(Gina Bartiromo is a brain injury survivor and active member of BIC. This is a condensed story of Gina’s accident in Yosemite National Park nearly two years ago that made national news)
Published in the Brain Injury Newsletter May 2011
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 30 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 to the 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 150-200 ft down the mountain. Apparently, I was screaming as I descended. Rick says I was already falling down before he could reach me and the first time he 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 ledge of about 6 inches. 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 snapped my neck.
Rick and his nephew-in-law, Kiley stayed with me for 3 hours as I lay there bleeding and broken while my traumatized friends hiked to safety at the bottom of Half Dome. Many people donated their jackets to lay over me. Someone took my vitals and hollered them down to Tricia who was on the phone with 911. When Vanessa reached the base of Half 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!”
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 ledge that saved my life; not even the height of his foot; taken by Rick1 year later)
Finally there was a clearing in the sky. It was the helicopter’s last attempt as they were running low on fuel. 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. (Apparently, my skull fracture was only a hairline away from causing me to need brain surgery or to have caused more irreversible damage). That would have ruined me. But the team was able to get me off that precarious ledge, into the stretcher basket and hooked onto the helicopter cable. Jack, a Yosemite EMT, rode with me hanging on the side of the basket 10 feet below the helicopter as it lifted me to a flat meadow where I could be transferred to the emergency MediVac helicopter.
(SAR member, Jack, on the side of my stretcher 10ft below 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 had 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 on the day of my brother’s passing four years previous relayed to them the shocking news of my fall.
(Amnesia at this state so I don’t recall this time at all)
(Last Day in hospital with Physical Therapist who got me to walk again)
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.
My injuries included a broken jaw (repaired with a Titanium plate), 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 left glute, leg and back, brain injury (hematomas and bleeding in the brain; semi-conscious for 2 weeks; luckily the amnesia only lasted for about a week or so after I “came to” and the brain damage is continually improving even compared to a few weeks ago – still have some word recall issues and struggle with short-term memory), a fractured skull (at the base where the spinal cord enters the brain), 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 and 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 though I use prism lens glasses to regulate it. Thanks to a phenomenal Optometry group, I have been actively doing Vision Therapy which has proven to repair visual problems after a traumatic brain injury. I trust I will have normal vision return. My brain is feeling back on track in the last few months though I still deal with mild word searching, spelling and short term memory issues. 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 have done a lot of work on myself spiritually and emotionally before the fall and that has helped me tremendously to stay optimistic with a positive outlook. I have a strong holistic spiritual connection that is still changing, growing and becoming. 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 read the full story of Gina Bartiromo’s accident, recovery and what she is doing with her life now, visit the “Survivor’s Stories” section of our website: http://www.BrainInjuryCenter.org)