saw the poverty on that trip, too—images that came back to her years later in medical school at IU as she studied diseases that ravaged the tropics and cut short the lives of children. When she had the opportunity to do an overseas rotation during her last year of medical school, Abby decided to return to Belize.
She arrived at Hillside on the first of October in 2005. At the clinic—a few flat-roofed stucco buildings circled by a wooden fence about five miles from Punta Gorda—she joined a dozen other medical students and volunteers who lived there or in rented rooms a few miles away. Hillside serves Belize’s poorest district, where nearly 80 percent of the people live below the poverty level. Hot water is a luxury. Iguana is a common food. When Abby worked at Hillside, volunteers shared toilets with just enough water for one flush a night. Not where you’d expect a “girly-girl” vegetarian and former Indianapolis 500 princess to feel at home, but Abby jumped right in. “She just got down and dirty,” says Jackie Schmidt, a retired Carmel consultant who helped found the Hillside clinic 10 years ago. “She had her scrubs on in those villages with sweat dripping down her face.”
Hillside’s walk-in clinic, now funded through a not-for-profit faith-based organization in Wisconsin, is open three days a week, when market buses bring patients from distant villages. Mothers leave home with their children as early as 4 a.m. to get to the nearest bus stop. They start lining up two hours before the clinic doors open at 9. Until a few months ago, Hillside relied on village water, which was turned off in the evening and on again when someone got around to it the next morning.
After the clinic closes, volunteers visit disabled or dying patients at home and show parents how to treat scabies or boil water to make it safe. Two days each week, medical teams travel two hours or more to set up clinics in thatched huts with sunlight slicing through cracks in the walls. They brave fogs of mosquitoes and floodwaters over their knees. Sometimes they wade across washed-out roads with plastic tubs of supplies on their heads.
Abby learned to treat skin diseases, diarrhea, parasites, and machete wounds. She cradled an hours-old newborn in a dirt-floored hut. She met 4-month-old Bartolo, a Mayan whose head was much too large for his body; fluid filled the space where part of his brain should be. A skinny yellow dog wandered in the house as Abby and Andrew measured Bartolo’s head and soothed his frightened mother.
Andrew says Abby was sharper and more confident than most medical students at the clinic. She would see a patient and recommend a treatment plan instead of asking a doctor what to do next. And she had a natural affinity for the children. She’d sit with them on the ground, carry them around on her hip, rock them in her arms when they cried.
Abby played as hard as she worked. She walked fast and laughed loud. She drank Belikin beer, cheered the Colts at a Punta Gorda tavern, and belted out “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” with Lopez. “She was always ready for anything,” Andrew says. “There was no one else at the clinic who was as positive and as fun to work with and hang out with.”
Fitzgerald says many young people go to another country to take pictures or tell their friends they went, but Abby wasn’t like that. “I didn’t get the sense she was going to be a pediatrician and make a lot of money and live in the U.S.,” Fitzgerald says. “I think she wanted to explore the world and use medicine as a gift.”
Days before the dive trip, Fitzgerald e-mailed a former colleague at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to recommend Abby for a pediatric residency.
Andrew and Abby got off the bus in Placencia Friday afternoon and asked around about diving. A couple from Alaska recommended Advanced Diving, so they found Vance Cabral’s shack at the beach. Cabral, a muscular man in his mid-30s, had a big one-room operation loaded with snorkeling and scuba gear. It looked respectable, Andrew says. They madereservations for the next morning and then met up with some people at the Barefoot Beach Bar.
Saturday morning was bright and breezy, and only a few clouds scudded across the sky. Hurricane Wilma had moved north. “We had no worries before we set out,” Andrew says.
More than 100,000 people travel to Belize each year to dive or snorkel, drawn by the 185-mile-long barrier reef, second only to Australia’s in length. Divers swim past cliffs and canyons of coral populated by tropical fish, barracuda, and giant turtles. Water temperatures hover near 84 in the summer and fall, and visibility can reach 100 feet. John Bain, now 53, a Carmel High School graduate and Indiana lawyer, had snorkeled and dived around the world, but nowhere as spectacular as Belize. Bain, who arrived in Placencia that Friday night, had found Advanced Diving in a guidebook several months earlier. He was already standing by the 28-foot boat, Advance One, when Abby and Andrew showed up Saturday morning. “She was a strikingly gorgeous woman,” he says. “She said she was a student at the IU Med Center, and I said I had been a law student three blocks from there. We were both vegetarians, and we went to the same restaurants in Indianapolis. We had so much to talk about. After hanging out in the jungle and working at Hillside, she was probably thankful to talk to a fellow Hoosier.”
John, Abby, and Andrew sat near the bow of the boat and chatted as Advance One made its way out of the harbor with 12 people aboard. Cabral piloted the boat with his assistant, B.B. Tucker. Andrew and five others planned to snorkel at the Silk Cayes with Cabral; Abby, John, Nancy Masters of Oregon, and Yutaka Maeda of Japan were going to dive with Tucker farther out at Gladden Spit. There were waves, Andrew says, but not big ones. Cabral did not mention that a Small Craft Advisory had gone out, Andrew and John agree, nor that the trailing spirals of Hurricane Wilma were thrashing the seas farther off the coast.
About 20 minutes into the trip, the boat engine sputtered and died, and Cabral removed the cover and took out the filter. He muttered something about water in the line, Andrew says. A few minutes later, Tucker turned the ignition again. The engine started, and they continued toward the Silk Cayes. Andrew snapped a picture of Abby with sunglasses perched on her head and her ponytail draped over one shoulder, a few wisps of blond hair blowing across her face. She is smiling.
Abby was 5-foot-7 with blue-green eyes and natural blond hair, but her smile is what people remember. In her parents’ home in Columbus is a print made from 130 tiny pictures of that smile. She’s smiling as a preschooler, a camp counselor, a teen with braces, a 500 princess, a medical student. Always the smile.
Her preschool and elementary teachers called her “Little Miss Sunshine.” A family photo shows her playing with a stethoscope at the age of 4, but she also loved Snow White, putting on her mom’s prom dresses, and playing for hours with her Barbies. “You would never call her a tomboy,” Jan says.
When Jacob came along, 3-year-old Abby tried so hard to be the perfect big sister that Roger assured her she could relax. They had different temperaments—Abby was outgoing, Jacob quiet. But Jacob, now 27 and an environmental scientist in Indianapolis, says Abby always looked out for him, even when he annoyed her by hanging around her friends at home.
Abby went through that awkward preteen stage and then emerged as a tall, blond beauty. She loved to shop, and her clothes always matched right down to the underwear, says longtime friend Colleen Murphy. If she had on a green striped sweater, you could bet she had green tights, too. Abby worked as a lifeguard in high school and later at Hanover College. She learned to scuba dive at 16 and did her certification dive at a quarry near Shelbyville.
When she graduated from Hanover, Abby asked Jacob, then 18, to come with her on a backpacking tour across Europe. “That was a true turning point in their relationship,” Roger says. “It wasn’t the big sister bossing him around. They appreciated each other as people and travel companions.” Later, when she and Jacob shared a house on Indianapolis’s west side, she would come home late from the hospital and leave a trail of shoes, socks, scrubs, and stethoscope across the floor. Jacob, the neat one, straightened up.
Abby was a 500 princess in 2001 and stayed on as a Festival volunteer. She ran the Mini-Marathon with her dad and became an avid Colts and Pacers fan, but she also loved romantic movies and had a knack for fixing up friends. She had plenty of dates and boyfriends but had her heart broken a lot, Murphy says, because she invested as much of herself in relationships as she did in everything else. Still, Abby and her mother planned the perfect wedding. “We had the Vera Wang dress, and we knew the songs and the Scriptures,” Jan says. “The groom was a minor detail.”
When Abby applied to medical school, she wasn’t accepted. She tried the next year and fell short again. It was the first time in her life that she had set her mind on something that she didn’t conquer. She earned a master’s in biophysics and physiology at IUPUI, and applied a third time in 2002. This time, she got in. Abby called Amber Stormer, a Hanover sorority sister who lives in Carmel, with the news. “I hopped in my car and drove downtown,” Stormer says. “We’re hugging and screaming, and she pulls out her acceptance letter, and I say, ‘Let me read this out loud.’ I was crying. She just deserved it so much.”
By the time she left for Belize, Abby had completed all of her required courses, taken her licensing exam, and begun to apply for a residency assignment. The three weeks she spent at Hillside that October confirmed what she already knew. “I’m going to be a pediatrician,” she told lawyer John Bain as the dive boat made its way out to sea.
Andrew, the five other snorkelers, and Cabral jumped off the Advance One at the Silk Cayes, a group of tiny Caribbean islands. Abby and the three other divers remained on the boat with Tucker, who turned it toward Gladden Spit, a spot famous for whale sharks.
The boat was about a mile from the caye, John says, when the motor died again. Tucker took off the cover and fiddled with the engine, with no results. Ten or 15 minutes later, John noticed the boat was drifting away from the caye. Another 10 or 20 minutes passed, and Nancy and Abby started to feel seasick.
John tried the ignition 10, 20, 30 times. He asked if the radio worked, and Tucker put up the antenna. No lights. No sound. Tucker dropped the anchor, but it snapped like a shoelace. The divers discovered there were no flares and no drinking water on board, and the boat was drifting out to the open sea. “We could still see the caye from the boat, not very well, and that was standing up inside where your head is eight or 10 feet above the water,” John says.
They started to talk about swimming for the island before the boat was swept farther away. John and Yutaka had wetsuits, but Abby and Nancy didn’t. Abby had taunted John earlier about choosing to wear one in the warm water. Even the Lonely Planet guide for Belize says, “Heartier folks just wear skins or T-shirts.” Now they had another choice to make: stay in a small boat with no water or radio and risk being swamped at sea, or swim for the caye they could still see through the salt spray. Nancy and Abby jumped in, then John, and finally Yutaka. Tucker stayed with the boat.
Meanwhile, the snorkelers began to suspect something was wrong. Cabral kept looking toward the boat and pacing back and forth, Andrew says. After 45 minutes, he borrowed Andrew’s binoculars and tried to climb a coconut palm. He had a cell phone, but the battery was dead. Soon the Advance One was out of view.
Around midday, Cabral decided to swim to a neighboring caye that had a radio and telephone. He put on a snorkeler’s swim fins and tucked a Styrofoam cooler lid under his arm. The caye was about a mile away, Andrew says, and he lost sight of Cabral in the choppy waves about halfway across.
The snorkelers grilled some fish from the cooler and rationed the water. They figured someone would send a boat that evening or the next morning. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, they pulled down palm fronds to create a shelter from the wind. After dark, someone suggested flashing their cameras at the neighboring caye. A half-hour later, they saw a light flash back. “Everyone started jumping,” Andrew says. “At the very least we knew there was a house there that had communications, and they knew we were here.”
Within the hour Cabral pulled up in another boat, and the snorkelers climbed onboard, expecting to be ferried to the neighboring caye. Instead they headed out to sea, where Cabral swept the waves with a searchlight on the bow. Around 8 p.m., they got to an island that was some sort of ranger outpost, Andrew says. They slept on bare mattresses in a shack and heard radios in the background with voices speaking Creole. They thought a search was underway. They thought the divers were still on the boat.
All four divers swam toward the Silk Cayes but were pulled apart by the wind and waves. John realized that the current was coming straight from the islands, and they were swimming against it. The waves were not just four- or five-footers now, but giant swells. John swam back to get Yutaka, who was trailing behind, and they lost sight of both Abby and Nancy. Yutaka shouted that he could see the caye, and they kept swimming. “Two or three hours later it became obvious he didn’t see it,” John says.
John’s buoyancy vest, normally filled with air from a diver’s tank, had holes in a half-dozen places. He struggled to stay afloat, and he grabbed Yutaka’s harness. Later, he tied the two of them together with a cord from Yutaka’s gear.
As the light faded, the sea grew even wilder. John sucked seawater into his lungs and choked. “I knew the only thing I should think about is to make sure my next breath is air and not water,” John says. “I was timing my breathing with the waves. A wave hits you, you pop up and you breathe. Then you wait for the next wave to hit you, and you pop up and breathe.” The night was pure terror, he says—first fear and panic, then only the will to survive. While John and Yutaka struggled through those 12 hours of darkness together, Nancy and Abby, separated not long after they jumped into the water, fought the same seas alone.
Jan and Roger loved the spirited young woman Abby had become. Jan and Abby traveled together to Spain and France and took a four-day theater trip to New York City in 2004. They bought knock-off shoes and purses in Chinatown and ate in vegetarian restaurants. Jan remembers Abby wearing a beautiful flowered sundress one afternoon. “This attractively dressed businessman comes up to Abby and says, ‘Excuse me, I don’t want to be rude, but I have to tell you you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ We were laughing, and it was just so much fun.”
Roger, a coordinator of emergency psychiatric services who often worked at the hospital, loved to talk to Abby about medicine. On a family trip to London, Roger and Abby set off to take a picture at the Abbey Road crossing made famous by the Beatles. Then it started to pour. They made their way back by ducking into one pub after another. “It was just a different side of Abby,” Roger says, “the Abby who could have fun, loosen up, and have a few beers with her dad.”
Two weeks after Abby arrived in Belize, Jan, Roger, and Jacob visited to celebrate her 28th birthday. The three arrived early and decorated the room with balloons and fresh red hibiscus. Her birthday card read, “Princess then, princess now, princess forever.” Roger was struck by how Abby looked when she walked into the hotel room that day in a little cotton shift. “She could put on the glitz with the best of them,” Roger says. “But her hair was starchy because she hadn’t had a hot shower. She had mosquito bites all over her. She had no makeup. And she just glowed. She was so happy with what she was doing. She had never looked so radiant.”
The Brinkmans walked on the beach and ate in local restaurants. They watched a cloud of iridescent dragonflies hover off their hotel balcony. Roger, Abby, and Jacob did several dives together, and Abby rubbed the belly of a seven-foot shark. Roger admired Abby’s grace in the water and how she noticed the details he missed. While he would point out giant sponges and sharks, Abby would spot the smaller things. “She would go down to a piece of coral and find this little arrow crab or a tiny shrimp or something exotic,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘How the hell did she find that?’” Their dive-boat captain offered a free beer to whoever could spot a rare black-and-white fish about four inches long. Abby found it.
Before they left Belize, the Brinkmans asked a passerby to take a family photo on the beach near their hotel. From the rooftop lounge, U.S. Consul Cindy Gregg watched the happy moment with her friends. “Now there is your beautiful American family,” Gregg said.
At 2 a.m. Sunday, Gregg’s phone rang at her Belize City home. As a U.S. consul in Belize, she was used to fielding calls, but rarely in the middle of the night. This caller, a man with a Belizean accent, said he had heard talk in a Placencia bar that a boat was missing and that Americans were onboard. He wouldn’t give his name because “powerful” people might want to get even with him. Someone had told him Gregg would take the call seriously.
Gregg alerted the Belize Defense Force immediately. At daylight she began calling the tour operators in Placencia to ask which boat hadn’t returned. Police joined in the search. A search plane took off at 10 a.m., and, based on the normal tides and currents, combed the waters south to Honduras. Meanwhile, the remnants of Hurricane Wilma were pulling the four divers north toward Glover’s Reef—well outside the search area.
When Andrew and the other snorkelers woke up in the island shack Sunday morning, they waited four hours before a catamaran sailboat arrived. Two hours later, they landed back at Placencia.
By then, Gregg had the name of the lost boat and a list of the people onboard. She and her staff started calling local hotels to see who was still missing. She was angry. Why hadn’t Cabral called the proper authorities for help when he first got to the island? Why hadn’t he called the Belize Defense Force as she had? “He obviously called for a boat to come get him and the snorkelers,” Gregg says. Cabral, who still lives in Placencia, says he called another dive shop and asked them to organize a search and notify police. He says he had a cell phone on the ranger caye, but reception was bad. It was Saturday, he says, and most places weren’t open.
In Placencia, Andrew found the police station and called Joyce Lopez at the clinic. And then he called the Brinkmans.
John Bain was cold.
He wore a shortie wetsuit, the kind that ends above the elbows and the knees, and the water that had seemed warm Saturday morning now gnawed at his exposed skin. When the sun rose Sunday morning, it offered not just light, but some warmth. Using the sun’s position as a guide, John and Yutaka swam west against the current to where they knew the mainland lay.
They spotted a cruise ship and a fishing boat in what must have been a shipping channel. They swam toward the smaller fishing boat, but it veered off without seeing them. By then, the cruise ship had passed. They noticed that seabirds seemed to be landing at one spot on the water and swam in that direction. Suddenly, they saw an old boat with a long, low cabin—like the one Humphrey Bogart pilots in The African Queen—just 100 yards away. Yutaka flapped his arms and shrieked on the whistle attached to his dive gear. John screamed and waved and swam toward the boat. It seemed to pause for one moment, and the divers caught their breath. Then it chugged out of sight in the other direction.
Their hopes crushed, the two divers swam together for a while toward the sunset. John had filled his buoyancy vest so many times that his depleted scuba tank was now keeping him afloat. Yutaka untied the tether and swam away. Now all four divers were alone.
John rolled over on top of his tank to try to get some kind of rest. He lay there in the dark, his head bobbing barely above the surface, and continued to time his breaths with the waves, which had now calmed to gentle swells. He hoped it would rain so he could fill his facemask with rainwater to drink. He dreamed of a glass of Belizean orange juice.
Even colder now, he huddled into a ball and wrapped the buoyancy vest around himself. Monday dawned at last, bringing the divers light, some warmth, and the desperate hope that they might be seen.
That Sunday was cool and cloudy in Columbus, Indiana. Roger had served as liturgist at First Presbyterian Church, and Jan, a real-estate broker, had hosted an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. She had tried to call Abby several times that weekend, but cell service in southern Belize is sporadic at best. She had never gotten through.
By 4 p.m. Sunday, both Jan and Roger were ready to relax at their home on Tipton Lakes. Then the telephone rang.
“I need to tell you Abby is missing,” Andrew told Jan.
“Missing?” Jan asked. “What do you mean missing?”
“Well, we went out yesterday on a scuba-diving trip.”
“Yesterday?” she said, incredulous. “She’s been missing since yesterday?”
Jan and Roger called Jacob. They called their friends. And they began a frenzied search for information from a country more than 1,500 miles away. “I look back and think that everything was just so peaceful that day,” Roger says. “And by that time they already had been in the water, lost, for almost 24 hours.”
Gregg paced the embassy floor Sunday night, knowing the divers were somewhere at sea and that there was no way to look for them in the dark. But then there was more bad news. Advance One had floated near a caye, and B.B. Tucker had swum ashore. Soon everyone, including the Brinkmans, knew the divers were in the water.
On Monday, the Belize Defense Force plane took off again at daylight, but at noon someone called Gregg to say that the plane was out of gas and would not fly anymore. “I lost it,” Gregg says. “I was so upset I called the general of the BDF. I couldn’t believe it—a country that earns all its income from tourism, and it had nothing in place to take care of the tourists. I just told them to get the plane up in the air, and they could ask their government for more fuel money.”
They refueled and went back up at 2. Two hours later, they told Gregg again that they had to stop for the day. She begged them to stay up until the last possible light. Then a call came from the Glover’s Atoll Resort on a tiny island far from the search area. A diver had been spotted in the water. The pilot of the plane was alerted, and the plane changed course.
All day Monday John tried to swim, but he didn’t see any boats or planes. A jellyfish stung his arm, sending pain coursing through his body. His wetsuit had rubbed sores on his arms and legs. His breathing became congested. He worried how his mother would bear losing a son and wasn’t feeling good about making it through a third night.
Just before sunset, he heard a plane. He summoned enough energy to take off his swim fins and wave them above his head. About 40 minutes later a catamaran came alongside, and the crew hauled him in. He had been at sea for 55 hours. “I never felt so alive as of that moment,” he says. “Pure joy at being alive. Loving every second of it.”
The pilots reported seeing a blond woman wave, and when the news reached Andrew, back in Placencia, he was sure it was Abby; she was the youngest and a great swimmer. But rescuers soon found Nancy and Yutaka. And recovered Abby’s body.
Onboard the catamaran, John drank water, hot chocolate, and orange juice. Nancy and Yutaka lay near him on the deck, covered in blankets. They were severely dehydrated and sunburned. The boat docked at Glover’s Atoll, and a British helicopter transported them to the hospital in Belize City. On the helicopter, John asked, “Where’s Abby?”
Gregg met the helicopter at the hospital, still unsure which American had died. She saw John, Nancy, and Yutaka being rushed toward the emergency room.
And she also saw Abby’s body.
Gregg called the Brinkmans from the hospital parking lot. She prayed Jan wouldn’t answer the phone, but she did.
“I need to tell you that Abby did not survive,” Gregg told Jan. Then the consul stood outside the hospital and cried.
Abby had been found within two miles of the other three divers. The hurricane current had carried them all more than 50 miles out to sea. No one is certain exactly when Abby died, Andrew says, or why she died when others survived. Everyone’s metabolism is different. Drowning was the official cause of death.
Jan stayed in Columbus to make funeral arrangements while Roger flew to Belize with two friends. For two days they stood in lines for police reports, for a death certificate, for permission to take Abby’s body back to the U.S. on a commercial flight. Though Andrew and Lopez had identified Abby’s body, Roger went alone to the morgue, a primitive building where the people were kind, he says. “I needed to see her,” Roger says slowly. “And I remember saying …” he chokes on the words “… this is something no parent should have to do.”
From Abby’s personal effects, Roger picked up a woven Guatemalan bracelet Abby was wearing when she died and tied it on his wrist.
While Roger was in Belize, a letter arrived at Abby’s Indianapolis home from the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination office. Abby had passed her medical boards. The following May, Dr. Abigail Drake Brinkman was awarded what may be the only posthumous degree ever given by the IU School of Medicine.
“Sometimes I feel like this is somebody else’s story that I’m telling,” Jan says of the weeks and now years since Abby’s death. She and Roger keep neat scrapbooks of every newspaper clipping; every condolence note; every picture of Abby as a child, a student, a medical volunteer.
First there was shock, then hopelessness. Jan thought they couldn’t possibly live with Abby’s loss, and she couldn’t think more than a day ahead. “To think I would still be here six months to a year later was unfathomable. Your whole future is in your kids, and in one phone call, everything you ever dreamed of is suddenly changed.”
After the shock came anger that Abby’s death might have been prevented. Both Roger and John Bain wanted to bring charges against Cabral. A Belizean attorney on retainer has yet to act, Roger says. Cabral’s license was suspended for five years after Abby’s death, but Gregg believes he continued to lead tours. A few months after the suspension, Gregg told a friend visiting Placencia to ask around about dive-boat tours. A bartender recommended Vance Cabral.
Cabral, now 37, says he’s not working and isn’t sure he’ll ever reapply for a dive-boat license. He sounds tired of answering questions and denies the claims that Advance One didn’t have flares or a working radio. He says he is sorry someone died but insists the divers should never have left the boat. “It’s a tragedy I’ve thought about a lot,” he says. “I wish I could turn back something.”
In the months after Abby’s death, Gregg prodded the tourism board to adopt stronger safety regulations and enforce the ones they already had. Michelle Bowers, a Belize Tourism Board spokeswoman, says the board did tighten rules. Inspectors now do security checks more often. There are about 150 licensed dive boats in Belize and two inspectors at the Belize Port Authority. More inspectors can be called if needed, Bowers says. Still, in the past two years, only one license has been suspended.
Roger and Jan still believe no justice has been done, that Abby’s life was taken recklessly and needlessly. But they try not to be consumed by anger or revenge. “It’s not that the feelings of rage aren’t there,” Roger says. “It’s a deliberate choice not to act on them. There is a much better way to honor Abby.”
That way became clear in September 2006 when board members from Hillside Health Care International visited the Brinkmans. Hillside was turning away medical volunteers, they said, because they didn’t have enough space to house them on the clinic grounds. And the cost of renting rooms in the village was taking money that would be better used for medical treatment and supplies. They needed a dormitory, and they asked the Brinkmans to raise the money.
The First Presbyterian Church Foundation in Columbus matched $25,000 in donations. Jan and Roger talked to service groups and at fundraising events. Jackie Schmidt of Carmel traveled with them to tell stories about her years at Hillside. They teamed up with Rotary International to dig a well. Columbus architect Nolan Bingham drew plans for Abby’s House based on a rough draft from Belize and donated his work.
Altogether, the Brinkmans have raised more than $168,000 to date; the total cost of the building will top $200,000.
Village workers broke ground for Abby’s House in May and built it mostly with hand tools. When it opens on November 16, it will have eight bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living/dining area where volunteers can talk. Schmidt says having students, nurses, and residents stay together will not only save money for rent and utilities, but form lasting bonds that, she hopes, will bring them back to Hillside someday.
Fitzgerald, the medical director during Abby’s stay at the clinic, admires Jan and Roger for building this memorial to their daughter in the country where she died. Other people, she says, might never want to think of Belize again. Fitzgerald now works at a pediatric emergency unit in North Carolina and still struggles with the loss of a kindred spirit who seemed destined to do so much good. “All this hard work she had invested was about to pay off. The anonymity that comes with death when you have the potential to do all these great things feels staggering.” She hopes every medical volunteer who stays at Abby’s House will ask who she was, giving Abby a legacy she was deprived of creating on her own.
When Jan, Roger, and Jacob Brinkman fly to Punta Gorda for the dedication this month, they will walk in Abby’s footsteps. They will see where she lived, meet the people she worked with, and feel a little of what she felt. Jan calls Abby’s House a living memorial to her daughter. “People for years will know about Abby,” she says. “I don’t want her to ever be forgotten.”
Three years have passed since Abby died. Andrew is a pediatrician in Portland, Maine, and has two children born since he was at Hillside. He remembers Abby when he swims. “Whenever I hit the water, it’s rare that I don’t think about her, thinking about how scary it was for her out there. Then that takes me back to the whole trip and I think of all the good times we had,” he says. “She had the time of her life down there.”
John Bain went back to work briefly but still suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in West Lafayette with his wife, Carol, and his 1-year-old daughter, Zoe. “I see my daughter and think about what losing my daughter would do to me,” he says. “And it’s just unimaginable.”
Cindy Gregg left Belize last year and now serves as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. “I don’t think I want to be a consul again,” she says. “It’s a hard, hard job.”
Jacob still lives in the house he shared with Abby. “Things like plates and pots and pans are a reminder of what I lack in my life without her,” he says. “They’re things she should still be able to use.” Last fall, he and his parents retraced a trip Abby took through France in 2004, using her journal as a guide. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, they scattered a few of Abby’s ashes.
Jan and Roger still live from moment to moment. Jan never shops unless she has to. Roger hasn’t dived since Abby’s death. They don’t watch Scrubs, ER, or Grey’s Anatomy. But they cherish time with Jacob and their friends, and they reach out to other parents who have lost children. Roger wears Abby’s Guatemalan bracelet every day. They’ve filled their home with images of dragonflies that remind them of the ones they saw with Abby in Belize, the last time they were together as a family.
They know they will face new challenges when they return from dedicating Abby’s House. For months, they’ve focused their time and energy on the building and have brought new hope to people in Abby’s name. But when the celebration is over and they come home, they won’t have Abby back. Just pictures and dragonflies and, of course, memories.
On Abby’s telephone in their bedroom is a simple greeting that is now a treasured keepsake. “Hi, you’ve reached Abby,” she says in her familiar, sunny voice. “I’m not here right now. If you leave your name and a brief message, I’ll call you back just as soon as possible. Bye!”
Through the ordinary words, you can almost hear her smile.