December 2011 Articles

Recovery: After the Fall

By Vicki Santello ’77

September 21, 2006: The car that hit my bicycle at 55 mph on a sunny morning near my home in Gainesville, Florida, almost took my life. The accident shattered my L2 vertebrae, broke my right collarbone and smashed my left femur in three places. A random moment of inattention by an unknown motorist catapulted me out of my identity and lifestyle.

In the Arctic

In the Arctic in July with National Geographic, Vicki Santello practices her new passion: photography. “I feel very blessed to currently experience Life as fully as I am able now. The road to recovery has been very humbling,” she says.

The accident obliterated the good health and fitness that my quality of life had depended on. My athletic lifestyle and passion for cycling were profound losses. The grieving process could not even begin because the need to stabilize my broken body was so dire. Without sufficient functionality to live independently in my own home and return to my job as first vice president of investments at Merrill Lynch, the life I had spent the past three decades building would be irretrievable.

I was a multi-trauma victim. The spinal injury was the first priority. A titanium mesh was wrapped around the shattered vertebral body of my L2 and a cage was then inserted above and below it. I was placed in an upper body cast, known as a thrombotic lumbar support orthotic, for three months. The fractured femur with its complications was the second priority. The collarbone was third. My shoulder froze, rendering my dominant right arm useless.

It was a bitter irony that at the end of four months I qualified to activate a long-term care policy intended for use at age 70 or 80. At the age of 50, I was unable to perform four of the five activities of daily living: I could not feed, dress, transport or toilet myself. I had lost choice and privacy. I was entirely dependent not only on the skills of others, but also on their goodwill. New people were being thrust on me hourly out of medical necessity.

Bike Race

Vicki Santello is the front runner at a “Bring it On!” race in 2005, before the accident.

I first turned to those people I already trusted and loved. My mother—Estelle Aden—and my dearest friend—Nickie Winstel—altered their lives for months to make my care a priority. Nickie handled all my personal affairs including finances and medical claims until I was mentally competent to do so.

New relationships erupted out of spontaneous trust. The night aide, Sandra Hillier, expressed concern for me during a particularly bad night. “How will you manage being home?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said numbly. My release day was two days away. Sandra asked where I lived. When I told her, she said, “We are neighbors. I can help you.” Sandra became my day nurse for over a year. She dressed me, bathed me, and took me to my doctor appointments and to the Merrill Lynch office. Even as I got stronger, Sandra remained an indispensable support for four years.

After two months of home health care I was fortunate to have my case accepted by Bonnie Carr of Balanced Body Physical Therapy in Gainesville, Florida. Her evaluation was sobering. There was shock on her face as she watched me try to stand without the walker. I was severely atrophied and unable to stand straight. She looked at me sternly. “This is going to take a lot of work,” she said. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” I told her. I was an athlete. I knew how to train. I approached my physical therapy with the same discipline I used on the bike. I spent three sessions a week with Bonnie for two years.

Physical Therapy

Physical Therapist Bonnie Carr worked with Santello for two years.

The first year of the recovery process was the darkest. Pain ruled my life. It drilled me into submission. It usurped my independence and cannibalized my quality of life. Rather than taking the recommended narcotic painkillers, I chose to do additional physical therapy and acupuncture. I worked in physical therapy two hours every morning and an additional hour at the end of every afternoon. My social circle shrank to a handful of dear friends and my mother.

I do not know how old I was when my mother celebrated the first time I was able to tie my shoes—but I do know how old I was the second time she celebrated: 52 and a half!

In the midst of this, a man came into my life. We were cycling buddies before the accident. We had set a personal best together at a hundred mile event in 2005 in Daytona, finishing in four hours and 35 minutes, an average speed of 21.7 mph. In 2008, he was a guest at my two-year recovery anniversary party. “Why aren’t you on the bike?” he asked. No one had asked me that. This man blew right past the possibility that I might not ride again. He knew me as the fast girl who set a personal record time with him. By phrasing the question the way he did, he acknowledged a part of my identity that was frozen in time. His kindness, positive energy and romantic interest energized me. We fell in love. Our romance was passionate, sweet and full of trust.


Mother—Estelle Aden—and daughter celebrate recovery.

With his help and encouragement, I started to ride again. I wanted to get back on the bike for myself and to be with him. I trained for a year, through the pain, to ride the Santa Fe Century, a popular local 100-mile event held in Gainesville annually. He stayed with me the entire ride and recruited other cyclists to join us. I finished in five hours and 40 minutes, an average speed of 19.2 mph. I was triumphant even though it was an hour longer than the last time I had ridden the event.

Two months later, something was seriously wrong. The pain levels were increasing exponentially. I was sabotaging my own therapeutic recovery by cycling. It was a price too steep to pay for a recreational activity no matter how passionate I was about it. In April 2010, I hung up the bike with a heavy heart not sure what place it had in my life. To my deep sorrow, my lover accused me of unilaterally changing the intimacy between us. Within a few months, our relationship began to unravel.

I grieved losing him and the bike for months. Despite my sadness, I knew intuitively it was time to let go of both passions with thanks and forgiveness. The loss of intimacy reinforced the same lesson I learned from losing my athletic abilities: you never know when you are creating a precious memory.

Five years after the accident I live in the world more mindfully. Little things amaze me. I open my eyes each morning and pause to assess the pain levels before sitting up. I roll over onto my back and wiggle my toes, roll my ankles and stretch my legs—thrilled that all these appendages respond equally and without pain. I marvel at being able to start the day pain free before standing when gravity triggers the pain cycle. I sit up in bed and swing my legs to the side with ecstasy and gratitude.

Vicki Santello ’77 graduated cum laude with a degree in economics. She has lived in Gainesville, Florida, for the past 22 years. She continues to work at Merrill Lynch as first vice president of investments. This article is excerpted from her upcoming book, The Way Out is Through.

Comments on “Recovery: After the Fall”

  1. The same day I read Vicki Santello’s article in the November 2011 Alumnae Bulletin, my 50 year old son, John Feit, returned to his home in Palm Harbor, Florida (near Tampa) after weeks in the hospital following emergency surgery for an abcess in his spinal column.. The operation saved him from losing the ability to walk, which he can now do with the aid of a walker, but he is in constant pain, on intravenous antibiotics, and not sure he can handle the new job he was just starting when stricken. Fortunately, his employer is willing to have him work at home on his computer if he can manage that, and also, fortunately, his wife is a nurse and head of risk management at a local hospital. He knows he is at the beginning, even if all goes well, of a long and painful siege. I am anxious to get a copy of Ms. Santello’s forthcoming book and, since she and my son and their younger son, all live in Florida, perhaps they could be in some kind of useful contact. Thank you to the author and the Bulletin for publishing “Recovery After the Fall.”

  2. Thank you Vicki for a moving and meaningful account of your ongoing recovery. I will look for your book.

  3. Vicki – your strength and spirit are an inspiration! Be Well!! Anassa Kata!

  4. Dear Vicki, I was very moved and inspired by your article. Thank you for being so sharing; I suspect you have touched many people who have experienced or are now experiencing dire life-changing situations. I met mine when I was 50. After years of pain and fear that had me saying “no” more times than I said “yes”, I took a trip to Africa, something I thought I would never able to do. I am grateful for every day, for all the little moments, and for dear friends and family. It is clear that you have been on this road… I very much look forward to reading more about your journey…

  5. Dear Vicki, Your perseverance in therapeutically demanding activity is amazing! as is your emotional strength!
    I’d like to suggest that you google the Feldenkrais Method (TM) as a science-based, PAIN-FREE, effective, movement re-education. The responsibility the Method places on you for self-awareness should be appealing to such a “do-er.” You can get hands-on lessons, but the class lessons really put the awareness and consequent changes in patterns of movement on you. It doesn’t deal with building strength, but with enlarging your neural repertoire of movement patterns beyond what is currently available to you. Rather than “going the limit,” the patterns-bits are best acquired with very small, focused movements with attention paid as to how these little changes radiate through your body (or stop). Your sense of discipline would work well in this very different style from, and complementary to, that of your training and therapy.
    Best wishes for your life-long learning!
    Diana Schramm

  6. Many years ago I had the honor and privilidge of hiring Vicki. It was obvious to me she was a winner and would excel in the brokerage business. Needless to say, she exceeded my greatest expectations and swifty rose to the top of her choosen profession. Her miraculous recovery from a potentially fatal accident does not surprise me at all. I’m sure her book will serve as an inspiration and guide to recovery for others struggling in similar circumstances.

  7. Vicki
    great piece and i will read your book. Nick and i found your wonderful spirit and enthusiam for life right from seat 43B on our flight to Svalbard. you offered to give me the window seat so that i could get a shot thru the window although i knew that you wanted to do the same thing.
    best wishes for continued good health and make sure you don’t get in too many fast moving zodiacs in CR.

  8. I am very moved by each of the comments made in response to my article. To give each one its due I would like to respond individually:
    1. To Rona Gottleib Felt ’53 : my heart goes out to your son. He had a challenge in front of him. He is fortunate to have family in the medical profession that have a perspective that will support him. He is also fortunate to have virtual employment flexibility. I am definitely available to be in contact to share my experience in whatever way might be useful.
    2.To Jaya BMC ‘ 87: You are welcome! Thank you for your kind words and enthusiasm!
    3 To Eva Marie ’84 BMC : Thank you. My goal is to share the blessings. I’m glad if I can give inspiration and energy to anyone challenged by trauma. I know what it takes to surmount difficult odds.
    4. To Lenore Ralston, PHD ’79: I am glad you were moved Lenore. Thank you for taking the time to share your own recovery road. It is a goal of mine to return to Africa. I hope we meet one day either virtually or face-to-face so you can share your life-changing experience and the path it opened for you. Congratulations on your recovery!
    5. To Diana Schramm: I am familiar w/ Feldenkrais Method. . I know it is very high quality and believe that it would complement what I am doing now. I haven’t looked carefully to see if there is someone here in Gville trained in the Method to work with due to time constraints. I do appreciate your mentioning it bc I may have a shift in my schedule that could allow me to explore this.

    To all : Best wishes for the Holiday Season and THANK YOU for your thoughtful responses.

  9. Vicki, you look so beautiful and strong in the photos! You are my hero(ine)!
    See you in May, all my best, ALB