Long road back: Recovery continues for CHS studentBy Jay Turner
On a Friday evening in early March, self-proclaimed “homebody” Debbie Hildred took her seat at a Watertown restaurant for a rare night out with friends. A short while later, her cell phone rang, and before she could even process what she was hearing the mother of five was en route to Boston Medical Center, where her youngest child, 16-year-old Alexandra, was being rushed into surgery in a desperate effort to save her life.
All Debbie knew at that point was that her daughter, a sophomore at Canton High School, had been in a “serious” car accident with some of her friends and had sustained major head and brain trauma. Alexandra, as Debbie would later learn, had been riding in the back seat on the passenger side when the car collided head-on into a pickup truck on York Street around 6 p.m.
The State Police have still yet to release its report on the accident, but it is Debbie’s understanding that alcohol and drugs were not a factor in the crash. The six teenagers, all CHS students, were headed to the Hildreds’ house to drop off Alexandra, who was recovering from a recent tonsillectomy and was expected home to watch her nephew. The five other teens, including all four members of the band The Hellfire Club, were then planning to drive to a local venue, where the band had a scheduled gig.
But in the blink of an eye, all six lives, as well as the lives of their family and friends and the driver of the other vehicle, were dramatically altered.
“It’s the biggest nightmare you’ll ever have as a parent,” said Debbie, who first learned of the accident from her older daughter Sarah after police showed up at their home.
While most of the injuries sustained in the accident were non-life-threatening, two of the teens — Alexandra and Vanessa Galante, who was also riding in the back of the vehicle — suffered critically serious injuries and were rushed by ambulance to BMC.
Debbie said the severity of Alexandra’s injuries became immediately apparent when she spoke to the neurosurgeon by phone while driving to the hospital.
“He said that they couldn’t wait for me to get there and that they had to operate right away,” she recalled. “He explained that there was extensive swelling on her brain stem and they had to relieve the pressure. At that point I was just like, ‘Do whatever you can do. Just do it.’”
The initial surgery, in which the doctors removed a portion of her skull, lasted approximately seven hours. Debbie said the medical staff was very honest about her prognosis, indicating that it was “very serious” and that they would be happy if she made it through the night.
“It was tough walking in and seeing her after the surgery,” Debbie recalled. “They had intubated her. There was a bolt in her head monitoring the pressure in her brain. I was just hoping and praying every hour that she made it through.”
Vanessa suffered injuries that were very similar to Alexandra’s, including multiple fractures in her face, skull, orbital bone, and back. She also lost permanent vision in one of her eyes, although luckily the bleeding in her brain stopped before it caused any lasting damage.
“It was a nightmare; it was awful,” said Vanessa’s mother, Pam Galante, who was at a movie — celebrating her birthday — when she received the phone call from police.
Like Debbie, Pam and her husband, Richard, headed straight into Boston, hoping for the best yet admittedly fearing the worst.
It has now been almost nine weeks since that unforgettable Friday night, and while the emotional scars undoubtedly remain fresh, most of the teens have returned to a semblance of their normal lives.
The four members of The Hellfire Club are all back in school, and one of them — Claire Fichman, who broke her ankle in the crash — has progressed from using a wheelchair to walking with the aid of crutches.
Amazingly, even Vanessa, who endured major facial reconstruction surgery, has recovered remarkably well given the circumstances and just recently began her transition back to school. She will never regain her vision in the eye that was damaged; however, she looks great and is in surprisingly good spirits, according to her mother.
At this point, the one with the longest road to recovery is still Alexandra, who survived those tentative first few nights but remains hospitalized at Spalding Rehabilitation Center in Boston.
“She’s going to have a lot of lost time from this accident,” acknowledged Debbie, “and it’s changed all of our lives, the whole family.”
At minimum, Alexandra is expected to remain at Spalding for at least the next few months, where she will undergo a comprehensive treatment program to promote recovery from a major traumatic brain injury (TBI). Eventually, she will have to have a cranioplasty to repair her skull and will likely need reconstructive work done on her eyes.
“This is definitely not something you picture yourself doing — living in a hospital, living in a rehab, seeing a lot of things that are really scary,” said Debbie. “I can’t even think of the date and it’s been two months.”
And yet if there is anywhere that Debbie would want to be right now it is Spalding, one of the largest rehab facilities in the country and one of the very best at treating brain injuries. The staff there is “brutal” but “phenomenal” with its therapy, she said, and the results thus far have been truly remarkable compared to where Alexandra began.
“It’s just fantastic here,” said Debbie. “From not even speaking and not getting out of bed, now she’s walking in a walker. She has full conversations, although her short-term memory is still off. It’s sort of like the movie 50 First Dates.”
Alexandra has also benefitted greatly from the support of her friends, who visit her every week; her boyfriend, who lives in Rhode Island but still makes regular trips to Spalding; and her “very supportive” siblings, including brothers Ryan, Ian, and Corey.
Ryan, who has been dealing with a serious medical condition of his own over the past few weeks, visited her almost every day on his lunch break until recently.
“It’s things like that, when I see a big smile on her face, that help me get through all of this,” noted Debbie. “Also, my faith — I’m Catholic — I would never be able to get through any of this without it. It’s a support that I needed personally.”
Like Debbie, Pam Galante has chosen to look on the bright side amid all of the anguish of the past few months, praising the surgeons for their “amazing” reconstructive work and thanking God that she didn’t lose her daughter.
And both parents also expressed hope that the accident might serve as a wakeup call, especially considering that their injuries, at least to some extent, could have been avoided had they been wearing a seatbelt.
“Hopefully something good could come out of this,” said Debbie, “maybe to let people know that it isn’t just worrying about drinking and driving. Something that they might think of as a small thing — to buckle up — could actually change a person’s life forever.”
In an effort to support Alexandra and her family as she continues along the path to recovery, The Hellfire Club (Alex Milewski, Claire Fichman, George Ghantous, and Jordan Barros) is planning to hold a “Band Aid for Alexandra” benefit concert, tentatively scheduled for Friday, May 25, in the Canton High School cafeteria. More details will follow in next week’s issue of the Citizen.
“I hope it will be an opportunity for the school community to show its support,” said Sue Harrington, Claire’s mother, who is helping to organize the event along with Andrea Milewski.
A fund is also being established to help defray the extraordinary costs of Alexandra’s medical treatment. In the meantime, donations are still welcome and can be sent directly to the Canton Citizen, c/o Alexandra Hildred Fund, 866 Washington Street, Canton, MA 02021. For more information, call the Citizen at 781-821-4418, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Donations should be made payable to “Alexandra Hildred Fund” and sent to HarborOne Credit Union, 95 Washington Street (Village Shoppes), Canton, MA 02021.
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