Ashley Judd has been traveling regularly to Congo over the years to study the endangered bonobo population with her life partner. That’s where she was this week when she fell while walking in the forest in an incident that nearly caused her to lose her leg.
The actor and activist opened up about the accident and the ensuing 55-hour ordeal in two Instagram Live videos hosted by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Friday. Judd, 52, recounted her story from her hospital bed in South Africa where she had been transferred.
“She was in a really horrible accident in Congo and we’re going to talk about that, but also about lessons learned and what we can do to improve health there,” Kristof said in his introduction before Judd joined the initial Instagram Live. “I think the idea is to pivot from what happened to Ashley to make it a broader conversation.”
When Judd appeared in the video, Kristof said he was glad to see her with two legs and remarked that she had been through “an awful lot of pain.”
Despite the pain, Judd responded, “I guess I would say I’m in a lot of love. I’m in a lot of compassion and I’m in a lot of gratitude.” She explained that she was speaking from an ICU trauma unit in a South African hospital. because the facilities in Congo were not equipped to deal with “massive, catastrophic injuries” like the one she sustained.
“The difference between a Congolese person and me is disaster insurance that allowed me 55 hours after my accident to get to an operating table in South Africa,” she said.
Judd said that widespread poverty in Congo means there is often no electricity or running water, let alone access to “a simple pill to kill the pain when you’ve shattered a leg in four places and have nerve damage.”
She said she hoped people will help support the local Congolese population and learn about her work in the rainforest with the bonobos (a type of great ape) after hearing her story.
“They’re highly endangered. There are about 15,000 left and they exist only in the Congo,” she said, calling them our “closest living relatives” because of their similarities to humans. “We have a lot to learn from them.”
Judd said she and her life partner visit Congo on a twice-yearly basis. She had returned there recently and this week, was walking with trackers (researchers) in the early morning when the accident occurred. “I was doing what I always do. Up at 4:30 in the morning with two of our trackers who are just these world-class, brilliant, brilliant men walking in the dark and my headlamp had new batteries but it was a little faint,” she remembered, telling Kristof that she has experience trekking in low light.
“But accidents happen,” she explains. “There was a fallen tree on the path, which I didn’t see, and I had a very powerful stride going and I just fell over this tree.”
In an Instagram post she described the incident as a “catastrophic accident” and added that she “nearly lost my leg.”
“What was next was an incredibly harrowing 55 hours,” she said in her interview with Kristof, recounting that her ordeal began with five hours of lying on the forest floor biting a stick and howling “like a wild animal” while another tracker ran to get help.
Judd said she was going into shock and passing out, that her teeth were chattering, and that she broke out in a cold sweat.
After several hours, she was carried out of the Congolese rainforest in a hammock and back to camp, all while her “brothers,” the Congolese men she worked with kept “encouraging her spirit.”
The “A Dog’s Way Home” star explained how she had to endure a treacherous ride on a motorbike with one man helping her. “It took courage for someone to do that with me because they had to physically hold me up. It was one man driving and then one man sitting behind me. … I had to physically hold the top part of my shattered tibia together and we did that for six hours.
“I was at the edge of my very edge,” she said but at the same time, acknowledges her privilege, saying if she was not a famous actor, it would have been the end of her leg and probably her life.
At one point, Kristof lost connection with Judd after the Wi-Fi at her hospital went out. He explained to viewers further of how the Instagram Live interview with Judd came about. He said he had received a text message from Judd saying she wanted to tell her story and shine a light on Congo and encourage people to support the people and animals of the central African country.
When Kristof reconnected with Judd in a second Instagram Live video, she showed him the external fixator on her leg, and said doctors told here that because there was such “massive soft tissue damage” that “we can’t actually touch the bones for another 10 days.”
“It’s a thing of beauty,” she said regarding the apparatus.
Judd told Kristof that when there’s a crisis like this for ordinary Congolese people they sit and wait for someone who may have some knowledge to try and reset the leg. Judd also showed Kristof the stick she bit down in order to deal with the pain a second time.
“It’s primal,” she said of her experience. “They couldn’t offer me ibuprofen. But they offered me a depth of understanding because they know what this suffering is like.”
In the video interview, Judd encouraged people to donate to the United Nations Population Fund or UNFPA which works to build mobile clinics in areas like Congo and provide “safe birth kits” to pregnant women who don’t have access to obstetrics or medical care.
She concluded with a special thank you message to the many people who helped her during her excruciating time. “I said thank you so much papa Freddy and it was just this beautiful act, this deep act of human service, and I wouldn’t have made it without the papa Freddies along the way. And so I just wanted to take a moment to remember him.”