Courtesy Bertha Loaiza
Bertha Loaiza, 37, grew up thinking she lost her mother in a horrific car accident—one that almost took her life as well. She has no recollection of falling 246 feet off of the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, California—because she was only three at the time, she thought. But 14 years later, she learned the truth, and it ended up changing her life.
When Loaiza was 17, she was doing some house cleaning when she found an unlabeled VHS tape, so she popped it in the machine. “It was a nightly news story from 14 years earlier. They said I was the only person to survive a fall from that bridge. I recognized myself—they were showing me in preschool, and I was still in a full-body cast.”
The newscast was following up on the foggy Sunday afternoon in 1985 when Loaiza’s 23-year-old mother decided to take her—and her daughter’s—life. Two fishermen below the bridge watched the unthinkable happen: A mother climbed over the railing with a baby cradled in her arms, and jumped, hitting the water hard. The men pulled Loaiza and her mother from the salty San Diego Bay and began CPR as people on the bridge ran to call 911. Despite the fishermen’s efforts, Loaiza’s mother did not survive; although the three-year-old Loaiza had critical injuries and weak pulse, she made it.
Loaiza says she watched the tape on repeat, trying to make sense of what she saw. “I felt so confused. The little I knew about my mother wasn’t true—was it all a lie?” She hid her discovery from her mother’s family for a few days, hoping to avoid reopening old wounds from this painful memory. Finally, she had to say something. “I put the tape on the table and said, ‘No one needs to say anything, but now you know that I know.’ They said they just wanted to protect me, and they would answer any questions I had,” Loaiza recalls. Here’s how one teen talked someone out of suicide.
Her mother was going through a tough time when she leaped: She was battling depression and was going through a divorce from her husband. Loaiza was raised by her mother’s family and never had reason to doubt their story about a car accident: “The right side of my body was the most injured. I had swelling in my brain and a collapsed lung. I fractured my right hip and knee, and my right eye had a traumatic cataract from the impact. I lost most of my vision in that eye.” She believes, as doctors do, that her mother shifted her body mid-fall to shield Loaiza from the impact. “I think she did that on purpose. She wanted to save me—and she did.”
Today, Loaiza is a customer service representative for Kaiser Permanente and an advocate for suicide prevention. She has also started a bilingual support group for suicide survivors, a topic that remains taboo for the Hispanic population: A Kaiser Permanente study showed that 69 percent of Hispanic Americans correlate mental illness with weakness. She says learning the truth about her mother’s death sparked a desperate need to know why her mother involved her. “When my son turned three I started obsessing over everything he did. I was trying to put myself in her shoes—how bad could parenting be?” She began going to therapy, which she credits for helping her heal. These 13 common words and phrases can signal depression.
Loaiza teamed up with Kaiser Permanente to share her story on findyourwords.org and began campaigning locally for suicide barriers to be placed on the Coronado Bridge. “They’re placing bird spikes now—that might buy us some time until we can get to them,” she explains.
Suicide rates are rising in America, climbing more than 30 percent since 1999. “My family has a horrible story, and we can either hide in shame or help,” says Loaiza. “I have to share this—it’s why I’m here.” The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. For more information about suicide prevention and help, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.