Dec. 1 was one of the first really cold nights of the season. It was the wee hours, and two women happened to be on Route 3 North, each on her way home. Their paths would cross in what became a life-saving coincidence — or maybe more providential than coincidental.
Felicia Catarella is a personal trainer and had to be at
Absolutely Fit in Hingham early. Instead of staying over at her boyfriend’s house in Plymouth, she got in her car and set out for home in Weymouth. She’d had vertigo for several weeks, and when she got in the car, she felt a bit light-headed.
Christine Curtis is a nurse with Hospice of the South Shore, and works the overnight shift, going wherever and whenever the calls take her. She had just left a patient’s home in Plymouth, and was heading home to Holbrook.
It was 2 a.m., and there were few cars on the road. Something — Curtis can’t explain it — directed her eyes to the right side of the highway. “There was no reason why I should have seen her,” she says. “Her car was black or dark blue, there were no lights on, and she was off the road, down an embankment.”
Nonetheless, Curtis, 36, somehow noticed what appeared to be a mangled car. She pulled over and dialed 911. It was pitch dark, and Curtis used a flashlight to help find the car.
“All I could see was her hand,” says Curtis. “I yelled out, ‘Is anyone there?’ ”
“Help me!” came the answer.
Catarella had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and hit the guardrail, on which her car was now impaled. “When the guardrail came into her car,” says Curtis, “it flipped her into the passenger seat and she was lying pinned face down in the back seat. I never saw her face the entire time. I knew as long as I could keep her talking, she was still with me.”
Before she went into shock, Catarella gave her name and address.
State troopers, Duxbury police, and firefighters arrived. Route 3 was closed to allow the Medflight helicopter to land. After firefighters cut her out of her car, Catarella was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital.
Her injuries were life-threatening, and both women believe Catarella could have bled to death if help hadn’t arrived when it did.
“I can’t describe the pain,” says Catarella, who is 24. “I couldn’t move, I could feel blood pouring down my face, and I could feel the warmth of blood moving through my body.”
She was at Mass General for three weeks, including 10 days in an induced coma. She then spent two months at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston before being sent to a skilled nursing home in Quincy for 10 days, and finally to Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital for 12 days. She was released in mid-March, three and a half months after the accident.
Catarella ticks off the list of her injuries: “I had a concussion, a broken arm, a broken femur in two places, a shattered hip, a shattered pelvis, a separated pubic bone, a bruised sciatic nerve, a broken nose, and a collapsed lung.”
In addition, she had a large open wound on her right thigh where the guardrail sliced her leg: “I lost a lot of muscle; it looks like I have a large shark bite.”
It took 50 screws to put her pelvis back together. She’s got a rod in her left leg, a metal plate in her left arm. Doctors did a skin graft from her right thigh for the wound on her left one. She’s had 15 blood transfusions.
Because of the damage to her sciatic nerve, she has foot drop, or extension of the foot caused by paralysis of her flexor muscles, and wears a brace on her left leg. She’s using a walker to get around.
Doctors tell her she’s lucky to be alive, and attribute it to her youth and fitness — she doesn’t drink or smoke — and to Curtis’s timely intervention.
“If she hadn’t stopped, I’d be dead,” says Catarella, who is also on the fitness staff at the Weymouth Club. “Essentially, she saved my life because one of her patients died.”
Curtis can’t explain how she happened to notice the car; was it one of her former patients guiding her? “As silly as it sounds, something made me look over there,” she says. “To do my job, I really have to believe that there’s a kind of afterlife. That’s what makes my job OK, because I deal with death all the time.”
The other person Catarella credits with saving her — along with her doctors — is her boyfriend, Justin Twieraga. “He has been a huge part of my recovery,” she says. “He was there every single day; he spent hours and hours with me.”
They met at the Weymouth Club, where he has been a trainer for seven years. “Her attitude is amazing. I’ve never heard her yell or complain,” says Twieraga, who is 34.
“I’m never not in pain,” says Catarella, “but it’s to the point where I can get through it. I’m very lucky to be alive.” She knows she’s lucky, too, not to have spine or head trauma.
Catarella’s next challenge is to return to Simmons College, where she had just started studying for her PhD in physical therapy. She is enrolled to start this summer. “I always wanted to help people, and I thought physical therapy would be a good thing,” she says.
Twieraga is throwing a fund-raiser for her on April 26 at Presidents Rock Club in Quincy to help pay tuition (www.felicia.eventbrite.com). Christine Curtis hopes to be there.
The two have met, face-to-face, when Catarella was at Spaulding Rehab, and have stayed in touch. “For someone who has been through what she’s been through, she looks great,” says Curtis.
Despite what Catarella believes, Curtis doesn’t see herself as any kind of hero.
“I just stopped, which is what I hope anyone else would do,” she says.