This time last year, Gianna Cotroneo was in a wheelchair, her back in a brace and on the mend after a sledding crash fractured part of her spine.
This time last year, doctors had told the Woodbury teenager she had a slim chance of walking again — and even if she was able to, it could take up to two years, maybe more.
What a difference a year — and simple determination — makes. By early December, the most visible sign the 16-year-old had been hurt was her left foot dragging when she walked. Her progress has stunned her doctors.
“When Gianna came in … we didn’t see evidence of functioning of the spine below her injury,” said Dr. Tom Novacheck, an orthopedic surgeon at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.
“It was a complete loss of spinal cord function to now being nearly normal,” Novacheck said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Such a recovery seemed unlikely Dec. 18, 2005. Up north for the holidays, Gianna and a cousin decided to go sledding that day. On one run, they slammed into a tree. Gianna — riding in the front of the sled — bore the brunt of the impact. One of her lower Thoracic Vertebrae shattered.
She was airlifted to Regions Hospital in St. Paul and underwent eight hours of surgery. Metal pins were inserted into her spine. She was transferred to Gillette for recovery.
Gianna’s mother, Deb Cotroneo, said doctors at first told her Gianna might be paralyzed permanently.
But “I never had a doubt” Gianna would walk again, her mother said. “I never bought into what the doctors said. … I refused to let anyone use the ‘P’ word.”
Gianna had her doubts, at first. But progress came quickly. In what Deb Cotroneo called a “Christmas miracle” about a week after the crash, Gianna was able to lift her legs while sitting and control movement in her thighs and hip flexors.
She eventually began walking short distances with a walker. The teen pushed herself to reach her goals.
“I wanted to walk,” Gianna said. “I was very determined to.”
But she still relied on a wheelchair when she left Gillette in January, after more than a month in the hospital.
She returned to school in January, hoping to attend classes full time. But the constant medication she was taking made her ill; she couldn’t keep food down when she sat up and would spend nearly 20 hours a day sleeping. At 5-foot-1, she dropped to 84 pounds.
When Gianna went out in her wheelchair, she felt the stares of strangers and classmates. She felt self-conscious and hated how the wheelchair limited her.
“It was so hard to get around,” she said. “We went to Target with some friends, and things weren’t at the same level as I.”
She also was frustrated she couldn’t join her friends on some outings, including prom. It all proved to be emotionally difficult for Gianna.
“(Sometimes) I would wake up in the middle of the night, crying,” she said.
The support of family, friends and the community was a bright spot. Several people donated to a benefit fund to help pay for Gianna’s medical bills. Others, including local businesses, chipped in to make the Cotroneos’ two-story town home more handicap-accessible.
Gianna’s health improved near the end of March, and she returned to school after spring break. Things have been much smoother since then.
She worked as a nanny for two small children last summer and last month got a job working at a Woodbury store. She started dating her boyfriend, Mike Bryant, and she continued regaining strength in her leg muscles.
By the time Gianna celebrated her 16th birthday in August, she had stopped using a walker and her wheelchair was a thing of the past.
Now she weight-trains at school and no longer undergoes the physical therapy that at first was twice-a-day for six days every week.
Gianna’s hospital visits aren’t finished, though. She returned to Gillette on Dec. 19 for a one-year follow-up and was told she may need surgery in six months to remove the pins from her back. Her mother worries Gianna may need hip or knee replacements in the future because her left ankle rolls sometimes.
But they know they’ve come a long way — and her doctors say so, too.
“I don’t think you can say anything other than it’s fantastic,” Novacheck said. “She’s had a phenomenal recovery that well exceeded expectations.”
There are still things she can’t do, such as jumping very high or running. Going up stairs can also be taxing, as is swimming, and Gianna tires easily if she stands for extended periods of time or walks long distances.
The injury and recovery have been eye-opening, the Cotroneos said. Gianna has more understanding for people who use wheelchairs, often wanting to tell them she knows what they’re going through, and she plans to be a volunteer mentor to children in similar situations.
“We’ve both become more compassionate,” Deb Cotroneo said. “We appreciate people and life a lot more now, knowing how quickly things can change in such a freaky way.”
And they’ve both learned a lot about what Gianna is capable of.
“I didn’t realize how strong I was,” Gianna said.
BY NANCY YANG