DOWNEY - As Rita Assoian drove home after closing the restaurant where she worked on the morning of September 12, 2009, all she could think about was getting some sleep. It was well past midnight, and she was almost home, just a few minutes away from the comfort of her bed.Everything was right with her life. She was a first-year college student and track star at Glendale Community College with an apparently limitless future. Then in an instant, everything changed. "As I exited the freeway, my car was rear-ended," Rita says. "I remember getting out to call for help. And then there was a tremendous crash." A car speeding at more than 90 miles an hour plowed into her car, which then hit Rita and tossed her high into the air. She flew through the night like a rag doll. When she landed more than 15 feet away, her body was devastated. The accident left Rita with 14 separate broken bones, a lacerated lung and liver, internal bleeding, the threat of paralysis from the breaks in her neck and spine, and possible brain damage from bruising and blood on the brain. As she lay lifeless, the odds that Rita could survive were not in her favor. Paramedics arrived at the accident scene within five minutes and immediately summoned a helicopter to airlift her to Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, one of the nation's premier trauma centers. She was in a deep coma, and her brain was swelling. Rita was fighting for her life The accident left her in a coma for 22 days. Doctors can't say for sure what saved her, although they agree that she got the best possible medical care. "Perhaps it was also the extraordinary fitness that came with being a track star," says Dr. Luis Montes, Chief of Pediatrics at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. "Perhaps it was her fierce determination. Perhaps it was her family and friends, who were by her side 24 hours a day. Or maybe it was just her incredible heart." But although she should have died, Rita survived. "The three breaks in my neck and upper spine needed to fuse, to eliminate the danger of paralysis," Rita says. "My family decided that I would wear a Halo device to immobilize my head, neck and spine for two months, instead of having a risky surgery." Innovated at Rancho in the 1950's, the Halo is now used throughout the world and has a better success rate than surgery. "The doctors told my parents I would possibly never walk again, and I certainly was done competing in track," Rita says. "I was lucky that I was unconscious so that I never knew about that prognosis." After she was fitted with the Halo, Rita was sent to Rancho, where the fight to rebuild her life would begin. Healing from the physical wounds was the easy part. "When she was transferred to Rancho, Rita couldn't walk or talk, and had a tracheotomy to help her breathing," says Dr. Montes. "She was fed through her stomach and she was also wearing the 20 lb. Halo." "I was out of the coma, and my body was healing, but I was still in a fog," Rita says. "My family and friends could tell I was getting better, but I still wasn't the same girl they knew." She didn't have the same spunk or spirited independent streak that characterized her personality prior to the accident. Often, she just stared with a glazed look at the world, seemingly seeing and feeling nothing. Her therapy began in earnest. "She worked with physical therapists to help with balance because she was very wobbly on her feet," Dr. Montes says. "An occupational therapist helped with self-care skills and her speech therapist helped her to talk again and identify her cognitive damage." "Her first few weeks at Rancho she was easily confused and her thought process was very slow," Dr. Montes added. When her fog began to lift she had lots of questions about where she was and what had happened. "When I woke up… I was scared about everything," says Rita. "I was like a scared child, and little by little, I slowly began to heal." When speech therapist B.J. Sena first began working with Rita, she could communicate 'yes' or 'no' only with hand movements. Her responses were flat and devoid of any emotion. A few weeks later B.J. and Rita's family were cheered when she smiled and began to laugh. "They felt that their girl was coming back to them," B.J. says. "Over time she became more alert and then her determination and sweet personality came out. Soon everyone fell in love with her." One day she had a breakthrough in speech therapy and began to talk. "I don't remember my first words, but I do remember my mom and aunt arriving for their daily visit," Rita says. When her mother walked through the door, Rita looked up and said "Hi Mommy!" as if she had been talking all along. Her mother started to cry - it had been weeks since she had heard her daughter talk. Throughout Rita's stay, she participated in many events and outings funded by the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation and Rancho's community partners. "I remember going bowling with my Halo on," Rita says. "My therapists helped me so I could participate with the other kids…it was just amazing." "I also went to the mall several times, and I even went to Disneyland," Rita says. "Of course, I was the only one at Disneyland wearing a Halo that day!" Events such as these are designed by Rancho recreation therapist Julie Helgren to break the monotony of a lengthy hospital stay. "These outings boost self-esteem and provide hope for patients," Julie said. "But Rita's goal was a big one…she wanted to get back on the track. After seeing the miracles that have happened at Rancho over the nearly 30 years I have been working there, I have learned that almost anything is possible. So we helped Rita fight harder and harder each day to reach her goal." "My Rancho team encouraged me to go back to school, to running and everything else I had been involved in, and amazingly I was back at home just two months after my accident," Rita says. "I continued with outpatient therapy and regular check-ups at Rancho and I was getting stronger day by day." Soon Rita was back at college. She was also back on the track, but not as a competitor during the 2010 season. "My coaches and teammates at Glendale Community College wanted me to stay close to the team, so I sat out a year of competition and became an assistant coach for the track and field team." Last summer, Rita signed up to volunteer at Rancho. "I loved my stay there," Rita says. "I wanted to return the favor and be there to help." Like with most patients who come to Rancho, rosy outcomes are not quick or easy. Outstanding outcomes require hard work and tremendous expertise by a dedicated treatment team like the one at Rancho. This is a major reason why Rancho is the only hospital accredited in Pediatric Rehabilitation by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. "In an era where the healthcare industry is being asked to do more with less funding, Rancho continues to innovate so that we can help patients like Rita," says Rancho Chief Executive Officer Jorge Orozco. "Rancho makes it possible for our patients with major strokes, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, birth defects and other disabling conditions to build bridges to independence so they may return to their family, work or school," Against all odds, Rita has returned to the world of competitive track and field. "It was a long, hard road back, but I finally started running again," she says. "And this year, I am not only back on the team, I am a team captain." In fact, she plays a pivotal role on the team, because she competes in the 200 meters, 400 meters, 4x100 meter relay, 4x400 meter relay and the long jump. "Rita is an inspiration to every member of our team, and every student, teacher and administrator at our school, says Glendale Community College Track Coach Eddie Lopez. "Nobody is more dedicated or trains harder than Rita. She is like an angel who everyone loves and respects. What she has overcome is unbelievable. It just shows you how powerful the human spirit can be." "I have approached or surpassed my personal bests in every event I'm competing in," Rita says. "This season I have already cut my 400 meter time by almost five seconds and long jumped over 17 feet. I know that none of this would have been possible without the incredible care I got at Rancho. My doctors, therapists and nurses hung in there with me each day until I started to believe I could get back on the track. Now I am running faster than ever." Rita's story will be featured in a special video tribute at the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation's upcoming Amistad Gala, which will be held Saturday, May 7 at the Westin Long Beach Hotel. Despite all she has accomplished, Rita believes she's only just begun. "Now my dream is to come back to Rancho not as a patient, but as doctor, "Rita says. "I want to help others like me find hope and a pathway to a better life, just as Rancho has done for me." Dr. Montes believes she will succeed. "I know that when she reaches her goal, she will have special healing powers because of what she's learned from her own journey," Dr. Montes says. "The sky's the limit for Rita!" For more information, please call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit www.rancho.org.
********** Published: April 14, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 52