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By Richard Connelly
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The first time Ana Prieto Canela laid eyes on Jay Hamburger, he told her he was there to be her angel. She thought he was crazy. Six months later, she still does. Carrying a bouquet of flowers and dressed all in white, his Michael Bolton-like blond hair cascading in ringlets around his shoulders, Hamburger must have resembled something straight out of Heaven's central casting when he walked into Prieto's hospital room last October. All that was missing was a halo and a pair of wings.
Prieto was lying in bed, the trunk of her body punctuated by two bloody stumps. A week earlier, her common-law husband, in an almost incomprehensible fit of rage and depravity, had taken a shotgun and fired it once into each of Prieto's legs. Julio Bustillo did so, Ana would later testify in court, because he wanted to keep her from attending a birthday party. The 23-year-old woman was taken by ambulance to Ben Taub Hospital, where surgeons, to save her life, had to amputate both of her legs above the knees.
It was one of those stories that give pause to even the most jaded among us. And after the public had absorbed the initial horror of Bustillo's insane butchery, Ana's story was to touch other nerves, leaving more than a few people discomfited over vexing questions of rights and responsibilities.
But in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, it hadn't been a story at all, at least to the local media: no one bothers reporting on the details of the shooting of a young illegal immigrant on the edge of the barrio, especially if the victim isn't dead -- although Ana was wishing she was when Jay Hamburger first showed up in her room at Ben Taub.
Just two months earlier, Prieto and Bustillo had entered the United States after walking much of the way from their native Honduras. Suddenly, after losing her legs, Ana was alone, disabled and destitute, and in no position to turn down a little divine intervention -- even if it was in the form of some loco gringo who, like Julio Bustillo, would come to dominate her life.
"I wanted to be everything she needed," says Hamburger, "or at least everything I thought she needed."
These days, what Ana thinks she needs is to have Jay Hamburger out of her life.
"He's really meddling," Prieto says. "He has helped me a lot, but I don't think angels are like that."
At the time Ana was losing her legs, plans already were under way for a rally that would bring her and Hamburger together.
Each of the past six Octobers, a coalition of women's organizations has conducted a candlelight vigil to draw attention to Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Last October, victims of domestic violence and other concerned citizens, among them Jay Hamburger, gathered under the trees around the City Hall reflecting pool. Also on hand were officers from the Houston Police Department's family violence unit, who brought with them the horrifying photographs of Prieto's domestic tragedy.
"I saw the pictures, and something resonated with me about this," recalls Hamburger, who was then a volunteer with HPD's 802 Westheimer storefront crisis team, whose members counsel crime victims. "I had seen enough ugly scenes, and I had read enough ugly stories. But this had a dimension that was beyond anything I had ever experienced."
After seeing the photos and hearing Ana's story, Hamburger was compelled to visit her. He found her alone in a semi-private room at Ben Taub, curled in the fetal position and crying to herself.
"I was crying all the time," Prieto recalls. "I asked the doctors not to give me any more shots so that I could die."
Hamburger was struck by the barrenness of the room. There was no television, no flowers -- not even a hairbrush or toothpaste. He made a list of the things he thought she could use, and in his broken Spanish, told her he would return.
That next day, after picking up a few necessities for Ana, Hamburger went back to the hospital, and was again struck by what he saw. This time, he found Ana methodically cleaning one of her bloody stumps with antiseptic and gauze -- raising her thigh into the air and dabbing at it like it was a foreign object. While his presence didn't seem to faze her, Hamburger was overcome with that uncomfortable sensation you get when you can't decide if it is more embarrassing to stay or go.
"I stood there for a moment," he says. "I didn't want to act shocked or horrified. Then I told her I had to make a phone call and left."
But something kept him coming back.
On October 18, approximately two weeks after Hamburger's first encounter with Ana, HPD's family violence unit went public with Ana's story at a news conference. Representatives of the Houston Area Women's Center, the criminal justice reform group Justice for All and the Honduran consul general also attended. It was announced that the Women's Center had established an account at NationsBank to which donations could be sent to help pay Ana's medical bills.
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