“I chose life,” Woman recovers in hospital after two week survival in forest

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Hawaii-Forest Rescue_1558932300761

In this Friday, May 24, 2019, photo provided by Troy Jeffrey Helmer, resident Amanda Eller, second from left, poses for a photo after being found by searchers, Javier Cantellops, far left, Helmer and Chris Berquist above the Kailua reservoir in East Maui, Hawaii, on Friday afternoon. The men spotted Eller from a helicopter and went […]

After missing for over two weeks, Maui hiker Amanda Eller was found on Friday, May 24.

The 35-year-old is currently recovering in a Maui hospital. 

“The last 17 days of my life have been the toughest,” Eller said in her hospital bed the day after she was found. 

Eller was last seen on surveillance video on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, leaving the Haiku Post Office. 

Her car was spotted at the Makawao Forest Reserve later that day. 

Friends and family believed she went for a hike or run in the forest. They have been searching the area since then. 

Eller’s family, friends and hundreds of search volunteers say they never gave up hope.

“I felt in my heart she was alive,” said Eller’s mother, Julia. 

“I never gave up hope for a minute. Even though at times I would have those moments of despair, I stayed strong for her because I knew we would find her if we just stayed with the program, stayed persistent and that we would eventually find her.” 

The rescue team said they found Amanda in a deep ravine between two waterfalls during an aerial search. 

Search team members Troy Helmer, Javier Cantellops and Chris Berquist discovered Eller three miles south of an area referred to as Bamboo Forest near Haiku. 

Eller had told them she had gone on a three-mile run and got turned around in the forest. 

The men told KHON2 on Saturday that they only had 15 minutes of fuel left in the helicopter tank and had to decide between two directions before ending their search on Friday afternoon.

And they chose the right one. 

“I’ve been looking at pictures of that girl 100 times a day. It was no mistake that it was her,” Berquist said when they spotted her. “We were freaking out. We were trying not to trip over ourselves trying to get to her too fast.”

The men said Eller was looking for food when they saw her. She had no shoes or socks on. 

“She was foraging for food, and she was just about to jump down a 70-foot waterfall and if she would have she would’ve jumped into a box canyon, and she wasn’t going to come out,” said Helmer.

Her rescuers said the area they found her in was prone to flash floods.

Eller told the men she had taken off her shoes to dry overnight and took off her socks when she got blisters. 

She said one night it rained and her shoes washed downstream. 

She was air evacuated and sent to a hospital to be treated. 

“We found somebody’s daughter by doing it right and by not giving up,” said Berquist.

Eller’s mother said she received word around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, and reunited with Amanda at the hospital.

“We started crying tears all the way until I could get there to hug her,” she said. 

Her mother said Amanda was in “surprisingly good shape” for what she had been through.

She said Amanda was talking, alert, and has a fracture in her leg. 

“It was to my surprise when I came in today that Amanda ended up being my patient,” said Dr. Zora Bulatovich, Amanda’s doctor. 

“Tears came running down because we’ve all been following her story and its beautiful news. So this morning I went in to see her, she looks amazing. I tell you what she’s been through, I can’t believe she did what she did with that kind of fracture. But she’ll recover from it.”

Dr. Bulatovich said Amanda also sustained severe burns in her lower extremities from the sun.

“That’s what we’re trying to work with right now,” she said. “Just trying to get her skin infection under control as well as her leg wounds.”

Eller made a brief statement from her hospital bed on Saturday afternoon. 

“It came down to life and death and I had to choose. I chose life,” she said. 

“I wasn’t going to take the easy way out. Even though that meant more suffering in me for myself,” she said.

Rescuers and doctors said that during her time in the forest, she had been resourceful. 

She ate raspberries, strawberry guavas, and other items to sustain her. She even slept in pig beds to keep herself warm.

“That’s a tough woman right there,” said rescuer Helmer.

“There was even discussion of her going home,” the mother said after Amanda was brought to the hospital. “But her dad said ‘no.'”

Helmer adds that Eller lost between 15 and 20 pounds. 

Eller and her mother have been thankful for the help that their family has gotten. 

The rescuers said Amanda had no idea the entire nation was hoping for her safe return. 

“Just seeing the community of Maui come together—people who know me, people who don’t know me all came together. Just under the idea of seeing one person make it out of the woods alive. It warms my heart,” Amanda said. 

She also told her rescuers that she heard about 20 helicopters fly over her during those 17 days. 

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