The long road back

As an avid cyclist, vicki santello rode an average of 200 miles per week.

Vicki Santello, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch poses at her office Thursday, October 1, 2009.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 22, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 1:28 a.m.

For financial advisor Vicki Santello, cycling was a passion.But then a devastating accident left her broken and battered.Here's her story of how she got back on the bike ... and on with her life.


About the author

Vicki Santello grew up on Long Island, New York, and received her bachelor of arts degree in economics cum laude in 1977 from Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia. She lived in Brussels, Belgium, where she worked for the European Economic Community in the department that was creating the Euro currency. While there, she received her master of business administration in finance with honors from Boston University through its International Executive Program. After returning to the U.S., she worked on Wall Street for 10 years before moving to the Gainesville area in 1989. She is a financial advisor and first vice president for investments for Merrill Lynch in Gainesville.

I had been a recreation-al runner for years when a friend suggested I abandon running and take up biking to avoid destroying my knees and needing to replace them.

So I got a bike, and soon the cycling bug bit — hard. I loved the physical and mental challenges of riding, as well as the camaraderie of the peloton (the pack of riders in a race). Gainesville's well-established cycling community — including Team Florida Cycling, the championship team at the University of Florida; and the Gainesville Cycling Club — gave me ample opportunities to pursue my new sport right where I lived.

Within two years, my weekly training routine had evolved into six days on the bike, for a total of 200 miles a week. I'd do 30 to 40 miles (one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours) on weekday mornings and 50 to 100 miles (three to five hours) on weekends. I also cross-trained twice a week with weight-lifting and yoga.

It wasn't long before I started entering long-distance cycling events, completing more than 50 "century" (100-mile) rides with a personal best of four hours and 35 minutes (an average speed of 21.7 mph). I was passionate about my cycling. I'd plan vacations around riding; I rode parts of the Tour de France route and participated twice in the Tour de Georgia as vacations. I tried racing and even won two gold medals in my age/gender group.

All that changed on the morning of September 21, 2006. I was riding with my training partner, Michael Krasilovsky, on one of our usual routes. We were returning home via 94th Avenue, off State Road 241, in Alachua County. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an SUV came from behind us and side-swiped Michael, who was riding behind me. Before I realized he'd been hit, I felt my bike being pushed forward and up into the air. I landed on the hood of the SUV and then was thrown onto a grass easement on the side of the road. As I landed, I heard my helmet crack.

For a few seconds, I just lay there, stunned. I turned my head to try to assess my body, and I noticed that my left leg was sticking out at a very strange angle. I tried to move my toes, but I couldn't. I also felt a searing pain in my right shoulder. Clearly, I was not getting up and walking away from this crash as I had after prior cycling accidents.

I heard Michael calling my name. As soon as he saw me, he told me not to move, and he called 911. Meanwhile, I was becoming overwhelmed with the intensity of the pain — my back, my leg and my collarbone were all killing me. The SUV driver stopped. She stayed with us until an ambulance arrived. She claimed the sun was in her eyes and she didn't see us. She received a $50 speeding ticket for doing 55 mph in a 35-mph zone. Thankfully, an Alachua County ambulance arrived quickly. The EMTs immediately gave me morphine, but the pain was still unimaginable when they placed me on the stretcher.

I was taken to Shands where I had dozens of x-rays and other tests. It took most of the day for the doctors to determine the extent of my injuries: I had shattered the L3 vertebra in my lower back, broken my left femur (thigh bone) in three places and fractured my right collarbone. When all the exams were done, the trauma surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Lottenberg, ran his fingernails along the bottoms of my feet to make sure I still had feeling there and asked me, "Do you know how lucky you are?"

I did know: Lucky I'd been wearing a helmet and didn't have any head trauma; lucky I'd landed on grass, not asphalt; lucky I was riding with a training partner who took control of the situation; lucky the ambulance arrived and got me to help quickly; and lucky I wasn't paralyzed.

And yet I was terrified about the future quality of my life, my ability to live independently, feed myself, dress myself, go to work or even walk again. I also felt the loss of my identity as a competitive athlete. But I wasn't going to give up until I had tried everything to become self-sufficient again.

Over the next three days, I had three surgeries. Trauma surgery was performed by Dr. Lottenberg to move my organs in preparation for the spinal surgery. The second was on my spine, performed by Dr. Joshua Kouric, to insert titanium mesh around the shattered L3 and a titanium cage around the L3 and neighboring vertebrae for stabilization. In the third operation, performed by Dr. Richard G. Vlasak, a titanium rod was inserted through the entire length of my left femur and joined to a second rod that was inserted into my hip. Because the bone was so badly shattered, these two rods were joined in the muscle tissue of my hip. It is the cause of chronic pain even now, three years later.

The pain remained unrelenting. It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined or had ever experienced. I was restricted in a thoracic lumbar support orthotic body cast for four months, was non-weight bearing on my left leg for eight weeks and my right arm was frozen from the collar bone injury. There was no relief and no way of knowing when the pain level would recede. Drugs were the only way to cope initially, but my goal was to get off them as soon as possible.

In the early days, the first challenge was to relearn how to sit up. It took three people at Shands Rehab Hospital to get me upright because the compression on my spine was so excruciating. I was grateful to physical therapist Lisa Downing and occupational therapist Valerie Samuels for their help, but I was in agony. I was always on the verge of tears or actually crying. No amount of pain medication would alleviate the pain. Within two weeks, my muscles had atrophied so much that I couldn't even recognize the contours of my own body, which had been so athletic and conditioned.

Next came the challenge of transferring myself from the bed to a wheelchair. That was another three-person effort as I was instructed to slide down a plank from the bed to the chair. Finally came the challenge of standing. All I could manage the first day was 30 seconds — with assistance. This was when I realized I had a very long, difficult road ahead of me. The day I walked 10 steps for the first time in rehab left me exhausted and sobered. I had no idea how I was going to get my life back, except one step at a time.

I was able to go home four weeks later, though I still needed full-time care. I received physical therapy and occupational therapy at home for two hours a day. Beth Mundy, a physical therapist from Care Tenders, made it a point to get me moving a little more each day. I was on a walker for six months. It took three months for me to be able to walk round-trip to the mailbox with the walker one way and wheelchair back. It took even longer for me to bend my knee 90 degrees so that I could sit on a chair.

Thanksgiving 2006 was an incredible day — it was the first time I sat out of the wheelchair long enough to eat at a table. But I still needed assistance for many of the basic activities of daily living for the better part of that first year; I had lost my ability to live independently.

Sunshine Plantz, an occupational therapist from Care Tenders, taught me how to function at home again. With determination and creativity, she aimed to get me to walk, dress, eat, get in and out of bed, and do all the other things we all do, without thinking, on a daily basis. She showed me new ways of functioning within the limits of my injuries so I could regain a measure of independence.

When I no longer qualified for home health care, I began going to a nearby physical therapy center. Within three weeks, though, I realized I was not in the right place and that I wasn't making the kind of progress I needed to get my life back.

A number of my friends, some of whom were physical therapists, kept telling me that I had to see Bonnie Carr at Balanced Body, a local Pilates-based physical therapy facility owned and managed by Lee Auerbach. Bonnie was a key person in my recovery. My first appointment with her was four months after the accident. I was on the walker, all bent over, out of alignment, in a body corset and in tremendous pain. She told me it would take 12 to 18 months of very hard work to recover a somewhat normal range of motion and start to regain independence. Within a few months, thanks to the care I received there, I had traded in the walker for a cane, I was better able to dress myself and cook for myself, and I could get in and out of bed and sit for longer stretches.

Thanks to the support of my employer, Merrill Lynch, the local management of Mike Carr and regional management of Tom Isaacs, I was slowly able to resume my professional responsibilities as a financial advisor. My staff, colleagues and clients were concerned, helpful and patient. I created a flexible work schedule that allowed me to work at home as well as in the office to accommodate the physical therapy routine I needed to continue to heal.

Bonnie Carr retired at the end of 2008. I continued with my Pilates-based therapy and gyrotronics — the two modalities that were so key to my healing — with the dedicated help of Renee Neuman, who co-owns Evolve Pilates & Fitness on Archer Road with Kelli Sanders and Kim Christou. After the crucial physical therapy I received from Bonnie at Balanced Bodies, I will always be grateful to the women at Evolve for the second phase of my recovery, during which I began to get more than just functionality. I began to get my health back.

In my three-year recovery period, I have also benefited from massage and chiropractic care and acupuncture. The massage treatments from Dave Salhanik and Lorne Johnson; the chiropractic from David West and the acupuncture from Donna Black were invaluable components of my rehabilitation. Each assisted with pain management in a different way. Each helped me with my goal to stay drug free.

The life lessons that I've learned from this experience are humility, patience and compassion. I needed to stay open and be willing to explore all possibilities for healing, including some I never would have considered before, such as acupuncture. Given how independent and self-sufficient I've been all my life, it took a conscious effort to accept help. I learned it takes grace to accept other people's generosity.

Every phase of the recovery has had key moments. One of them came last fall, just after the second anniversary of my accident. Bob Claude, a special cycling friend who had helped me set my century personal record in May 2005, asked me, "So, Vicki, why aren't you back on the bike yet?"

I told him he was crazy. I was done with the bike. My near-term goal was to tie my left shoe, which I still couldn't do after two years. I asked him if he wanted to listen to all the reasons I was never going to ride again. He said yes.

Three weeks later when I finished my emotional outpouring, he asked a simple question, "Do you want to ride?" When I looked into my heart, I realized that I did.

It took a full month to muster the courage. During that time I was working on my form on a stationary bike in the gym. Finally, I was ready.

Bob collected me, and we headed to the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, which was nearby, flat, and free of vehicular traffic. I was terrified of falling, even though my orthopedic surgeon had assured me a fall wouldn't undo my therapy. When the moment came, I clipped in and rode away. I was weak and my hip hurt, but I was riding again. All those great memories of why I loved to ride came flooding back. It was a benchmark moment.

Obviously, getting back on the bike was very symbolic for me. It meant I hadn't given up, I wasn't a victim. I had accepted my circumstances and worked through them.

It's been three years since I was hit. I live my life more mindfully now, with a lot more appreciation. I still have pain but I work through it. I still have fear but I live with it. And I ride my bike. It's not the same experience as it was for me pre-accident, but it is something I love.

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