My Friend’s Life Changing Story. Don’t Drink & Drive.

My friend Gina Cancelliere has written a blog post for me before.  She wanted to write one again. This blog not only tells her story, and sends an important message, but it’s been theraputic for her to write it all down. She was hit by a drunk driver, and is lucky to be alive. Even as her friend, I didn’t realize what bad shape she was in after this happened. It was years before we met. She has brought it up before, but I learned so much more from watching the video that she sent me. She shared her story on a newscast in Pennsylvania. She was a weather anchor there and had the chance to tell her viewers what happened, in hopes of sending a “don’t drink and drive” message to everyone at home. Here’s her story. It’s a long one, but worth the read! You can watch her story too, below.

In my best Sofia Petrillo (of the beloved Golden Girls) voice…picture it. Penn State. December 1, 1999. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s nearly winter in State College, Pennsylvania. I am in the final year of earning my bachelor of science in meteorology; it’s almost the finale of competing with and against the weather-weenie version of The Big Bang Theory (what’s up, TV references?). The physics is brutal. The calculus is impossible. But I’m doing it! My diploma is a few weeks and a semester away and I can almost taste it.

During this Fall ’99 semester, computer programming (CMPSCI – or something like that) was part of my program. And I just didn’t get it. At all. (Psssst, ask Dayna how slow I am when it comes to learning Twitter or any app on my iPhone.) CMPSCI confused me, frustrated me and was almost the end of me. Literally.

To help me survive, my study buddy and I hired a tutor. Every-so-often, we got together on campus to go through homework and prep for the hellish exams. The night of Wednesday, December 1, 1999, was one of those nights.

Then this:

I was leaving Walker Building last night just after the accident happened, and I was curious as to who she was and how badly she was injured.

I came upon the incident just after 8:00PM, after it had already happened, and after a few others had already gotten to her, but before the police or ambulance had arrived. One man, maybe one of the drivers of the vehicles directly behind the truck that hit her, held her hand and kept assuring her that she was going to be OK. When she finally opened her eyes, the rest of us just smiled at her and nodded our heads in agreement. I am guessing that this gentleman holding her hand was one of the motorists behind the truck by how he responded when the second ambulance was blowing its horn trying to get through to the scene on the incident side (northbound) side of Atherton. I think he said something like, “we can’t go anywhere,” as he looked in the direction of the ambulance. The police arrived first on the scene, followed within a few minutes by an ambulance in the southbound lane of Atherton. The traffic was of course completely blocked by stopped vehicles on the northbound side of the street behind where she had gotten hit.

Her eyes were closed for quite some time, and she did not move at all. She appeared to be unconscious, and we were all worried about her condition. She eventually came to just as help was arriving on the scene. The impact had knocked both of her shoes off. She just laid there, motionless, on her right side and facing Walker Building and the curb, between the bus station crosswalk and the Pollock Road intersection. Her body was oriented roughly parallel to the curb but a foot or two away. Her head was oriented toward the bust station crosswalk, with her feet oriented toward the Pollock Road intersection. I saw bleeding from the back of her head only after the medics started to mover her. Her head laid directly on the street as the man was holder her hand. Everyone knew not to move her and we all said the same to each other.

One of the young men on the scene immediately after it happened, gathered her shoes and put them together on the curb by the time I got there. He told me that he found one shoe about 20 or more feet north of the crosswalk (he actually pointed to the exact locations for the police), and the other was located much farther north, about 100 feet or so, on the road in the direction of the Pollock Road intersection. I heard someone else say that her purse was picked up near the crosswalk and placed near where she was lying.

There were apparently two gentlemen in the truck that hit her. The driver stopped the truck about another 100-200 feet or more from where she was lying. One man kept saying that he did not see her and that she walked out right in front of him. The other man in the truck agreed with him when asked for a response. None of the people that I spoke to, about four or five of us standing on the little hill on the Walker side of the street near the curb, had actually seen it happen. One young woman said that she heard the “thud” as she was crossing the street toward the bus station. Others said that they came running from the parking lot.

I stayed on the scene until about 8:30PM or so, and I told the police that I had not witnessed the accident. They did not question me any further. I can say what I saw after the accident happened, if the parents or anyone else would like to talk to me. Officer Ohs, what was on the scene, knows me and asked me whether I saw anything. I told him that I had not. Before I left the scene, I asked him if I could go and he said yes.

Please share with the parents that until the ambulance came and after I had arrived on the scene, minutes after it happened, she was already being cared for. She was covered to keep warm from her head to the socks on her feet (I remember that the man who was holding her hand was without a jacket). I heard one of the young women bystanders say that she or someone else asked the girl to squeeze her hand or finger and she said that the girl responded. The gentleman who was holding her hand until the medics arrived told us that he had found a pulse. She was out for what seemed to be pretty long. Although her injuries did not appear to be too serious from what we could see, we all knew and agreed that she should to be moved, nor should she be allowed to move.

She could not speak at all after she opened her eyes; she did not respond when asked her name, etc. None of us could tell the first officer on the scene who she was. When she opened her eyes, she just looked at us sadly and dazed without making any sound. she did not try to move much, except maybe her head a little, and maybe her hand, until she was being moved on the stretcher. She reached for the back of her head. We told her to keep her head and body as still as possible. As she was being moved on the stretcher, that was the first time I could hear her moaning. She tried to lift her head and shoulders twice as she was being moved, and she was gently restrained and told not to move by the medics…

If her parents or anyone else would like to speak with me, let me know. I do not know much more than what I have said here. I did not speak to the man who held her hand, not to the men in the truck. I saw the police separate the men in the truck for individual questioning after the ambulance had arrived. A few of us onlookers were also taken away one at a time for individual questioning by the police.

I will keep her and her family in my prayers, and I look forward to hearing some more good news on her condition soon.

The next thing I can remember is trying to wipe my runny nose, but couldn’t because tubes were blocking my nostrils. You see, I didn’t write that email. That email is about ME, written by a meteorology researcher. I was the girl run-down by a drunk driver. I was the girl nearly killed by a drunk driver driving a pick-up truck, without operating headlights at 8 o’clock at night. I was the girl hit on the left side of my body, knocked out of my shoes and thrown 40 feet down the road. I was the girl who suffered two collapsed lungs, a lacerated liver, a subdural hematoma, fractured ribs, fractured pelvis, fractured tailbone, fractured pubic boned, damaged optic nerves, chipped teeth, wounded scalp and a broken pinky nail (<— I know, right?).

I was air-lifted/life-flighted to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, from State College. The most expensive “private” flight I have ever taken, and I can’t remember a thing. I spent two weeks at Geisinger and remember very little — perhaps an elevator ride? Oh, I do remember hearing something about oxygen (I later learned it was talk of my Oxycontin dosages), having a little clam-like thing on my right index finger and wearing some circulation socks on my legs. Parts of me don’t want to remember anything else, honestly. Would you? Especially the chest tube holes that were on the sides of my body, that eventually scabbed over to the biggest, thickest scabs ever. Gross. Ugh, I do remember that.

After the two weeks at Geisinger I was moved, via ambulance, to a rehabilitation hospital near home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is when I could start doing and remembering a little more, nearly three weeks after the crash – nearly three weeks after my life was practically ended thanks to no fault of my own, but the ignorance of a drunk driver. At this point, I started to use a walker, but only for a few steps each day. I had double vision and was dizzy with my eyes open, so I kept them closed most of the time. The rehab nurses asked me a million times daily, “who’s the President?” Ok, seriously, was there an election or were they trying to brainwash me? Kidding! I now know it’s a testing technique, but come on. And I remember another question was something about a nest egg. Really? I was a 21-year-old coed entrenched in atmospheric engineering with the nerdiest of the nerds (sorry, geeks, you know you’re the best); I never heard of a nest egg other than the nests and eggs in trees. It was here, that I remember showering with the help of my mother and use of a shower chair, because I couldn’t stand without support. It was here that I do remember joking around a little with my parents and family. After a few days in that rehab hospital, we checked out.

I still remember the dark drive home. It was a night or two before Christmas. Lights and motion still made me dizzy and nauseous, but I do remember that night drive with my father. And the arduous task of getting in and out of the car. My Christmas present that year was a set of button-down silk Victoria’s Secret red pajamas; I could barely move my arms, let alone try to get clothes over my head.

Our home was filled with flowers and gifts. Remembering the out-pouring of love and support makes me smile as I type this. I still have a box of over one hundred get-well cards from family, friends and strangers (I’m not kidding about the stranger part either; there are some incredibly amazing people in this world). At first, I looked through the cards often. Now I just keep them on standby. During the summer of 1999, I interned at The Weather Channel. And would you know that I still have the signed t-shirt from the meteorologists with whom I worked? I also have the box of clothes I was wearing December 1, 1999. To this very moment, I have yet to open that box. At the top of my closet, I hold on to fifty pounds of X-rays from the whole nightmare. Yes, 50 pounds of X-rays.

But I digress…

After a few days at home (I was considered homebound because I was so beat-up), I looked in the mirror for the first time in nearly a month with my grandmother beside me. I still had double vision but I noticed I was pale and gaunt. What I saw was just a skeleton of my former self, both literally and figuratively.

This crash changed my life and my family’s life forever. The drunk thirty-something asshole, driving a pick-up truck without operating the headlights at 8 o’clock at night, with a blood alcohol content of 0.175 (more than twice the legal limit, I might add) changed the lives of countless people that night. Allow me to elaborate.

You see, his choice of going to a bar, getting wasted and driving away on Wednesday, December 1, 1999, got him arrested. His friend also in the truck had a night ruined. His drunk driving nearly killed me; my half-dead body, just steps off of Penn State’s campus, blocked traffic for hours. So anyone trying to drive through State College that night was out-of-luck. My parents. My poor parents receiving a phone call around 9PM from a State College police officer asking if they were the parents of Gina Cancelliere, if they heard from me recently and/or knew my whereabouts, then driving four hours from Pittsburgh to Danville with my aunt and uncle at the wheel, not know what the hell happened, cell phone reception cutting in and out, terror and trauma and all the ingredients to bring the perfect horror story to reality. My brother at the University of Vermont, my grandparents in Florida and aunts, uncles, cousins and friends all confused, desperate and chaotic. All caused by one single man who chose to disobey the law and drink and drive.

My recovery continued for a little over one year. A physical therapist came to my home until I was strong enough to venture out of the house, only then to have the pattered wallpaper and carpet in doctor’s offices make me nauseous. After EEGs, EKGs, X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans and what seemed like a million other tests, I returned to State College with my family to testify against the drunk at his trial. At this point, I graduated from using a walker to walking with a cane to on-my-own walking, but very slowly.

Once again, I think the trial was harder for my family to deal with than for me because I didn’t have to listen to the testimony of the police officers and first responders describing the crash site and the drunk himself, explaining how he wasn’t really drunk (c’mon, really?). In addition, the jury was composed of mainly men, which made my family nervous, thinking that the men would side with the drunk; putting themselves in his shoes. Lance Marshall, Assistant District Attorney, at the time, was cool, calm, and collected reassuring us that justice would prevail.

When it was my turn to enter the courtroom and testify, I cried while spelling my last name on the witness stand. Never in a million years did I ever think that I would be on a witness stand. That was hard. But I did it and told the truth — I was leaving my study session and simply walking back to my off-campus apartment. No, I wasn’t wearing headphones. No, I wasn’t drunk. What I was, was a responsible meteorology student earning my degree so I could get dressed up in front of a chroma key/weather map and get paid to forecast the weather on a daily basis.

As you know by now, I majored in science (physics, calculus, numbers, yum!), so I don’t remember the specifics of another type of major, the law, in this case, so bare with me. Deliberation lasted about an hour. I walked into that courtroom with my family, friends and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) advocates when it was verdict time. I can still see it in my head…one of the male jurors looking at me directly in the eyes. And once we made eye contact, he smiled at me. That was it. I knew, then, that justice won. The jury was on my side and I didn’t even need to hear the judge (although, I did, but you know what I mean). It’s like this male juror wanted to get out of the jury box and hug me. I do tear-up, remembering his thirty-something face and the sympathy he had for me in his eyes. But I wasn’t in that courtroom (or on this still on this planet) for sympathy. I was there (and am still here) for justice.

GUILTY. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! See you again for the sentencing.

We drove back to Pittsburgh where I continued physical therapy into the spring of 2000. At this point, I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight! What an amazing side-effect. So, in between the massive amours of sleep by body needed, I made cookies from scratch, daily. That, in tandem with my dad’s humor and Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” on repeat throughout the house, I consider Spring 2000 the best season of my life. Shocking, right? I took an on-line speech communications class (seriously, it was on-line…a speech class…on-line) to continue working toward my B.S. in meteorology. I earned straight-A’s, yes, even in the computer science class, Fall ’99 semester (again, best semester ever), so I was then inducted into the meteorology honors society, Chi Epsilon Pi.

At the Spring 2000 Chi Epsilon Pi induction ceremony on Penn State’s campus, I reconnected with professors, mentors, friends and faces I last saw on the morning of December 1, 1999—what was a lifetime ago. These same amazing and supportive people orchestrated a Don’t Drink and Drive vigil at the crosswalk where I was run down, so this was my opportunity to thank them. And it was the chance for my parents to meet my weather-weenie version of The Big Bang Theory. The experience was bittersweet, to say the least.

This same group of science-loving nerds, with their parents and supporters, along with my incredibly loving and supportive and amazing and encouraging entourage, gave me (and only me, in a sea of hundreds of graduates) a standing ovation when I walked across the stage, finally accepting my Bachelor of Science in Meteorology at the end of the Fall 2000 semester. A semester late, not but one single credit short. Then, I was Miami-bound as WPLG-TV’s newest weekend morning meteorologist, armed with drunk/impaired driving as my platform.

While in Miami, and later Philadelphia, I teamed-up with MADD. I spoke at school assemblies with the front that “it’s the weather lady from TV!” Meanwhile, once I grabbed the students’ and teachers’ attention, I broke into my DUI survival story. During and after my talks, students and faculty had tears in their eyes. Then I would think, SCORE! I got to them! With other students, however, I threatened to leave if they kept rudely interrupting my presentations. Why did I have to wait until 2007 to have my own daughters to harness the power of counting to three? Honestly, I didn’t have time to put up with assembly non-sense. But I do think, non-sense and all, I hit a nerve with some, or hopefully just one attendee.

I also spoke at Victim Impact Panels (VIP — go figure). The VIPs (such a wrong abbreviation for this) are court-ordered classes convicted DUI offenders must attend. Here, too, without counting to three or threatening to leave, some “adults” (yes, in quotes, because I consider adults the people who follow and obey the law) shed tears while other napped.

While publicly retelling my story, I mentally healed. During my presentations, I cried, I got mad, I vented and I educated. My main point: this can happen to you. And it could happen to me again.

So, once again in my best Sofia Petrillo voice, picture it…Las Vegas, Nevada…2014…instead of asking this in front of a weather map, I ask as a mother of three (yes, I was able to have children “the natural way” despite all my body has endured)…think before you drink. It’s really not that complicated. You took a test to earn a driver’s license; it wasn’t handed to you. Don’t be that DUI asshole and do this to me or my family again. As you may remember from my previous Dayna blog entry, my three Disney-princess-loving and now American-Girl-doll-loving daughters count on me to protect them and keep them safe. Don’t screw it up for me.

4 thoughts on “My Friend’s Life Changing Story. Don’t Drink & Drive.

  1. WOW..what an awesome story, and the video brought tears. I stopped drinking over 25 years ago, mostly because I FINALLY realized that I was driving impaired and it was wrong. Fortunately, I never injured anyone or had an accident. Believe it or not, people like Gina can be inspiring. I always liked Gina when she was at Channel 8. God bless her and good luck.

    Thanks, Dayna, for allowing Gina to use you blog to get her message out.

  2. Oh G-Dawg, you had me in tears here at my work computer. I always knew you were amazing but WOW!!!!! I applaud your strength and courage. I’m in awe, really. Sending hugs your way! xoxox

  3. Your story had me in so many emotions. You are an inspiration! Thank you for continuing your story and being an advocate for MADD.

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