Fighting Spirit Lifts SCU Distance Signee

June 23, 2005

By Emanuel Lee
San Mateo Daily Journal

Alyssa Gagliani would not quit.

As she lay in an ambulance bound for Stanford Hospital on the night of March 1, the Burlingame High senior thought about her own mortality. Moments earlier, driving home during a heavy downpour after watching the Serra High basketball team play in a Central Coast Section Division I semifinal at Foothill College, Gagliani's 1993 GMC Jimmy flipped over nose first three times six feet down an embankment just before the Highway 280-92 interchange after someone swerved into her lane and came within inches of making contact. Gagliani suffered a shredded aorta, broken back, fractures to her tibia and fibula and a torn right medial collateral ligament (MCL). But in her darkest hour, the one thing Gagliani thought about was helping someone else.

"I saw that the paramedics had my wallet (to look for identification)," she said. "In it I knew I had my organ donation sticker and thank God. That's what I would've wanted if it came to that."

Of course, it never did. The fact that she was thinking about organ donation in a time of crisis tells you all you need to know about Alyssa Gagliani. It's her warmth, generosity and fighting spirit that contributed greatly to her being alive today. Doctors refer to Gagliani as a medical miracle -- and with good reason. Although she had damage to her aorta, there wasn't a major tear and the outer wall was completely intact -- the best case scenario in a life threatening situation.

"The doctors said they had never seen something like this before," Gagliani said. "Basically, the aorta folded and protected itself. God or a guardian angel was with me."

Gagliani spent six hours in surgery the next day, two for the aorta and four hours for her back. Considering that the original estimate for surgery time for the two procedures was 12-15 hours, Gagliani felt extremely fortunate. Her lower lumbar vertebrae -- L3 in medical circles -- were fused with her second and fourth with pins. The accident could've easily left her paralyzed; instead, the 17-year-old suffered clean breaks that will allow her for a "99 to 100 percent recovery."

All told, the 5-foot-6 Gagliani spent seven days in Stanford Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, eight days in the acute ward and 11 days at the Mills Acute Rehab Center in San Mateo before she was able to go home. She is on crutches and will be able to walk on her own power within the next month or two, if not sooner. She will be able to graduate, go to her school prom and tie her shoes, simple things she would have never thought possible. Through the entire process, Gagliani was appreciative of the tremendous support she received.

"I can't even count how many people came to my hospital room," she said. "There was some people that I hadn't seen since I was 5. It was really powerful. When people think of you that way, it just makes me feel very special."

Until the accident, Gagliani's senior year had been filled with euphoria. In November, she finished fourth in the Peninsula Athletic League cross-country championships by running a career-best time of 18 minutes, 47 seconds at the 2.96-mile Crystal Springs Course in Belmont. Three weeks later, she set a school record in the 5,000 meter Division III race at the state championships in Fresno. A year earlier, at the completion of her run in the Central Coast Section meet, paramedics were called in to aid Gagliani, whose asthma problems -- something that she developed only during her junior year -- had caused her to faint. That season, she could barely finish workouts, let alone races. In a sport where an extra burst of air can often mean the difference between first and second, Gagliani found it difficult to breathe.

"I got so frustrated dealing with the asthma that I considered not running (competitively) again," Gagliani said. "But I was able to get the asthma under control, and I've always had a passion for getting up that hill no matter how far it is. You keep on working until you get there."

"She's easily the most courageous, hardest working and most enthusiastic athlete I've ever coached -- bar none," said Burlingame cross-country coach Steve O'Brien, who is also an assistant track and field coach for the school's long distance runners. "Her willpower and drive will help her come back and get her through this. The day of her accident, the track team had a great run. It was the happiest I had ever seen her."

Gagliani is the CCS record holder in the steeplechase -- the state of California no longer holds this event -- and she was gearing up for a great season. But make no mistake about it: Gagliani will run competitively again. Santa Clara University didn't take any money away after offering her a partial athletic scholarship before her injuries, and Gagliani plans on running in the fall of 2006 for the Broncos' cross-country team. She also plans on competing for the university's track and field team. Never one to take life for granted, Gagliani realizes just how lucky she is.

"I had some of the best trauma doctors in the nation," she said. "You couldn't be in better hands. And now I'll be a case study for life. The head vascular surgeons on the West Coast have already put together a Power Point presentation, sent out e-mails and I guess documented my situation in medical (literature). One of my surgeons told me that my case was the type of stuff they live for because it was rare. With this new information you can save lives and help people with similar injuries benefit in the future. Basically, I was their little test."

A test of the human spirit.