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Jean’s Journey: Accident can’t stop trooper

Published: March 14, 2010  |  Source: delcotimes.com  | Spinal Cord Injury: ,

On her first vacation in 10 years, a severely injured Pennsylvania State Police trooper found herself being detained in Mexico by authorities investigating a fatal crash.

For 13 hours, Jean Altomari lay strapped to a spinal board in a primitive hospital some 1,500 miles from home. With her insurance card locked in a safe on a Carnival Legend cruise ship, treatment was minimal and an immediate transfer to a trauma center in Florida delayed. What little Spanish she knew wasn’t helping, and no one around her spoke much English.

Altomari, the aggressive trooper with the wide grin who just months prior was lauded for assisting in the delivery of a baby girl on I-95 near the Philadelphia International Airport — heard the voice over the phone and gave in, finally.

“Baby, where are you? What is the matter?” she heard the familiar voice say.

“I just unloaded on him,” Altomari, 30, said. “I felt like it was OK when I got Willard on the phone. Poor Tim, he got the brunt of it … But he made me feel better.”

Altomari was referring to PCO Tim Willard, a police communications officer for the Troop K Media Station, where she has been a patrol trooper since March 2007.

“I was in a room strapped to a hard board. The station was the only number I could remember,” said Altomari. At the hospital, she was given only steroids and pain medication, the latter of which made her vomit.

“Someone would tilt me over so I could throw up,” she said. “I remember the pain, just asking them over and over for something for the pain.”

Four days into a seven-day western Caribbean cruise, Altomari was a passenger in one of two Jeeps that collided in Cozumel, about 2:30 p.m. Nov. 18. She suffered a T12/L1 spinal-cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from a few inches higher than the waist down, and out of work.

She and four other women, including her life partner and Riddle Memorial Hospital paramedic Cheryl Anthony, 35, had rented a Jeep to go beach-hopping that sunny afternoon. Cozumel was their second stop along the much-anticipated trip, which also included the Cayman Islands, Belize and Honduras.

“We would have chewed through the earth to get to her,” Willard said of all those working at the barracks when he received the call. It is the only call in his seven years on the job that ended with him in tears.

“I can absolutely remember the anguish in her voice,” said Willard. “In my job, I can stop traffic with a phone call or a radio message. I felt like a helpless brother. It’s the absolute worst feeling in the world.”

Willard got the on-duty corporal, Todd Hoover, on the phone with Altomari. From there, word spread and the troops, on and off the job, rallied.

Families at work and home unite

As her only sibling lay in the Mexican hospital, 28-year-old Lori Altomari, a New York nurse, worked at a fever pitch to get Jean released from Mexico and transferred to a trauma hospital in Florida.

Though her first instinct was to get a flight to Cozumel, Lori Altomari was reminded by a friend that she needed to stay in the United States to start making all of the many necessary arrangements.

“I had two cell phones and a computer going all at once,” Lori Altomari said.

With so many things to unravel, beginning with the insurance nightmare, Lori Altomari admitted that helping her sister long-distance was a daunting task.

Enter then-Troop K Commander Capt. David Young and his old friend, retired PSP Capt. Robert V. Duprey.

Young, who recently retired, said one of his first concerns was to find out exactly what had happened on the island. He contacted some helpful federal Drug Enforcement Agents in Florida to find out what they knew.

Through the combined efforts of many people — and after all the bills were paid up front — Altomari was eventually flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. There, she underwent immediate surgery.

Once Anthony was released from custody in Mexico, she, too, was flown to Florida, hopping a ride on one of the other trip mate’s medevac flights to St. Petersburg.

“I was detained two days. I was in prison,” said Anthony, who suffered a broken right foot and left elbow in the accident.

When it was time for Altomari to begin rehab, after two weeks in the hospital, Duprey arrived in Florida. He offered his personal plane, co-piloted by Brian Sheller, to Altomari and her family.

“He flew me, my mom, my sister, my stepdad and all of our crap,” said Altomari.

When they landed at an airport in northern New Jersey, among the many welcoming faces were Young, and several fellow troopers and supervisors from Media. From there, Altomari was put into an ambulance and taken to the internationally recognized Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. She was there for 72 days.

While Altomari was at Kessler, Young again made a few more calls. Altomari’s sister said that not a day passed that Jean did not receive a visit from someone in law enforcement.

“You always hear about the brotherhood of police, but until you experience it, you don’t know. They’re so kind and so nice and we are so grateful,” said Kathy Cardinuto, Jean and Lori Altomari’s mother.

Lori Altomari had done the research to determine the best place for her sister to undergo rehab.

“Kessler was the best. It’s where Christopher Reeve went,” she said, referring to the late actor whose was left paralyzed after a fall from a horse.

Friends and family were able to follow Altomari’s progress at Kessler on JeansRoad2Recovery CarePage, through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center. Those who couldn’t visit sent cards and photographs. The wall in Altomari’s room was covered with all the well wishes.

She’s kept them all.

The new normal

Altomari is adjusting to life in a wheelchair — a hospital demo she’s proud to say they found on eBay at a fraction of the normal $6,000 cost. They paid $1,500, plus shipping.

“I never knew it was so expensive to be paralyzed,” Altomari’s mom said.

A week ago today, Altomari and Anthony — who is out of work as she continues to recover from her injuries — were enjoying a “new normal” Sunday afternoon in their home of two years. Joining them were Altomari’s mom and sister, and Anthony’s favorite niece and nephew, 12-year-old Gina Anthony and her brother, Michael, 14, of Haverford, and cats, Mischief, Luscious, Rocky and Monster.

There was a lot of love and laughter in the room that afternoon.

“Gina was a good texting-buddy when I was in the hospital,” Altomari said, drawing a smile from the chatty Haverford Middle School sixth-grader.

Altomari’s mom had been staying at the house since her release from Kessler Feb. 12. This was her last day before returning home, and to work.

“I hate to leave you,” she told her daughter.

Lori Altomari took unpaid leave from her job in Manhattan to stay with her sister for two weeks in Florida and then two weeks at Kessler. Lori’s now making weekend trips to Delaware County.

In Florida, Jean Altomari was told she had “an incomplete injury.” She later found out that the opposite was true. Though she is at the lowest percentage for recovery, Altomari said she’s doing everything she can to maintain strength, “just in case.”

She is continuing outpatient rehab at Magee in Philadelphia three days a week.

In-between, she’s keeping busy.

An unexpected blessing

Altomari, forever the determined athlete, was even released from Kessler almost three weeks earlier than expected.

“They told me at 5 o’clock the night before,” she said. Not only was the house not ready, there was 48 inches of snow outside, Anthony recalled.

On homecoming day, Feb. 12, members of Altomari’s squad were there.

Although Altomari is out of work, she remains in the thoughts of her fellow troopers. Several work buddies assisted in building an access ramp in front of her home, a weekend project led by L&S Contractors. The project also included a deck. Photographs on Facebook show a smiling Altomari watching through the front storm door.

“It’s just unbelievable that they’ve done all this with no qualms,” said Altomari, grateful beyond her words.

“She needs our help now. We are family, that’s how we feel,” said Cpl. Tim Keaveney, one of the volunteers. “When you see Jean and how she has responded to her injury, it’s inspiring. You want to draw from it. She makes you want to be a better person.”

Had this injury happened to someone else, Keaveney said, Altomari would be the first to offer to help.

According to Young, among the state’s 307 troopers, Altomari’s work performance stood out.

“Three years on the job and she earned the attention of the command staff,” said Young. “Jean showed herself to be better than her peers, and her peers are very good.”

Young, too, said he’s been in awe of Altomari.

“I would visit and think I was making her feel better, only I was leaving and I was feeling better,” he said. “She is teaching me how to deal.

“I got blessed to know someone special,” Young said.

What ifs

Upbeat by nature, Altomari has had her share of dark moments. “What if we had only stayed at the beach five minutes longer? What if we had two Jeeps instead of one? Take your pick, I’ve thought of all the what ifs,” Altomari said. “But this is it. I wake up every day now and it’s a different routine.”

Altomari said she feels lucky, having had the best doctors, the best therapists, the best of everything, along the way.

“I’m completely independent,” she said. “I met people at Kessler who for the rest of their lives will be asking, ‘Why me?’ But I couldn’t feel bad. I just had to look five feet to the right, or to the left, to see someone who had it worse. I just feel so bad for the people who gave up.”

Altomari is looking ahead to an active life. She would like to continue to play sports, though each one requires its own chair.

“It’s so expensive,” Altomari said, echoing her mother’s sentiments.

“Really, what’s the difference between this and a bicycle?” she said, pointing to the chair. “They are made of basically the same parts.”

Anthony is planning to have her Pathfinder retrofitted.

Altomari can’t wait to attend an Abilities Expo in May. She wants to see for herself exactly what is available, and what would work best for her.

In addition to the ramp outside, they’ve added a chair-lift inside.

Anthony said for the day or two before the chair lift was installed, they made due with whatever they had.

Luggage straps, for example.

“We wrapped the straps around Jean to pull her up the steps,” on her fanny, one step at a time, according to Anthony.

“We McGyver-ed her,” quipped Anthony, referring to the television show in the late 1980s about an oddly resourceful secret agent.

But with a plate and eight screws in her elbow and four plates and 14 screws in her foot, Anthony isn’t doing much lifting. She was happy to accept an offer from a firefighter friend, Chris Kline, to help Altomari up and down the steps.

In between rehab and other appointments, Altomari has spent a lot of time shopping, her least favorite pastime.

“It keeps you busy,” interjected Lori Altomari.

Jean Altomari has recently visited the Media Station. She even attended an informal retirement send-off at the Belmont Station for Young.

“He told me I had to come,” Altomari said, smiling. “So I did.”

At Belmont, she got a chance to say hi to Duprey. She thought he was kidding when he said he had just flown back from a humanitarian trip to Haiti to aid victims of the earthquake.

He wasn’t.

Happy birthday

Altomari, who wanted to be a state trooper because of the camaraderie and reputation for excellence, is buoyed by a desire to return to work ASAP.

“I was always very proud to wear my uniform,” she said. “You went out every day and made a difference.”

Graduation from the academy, which fell on her birthday, was one of her proudest moments. Another was the Saturday morning in August 2009 when she assisted at the birth of Elisabeth Lee Snyder.

“I don’t feel like something will ever feel that tremendous,” Altomari told the Daily Times in an interview a few days later.

Altomari is in the process of completing all the necessary paper work for potential limited-duty status. That her injury did not occur while at work would be a factor in the final decision, she said.

“It’s not out of the question for someone with Jean’s injury to come back to work for the Pennsylvania State Police,” Young said on his last day on the job.

“She is a remarkable individual. Any parent would like to have a daughter like Jean. Any employer would like to have Jean,” Young said. “She has a lot to offer. The book is not done on Jean.”

Anthony, who met Altomari through work, said this challenge has not changed the dynamic Jean Altomari.

“She is no different,” Anthony said. “She just sits down.”

By ROSE QUINN

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