(Gina Bartiromo is a brain injury survivor and active member of BIC. This is the story of Gina’s accident in Yosemite National Park that made national news.)
A Miracle on the Mountain
By Gina Bartiromo
I knew I was struggling. I was aware I was cold. I had no idea my life was at risk. Even as I write these words, it doesn’t feel like my story, like it happened to me. I don’t know how it happened. I am amazed that my brain shut down at that exact moment. But I have been told from various perspectives how I fell down that mountain. As I flew at an estimated 35-40 miles per hour crashing against the rock, airborne at times, my spirit soared away from my poor flailing body.
In hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome on June 6, 2009 with three of my friends, I was having trouble at a point where one of the poles that is placed on the mountain for stability was pulled out of the rock making the cable slack. It began to lightly snow making the path slippery. Also, I was holding my weight up by my arms and my bicep began not working well anymore due to my hands being cold.
(Me on the way up with “my ledge” just behind me to your right)
Two of my friends were at the bottom of Half Dome waiting for us and when they heard I was struggling, Peter decided to come back up to help. Tricia spoke to a random stranger “My friend is having trouble up there. Can you go up and help?” His name was Rick.
Though I don’t remember this, I am told my butt slammed down first and I began to slide and plunge down the mountain. Apparently, I was screaming as I descended. Rick says I was already falling down before he could reach me and the very first time he ever saw me I was airborne. Peter witnessed a big portion of my fall. My heart breaks to know that Vanessa and Peter and Rick had to witness such an event. In my opinion, it was far more traumatizing for them than for me. Peter says I smacked my back against a pole, did a couple cart wheels, and tumbled down the rock before I was stopped by a tiny crevice of rock that was about 6 inches high. Broken and battered, I laid face down with my right knee up against my chest. Tricia had to borrow someone’s cell phone to get reception and called 911 reporting my fall and that they expected I had snapped my neck.
Rick and his nephew-in-law, Kiley (who happened to be an former EMT) stayed with me for 3 hours as I lay there bleeding and broken while my traumatized friends hiked to safety at the Sub Dome. Many people donated their jackets to lay over me. Someone took my vitals and hollered them down to Tricia to relay to 911. When Vanessa reached the Sub Dome, she kept hearing my brother Anthony’s name in her head. I had told her about my brother passing away a few years before but she didn’t know him personally and I am very surprised she remembered his name. Maybe I had mentioned his name that weekend because it was the memorial day of his death the following day, June 7. She couldn’t get his name out of her mind. So finally, she bellowed out to him “Stay with your sister! Don’t let her fall off that ledge!” She then felt an overriding, odd-for-the-circumstances sense of calm.
Kiley says I came to three times and they had to calm me down to keep me from moving too much. At one point when I came to, I shifted from being face down onto my back. That’s when they knew I wasn’t paralyzed and hadn’t snapped my neck.
Yosemite had sent a helicopter to rescue me but the helicopter was having difficulty getting to me due to the clouds and poor weather. Had Rick and Kiley not stayed with me, I would have come to those three times and possibly continued to shuttle down that rock to the 1000 foot drop that loomed 4 feet away.
(The slab of rock that saved my life; taken by Rick one year later)
Finally there was a clearing in the sky. It was the helicopter’s last attempt as they were running low on fuel and competing with daylight. They touched down and let out the rescue team. Had the helicopter not been able to pick me back up, I would have been transported the 5+ hours down the rocky mountain via a stretcher basket. I already had a broken spine, skull and jaw etc. That would have ruined me. (Apparently, my skull fracture was only a hairline away from causing me to need brain surgery or to have caused more irreversible damage). But the team was able to get me off that precarious crevice of rock, into the gurney and hooked onto the helicopter cable. Jack, a Yosemite EMT, rode with me hanging on the side of the basket 100 feet below the helicopter as it lifted me to a flat meadow where I could be transferred to the emergency MediVac helicopter.
(My rescue via helicopter)
Tricia, Peter and Vanessa gave their report of the accident to the Search and Rescue team individually. Tricia, miraculously, had my parents’ contact information in an old address book she happened to have back at camp and relayed my name, age and information to the team. She was advised not to contact my parents herself. Somehow that information wasn’t properly relayed to the MediVac team so when I got to the emergency room, I was treated, stabilized and put into the Neuro Critical Care Unit as a Jane Doe.
Tricia called first thing the next morning to see how I was and the confusion was cleared. The medical staff called my parents and, devastatingly, on the day of my brother’s passing four years previous relayed to them the shocking news of my fall.
(Day 3: Amnesia at this state- no memory of this time; smiling, broken jaw & all!)
I was in the hospital for a total of one month and one day, in three different hospitals in three Northern California cities. I was in a semi-coma for two weeks. When I came to, I couldn’t remember where I lived, worked or had gone to school. Gratefully, I remembered loved ones that were around me and my dear friends that came to visit me. Within a week of hearing various facts along with being given my cell phone, I remembered pieces of my life. These times will be cherished forever as it truly helped me to recall segments of my recent history.
(Last Day: with Physical Therapist who helped me to walk again)
My injuries included a fractured skull (at the base where the spinal cord enters the brain), a broken jaw (repaired with a titanium plate) and 3 teeth uprooted (they were realigned and have healed), 3 compression fractures of the spine (I had to wear a body brace for 3 ½ months), a fractured rib and sacrum, substantial misalignment of the coccyx (tail bone), severe bruising of my left glute, leg and back, a brain injury including hematomas and bleeding in the brain. I was semi-conscious for 2 weeks and fortunately the amnesia only lasted for about a week or so after I came to. My speech improved with time and therapy and my brain is continually getting better even compared to a few weeks ago. I had lacerations requiring stitches behind the left ear and on the skull, moderate hearing issues in the left ear, double vision, a broken left collar bone that hasn’t properly healed yet and a laceration on the right calf that has healed. I needed to be taught how to walk again and progressed beyond the need for a wheel chair upon being released from the hospital after a one month stay. I was walking with a cane for about 8 months. Now my balance has definitely improved. I was on a liquid diet for 9 weeks due to my broken jaw and lost a considerable amount of weight. I had horrible vertigo for about 3 months which was resolved thanks to my physical therapist using the Epley Maneuver.
I have double vision but thanks to a phenomenal optometry group at Agape Optometry, I have been actively doing Vision Therapy which has proven to improve visual problems after a traumatic brain injury. And I now wear prism lens glasses to regulate the double vision that remains. I trust I will have my normal vision return. My brain is feeling back on track in the last few months though I still deal with sleep issues, mild word searching, spelling and short-term memory issues. I have constant yet tolerable tingling and numbness on the left side of my face, mouth, neck, shoulder, calf and foot. I attend the Brain Injury Center’s bi-monthly support group in Camarillo where I find encouragement. The mild brain injury that I have dealt with is miniscule considering the trauma my brain went through in pounding against the rocky mountainside as I fell.
My body has done an amazing job! I had done a lot of work on myself spiritually and emotionally before the fall and that has helped me tremendously to stay optimistic and keep a positive outlook. I have a strong holistic spiritual connection that is still changing and growing. I am told that while I was semi-conscious for those 2 weeks I spoke with difficulty, in broken sentences of my deceased brother, Anthony. I reported seeing him on the mountain with me and seeing him in the hospital room at my bedside. I know that he was with me and that he remains in my/our presence. There have been so many miracles and spiritual gifts through this experience. I trust I am being taken care of and that I am meant to be alive … I am here for a reason. My healing has progressed amazingly well and as I expand beyond the “healing cocoon” I’ve been in for the last 22 months, I am reentering the world and eagerly opening doors to my New Life. I do believe now more than ever that everything happens for a reason.
(To follow Gina’s recovery and what she is doing with her life now, visit her webpage: theunfoldingself.wordpress.com)
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The ‘After’ Story
Please follow my continued healing journey at theunfoldingself.wordpress.com.
The most poignant thing around my Half Dome story is to have been part of and to have experienced such profound human connection!! It was an astonishing web of people that took part in and were affected by this life-altering event. It significantly affected Rick, Kiley, my friends who were on that mountain, of course my whole family, Rick’s family and many others that I have learned played a role in this incident, some I have never met.
One example of this is Rick’s nephew, Jason, 15 at the time, who was on his very first hike that day and was a witness to this frightening yet heartwarming trauma. My first question when I heard of this was “Did I ruin it for him? Will he ever go hiking again?” Rick’s wife, Diane, said no- he witnessed the power of helping another and was in his element: calm and ready to help. Diane shared with me that Jason’s response was “I was totally anxious to help out in any way I could.” Diane said “he gave his light jacket away to someone who was very cold. He was concerned for you and for his Uncle Rick, but never panicked, never afraid to do what he could to help. He is such a loving soul.”
There were countless miracles and I would like to describe a few here:
*The tiny 6 or 7 inch ledge stopped me from falling to my death.
*I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that situation on that mountain with any other person than Vanessa. She is certified in Wilderness First Aid and has taken several courses to train as a wilderness guide for long treks. I could not have been in better hands! (Vanessa and I came up with a new nickname for me: Tumble J. LOVE it!)
*Rick and Kiley staying with me for 3hrs in the cold (and most likely hungry) was the most selfless thing that any human has ever done for me. I would have continued to shuttle down that mountain to my death otherwise (Kiley says I came-to 3 times on that ledge and they were able to calm me before I passed out again). After such a heroic act, they could have gone on with their lives never hearing of me again but Rick called the hospital and checked in with my friends consistently until he was able to speak with me personally. We began to build a friendship that continues to this day. I’ve met his wife and children and we stay in contact regularly.
*The sky “just opened up” for the Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter on its last attempt to reach me and that the pilot descended at such an impossible angle to let out the rescue team (sparing me a more tragic outcome).
*Tricia just happened to have an address book at the campground that contained my parents’ contact information that I’d given her some 10yrs before in grad school.
*I spoke of seeing my deceased brother at the end of my hospital bed and that he was with me on that mountain. Even with a swollen, bleeding brain and a fractured skull and jaw etc, I remembered and desperately tried to communicate that it was his memorial day within hours of my fall.
And those are merely some of the miracles within that day!
It was a miracle that I had health insurance just 5 months before. I had been living abroad the previous 2 years and was unable to find professional work once I returned home so I took a temp job that hired me permanently in January 2009! My health insurance covered my twenty-some thousand dollar rescue flight off the mountain and the fifty-six thousand + dollar hospital stay for the first 8 days. We only had a $250 co pay for the entire one month stay to cover all 3 hospitals. The final hospital, Kaiser Vallejo, is a world-famous, state-of-the-art rehabilitation hospital. Miracle!!!!!!!!!!
Puzzle pieces of the story were given to me by Vanessa, Tricia, Peter, Kiley, Rick, his children and extended family, the SAR team, the medical staff, my brothers, parents, extended family and my friends. I put the pieces together to create the vast portrayal of my hiking fall and the 2 weeks of my life that I cannot recall. I am lucky to have checked out during such a tumultuous time. As I said before, it was far worse for those around me. In hearing stories from the SAR team and those that were helping me during this incident, I realized how fortunate I was to have missed more serious damage or death. My gratitude for being alive has been the most overwhelming, superior emotion through this entire experience.
There are so many comical stories from the hospital stay. I realize they were nowhere near comical at the time but I find them very humorous now. My brother, Paul, says that I would come-to from my coma, acting perplexed. They would tell me “you’re ok, Gina. You’re very injured and are in a hospital. We’re taking care of you. It’s ok” and then I would slip into unconsciousness again. I’d come-to several hours later with the same scenario. It was like the movie Groundhog Day! My poor family would have to tell me the same thing every time I came-to for almost 2 weeks!
My mother stayed with me in a small hospital recliner over night, every night. My brother, John, knew she was a wreck and convinced her that he would stay with me one night so she could attempt to get a good sleep at the hotel. That was the night that I came-to in a fitful state (it’s common for the brain injured to act from the primitive brain) pulling out my IVs, feeding tube and catheter! My poor brother was terrified! From that point on, they had to restrain my arms while I was in this coma state.
I was looking through some hospital notes recently and chuckled that just 12 days after my accident when the hospital staff roused me to check my cognitive condition, my hospital exam notes read: Chief Complaint = “I fell.” I chuckle every time I reread this! This again demonstrates how limited my brain was. I just wasn’t all there.
My brother, Paul, has quite a sense of humor and keeps us all laughing. One day during the first few weeks of my return home, I was laughing at something he was sharing. We changed the subject and I took a gulp of water. Little did I know that what he would say next would again get me laughing! I was unable to swallow my gulp of water so I spewed it out all over the place! I was on a liquid diet and my esophagus was still challenged with swallowing… hilarious!
Until recently, I’ve put 110% of my focus on healing. I was in a back brace for 3 ½ months so I couldn’t get in or out of bed (I woke every 2-3hrs to use the restroom due to my liquid diet!), shower, dress or reach shelves in cupboards or the refridgerator. Obviously, I could not drive so my Dad or brother drove me to my various appointments (spine, neurology, physical therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy, ophthalmology, dentist, head/neck specialist, orthopedist, chiropractor, x-rays, MRIs etc). With my left clavicle broken, I was in a sling and could only sleep on my back or propped with cushions along my side. I had vertigo for several months directly after a follow-up MRI. The vertigo was finally resolved by my Physical Therapist performing the Epley Maneuver. I did physical, speech and vision therapy daily.
After such a life-changing event it is very common to experience depression. I had to let my apartment in Northern California go and move in with my parents to rehabilitate. (I am ever grateful to them for taking me in. But being a highly independent woman, this experience has brought lessons of acceptance, patience and trust.) When I first came home from the hospital, I was using a patch over one eye to stop the double vision. I was very distraught after my first visit to an Ophthalmologist who said the damage was most likely permanent. I was devastated but something in me knew to go for a second opinion despite others’ advice and I’m glad I did. That second doctor told me there was hope that it may heal. It was through a series of synchronicities that I came to learn about Vision Therapy and was connected with Agape Optometry in Thousand Oaks… and my vision continues to improve.
Though I have dealt with some difficult times, I am grateful I’ve not had an extreme bout of depression and have remained proactive and driven to regain my health. I attribute my positive attitude first and foremost to my altered brain state.
At first I had amnesia and could only remember those who were right in front of me. I couldn’t remember where I went to University or what I studied and I couldn’t remember where I worked or lived. It took a week or longer for my memory to bubble into my consciousness. (After the hospital when my memories were more available to me, I would often reminisce of my overseas travels to Australia, New Zealand and Thailand because they brought joy and comfort… they kept me afloat. I feel so grateful to have experienced such a full, fun, active life.) For a long while, I was perpetually in the present moment with blinders on for anything but the NOW, which in hindsight was my saving grace. It took several months but slowly I was able to think of what I was doing later that day, which then evolved to an ability to think about an appointment the next week and in time what was coming up in a month. It took quite a long time until I was able to wishful think regarding any future endeavors.
I also need to credit the fact that I had been working on creating a more optimistic life perspective for years before my hiking fall. Along with other positive changes to transform a pessimistic temperament I learned from childhood, I had been writing a daily list of what I was grateful for in a Gratitude Journal. Despite life circumstances that were hard to cope with, this really helped shift my focus to the positive even on days when I had to force myself to think of things I was grateful for (“I’m so grateful for my lunch break, to have a bed to sleep in, that the sun came out today, I have a roof over my head” etc). I’m unsure of its author but a common quote I’ve heard is: what we put our attention on grows.
My efforts paid off because when life threw me a curve ball, my very first emotion was gratitude. When I came-to a few weeks after my hiking fall and heard the simple synopsis of what happened to me, I wasn’t at all able to understand its complexity or depth but I understood that the consequences of it were serious. I was overcome with gratitude that I was alive and safe. In the last year, my brain is more capable of comprehending what I went through as well as to recognize the enormity of the whole picture, from the accident through my rehabilitation to my current state. I am overjoyed that I still have full use of my body and that I was not severely brain damaged …because I could have been. Once I was able to get on the floor to do PT at home, I’d play mixed CDs 2 friends made for me with encouraging music and go through bouts of tears as I’d look at my legs or my arms so grateful they were still with me and able to work!
Yet it is this current time – the place between my new awaiting life and the safe cocoon that has become my comfort amid the upheaval – that presents the challenge as I sit with the awareness of where I am now compared to where I was before my hiking fall. There is a line in the 2004 movie Motorcycle Diaries I completely relate to: “I’m not me anymore… at least I’m not the ‘me’ I was.” It is a bit scary to be in this in-between phase not knowing how my life will unfold from here.
This entire experience has truly been like a rebirth: the infancy of being broken, battered, hospitalized; the toddler years of figuring out how my body moved and learning how to get around wearing the back brace; the youth of getting out of the back brace and using a cane; being a teen as my family took me to medical appointments, then being able to relearn to drive again and finally easing into driving at dusk, night or in the rain, and finally returning to driving my manual again J; now is like I’ve just graduated from High School and am looking out wondering what the world offers and where my place is in the world. Though I feel more myself now and am very driven to return to the big beautiful world, I need to remember not to forge forward too fast because I am still healing.
I still deal with tingling and numbness 24/7 on my left side: face, neck, shoulder, hand, glute and foot probably due to damaged nerves. Intermittently, I feel an intense, icy cold tingling in my left calf and foot (most likely a carry over from the hypothermia). Though it has improved, my jaw isn’t lined up the way it used to be so my chewing is effected. I can only get flavor from the right one fourth of my mouth because in the rest of my mouth my taste buds are numb. I can’t put any pressure on my tail bone so I sit on a support cushion to keep my spine elongated. Occasionally, my gait is off and I misstep or stress my ankle. I used to be able to sleep 8-11 hours depending on how tired I was but now I wake after 5 or 6 hours with my body in a state of hunger-distress and/or needing to relieve my bladder. My collar bone hasn’t yet healed properly which requires me to be attentive in using my arm, shoulder and chest. My neck pulls out of alignment and seizes up every 5-6 weeks restricting movement which can keep me from driving for several days. There’s an odd reverberation that occurs in my left ear when in a grocery store, restaurant or other populated place. And, like I’ve shared, my vision in the left eye is still healing.
I continue to put most of my focus into recovery. And I am extremely lucky that healing now involves things I love: yoga, self care (Vision Therapy, Physical Therapy, healthy eating), meditation, personal growth etc. This entire experience has been pretty self-absorbed J and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to put forth such efforts to heal.
Though I fear stepping out of my safe cocoon and letting go of this precious introspective experience, I am fully aware of how much joy and confidence I gain when I am able to be of assistance, especially when I’m able to offer help in a way that is unique to me. My life is very different than it was. I’ve been forging new territory and it’s always frightening to face the unknown. Yet it now has come time to emerge from this sheltered cocoon of recovery and reintroduce myself to the world.
I was awarded a partial scholarship for a yoga teacher training at Kripalu in Massachusetts, the 1st and largest yoga, health, education and retreat center in the United States. I earned my Yoga Instructor Certification March 18, 2011 a mere 21 months after such severe injuries. And I expect to certify in Chair Yoga by Fall 2011 through yet another VERY generous scholarship through Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga™. I hope to offer chair yoga to brain injury survivors, stroke victims, those rehabilitating from injury and others with restricted physical ability. And just one month shy of reaching the 2 year marker, I was just hired last week for a part time job.
I’ve yet to return to Yosemite’s Half Dome but I do not fear the mountain. I trust I will return if and when life lines up to do so. I do know that it will have to be a VERY sunny, warm day with not a cloud in the sky J. Vanessa says that any time I would like to hike it again or even just get to its base, she will gladly accompany me. Rick goes there every year (which is how I got the 2010 photo with his foot showing the height of the ledge that stopped my fall). His wife, Diane, says that Half Dome remains all at once~ a place of looming challenge, a place of near disaster and a place that holds miracles.
Many people have played a role in my recovery: the Brain Injury Center, medical professionals, spiritual teachers, an author and life coach, an energy worker and several yoga instructors… all benevolent souls that have made a large heart-centered contribution to my process of recovering. At the one year mark on June 6, 2010, I had a Gratitude Party in honor of all the people in my life that helped me heal in body, mind and spirit. Vanessa aptly named the Gratitude Party my “Gratitudiversary” ~ a word I plan to use to commemorate and honor June 6th for the rest of my life.
The miracles that have lined up since that significant day are uncountable and the immensity of this journey is beyond words. Gratitude continues to be the undercurrent of every moment of my life.
I am in awe.
3 ½ mo after Dinner with Hero Rick
1st “hike” with Paul & Ryan Meeting Rick’s family
(Above photos are all before correction lenses for Double Vision)
Please follow my continued healing journey at theunfoldingself.wordpress.com.
Below I’ve shared a list of resources that have contributed to my overall healing.
Agape Optometry and Learning Center
Dr James Mayer
501 Marin St, Suite 205
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
Help with SSDI, SSI, job search, independent living
Independent Living Resource Center
Medical Intuitive, Energy Worker, Spiritual Counselor
Yoga & Education & Retreat Center
Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga – Get Fit Where You Sit!®
Specializing in Chair Yoga Teacher Training
Check our Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga DVD and CD
Stress Elimination, Life Coach, Author
Don Joseph Goewey
Aquamantra water in biodegradable bottle with affirmations on the bottle (I am loved, I am grateful, I am lucky, I am healthy) found at Albertsons, Whole Foods; www.aquamantra.com
Jodi House Brain Injury Support Center
Mystic Cool by Don Joseph Goewey
Instant Relief: Tell Me Where It Hurts and I’ll Tell You What to Do by Peggy Brill, PT
Heal Your Body by Louise Hay
When Everything Changes Change Everything by Neal Donald Walsch
Brain Injury Rewiring for Survivors (and there’s one for caregivers) by Carolyn Dolen
Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat by Richard Faulds
SuperFeet shoe insoles to support the foot arch which supports the back
At sporting good stores or www.superfeet.com
Tush Cush seat cushion for tail bone or low spine pain when sitting