He was a devoted surfer, a star golfer, a handsome, popular young man from Ojai living life to the fullest. She was an avid traveler who loved backpacking and being in the outdoors. She had already earned her master’s in health education and was studying to be a life coach.

Ryan Clem and Gina Bartiromo of Camarillo were right where they wanted to be in their young lives. They had friends, dreams, plans, unlimited potential. Then came a single event for each of them that changed their lives forever.

Clem was just out of high school, two months into his freshman year of college in Santa Barbara on the night a friend had a party in the Ojai foothills. He was walking down the winding road back to his car when a drunk driver careened toward him. Clem leaped to the side, but the car veered the same way, crashing into him. Clem’s foot got caught in the wheel well and he was dragged 100 feet before coming free. His leg was almost severed, his head was smashed and his neck was broken. He was gushing blood and convulsing at the scene. Witnesses could not imagine that he would survive. 

 
The young student was in a coma for two and a half months before he slowly began to emerge. Deep inside the blackness, he did have some sense of self. He certainly felt pain. He remembers voices telling him not to be afraid, that he would be all right. He could feel the tubes passing inside his nose, going down into his throat. He felt constraints on his legs and his neck. His body was numb and he could not move or even open his eyes.  He tried to talk, but he could not get a sound out. It all seemed like a terrible dream.

In time, Clem could recognize familiar voices: his mother, father, his brothers, his best friends. There were equal parts of pain and confusion. They were talking to him, offering encouragement, and he wanted to respond to the people he loved. “But all of my feelings were inside my head,” Clem remembers. “I could not communicate anything with anybody. I was trapped inside myself. I felt so lonely.”

It took four months before Clem fully emerged from the coma — only to face a long, daunting battle to resume his life. He had a serious brain injury.

 

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Ryan Clem (center) with his two brothers months after his accident with a drunk driver who had hit him while he was walking down a road to his car.

Bartiromo was 35 years old on the day that changed her life. She had spent seven years working in mother and baby education, then taken two years off to travel to Australia and New Zealand, where she backpacked without an agenda, soaking up new experiences, pursuing “adventure.” Now she was back in California with a clarified goal: returning to school to earn certification as a life coach.

It was June 2009 and Bartiromo was visiting Yosemite National Park with some friends. June 6 was the day she climbed Half Dome with her friends Vanessa and Peter. They had made it to the top with a considerable effort, but no significant problems.

 
They were starting the climb back down a little later in the day than they would have liked. As they began the descent, the weather was changing. Bartiromo remembers being very cold. 

   
The story made the national news: young woman falls from Half Dome … and survives!  Bartiromo does not remember the details, but her friends and other witnesses tell her that she was having problems gripping the thick metal cables installed to aid hikers make their way on the granite surface. Disaster hit at a place where one of the support poles holding the trail cables in place was uprooted from the rock, allowing the cable to go slack.  Bartiromo’s grip and footing were disrupted, compromising her stability.

Suddenly Bartiromo slipped, slid and flew down the steep rock face, her body tumbling more than 150 feet, bouncing like a rag doll, until she hit a tiny ledge at just the right angle to bring her to a sudden stop. She was unconscious, lying just four feet away from a sheer drop that would have crushed her on the rocks a thousand feet below.

 
The rescue helicopter made three desperate attempts to get to Bartiromo, but could not navigate through the low clouds and poor visibility. Just before darkness eliminated any possibility of air rescue, they made one final attempt.

The clouds broke and they got close enough to lower a Yosemite EMT with a stretcher basket. Bartiromo was rescued. She was alive, which seemed a miracle, and on the way to the closest hospital. For the next two weeks, she was only semiconscious, her list of injuries staggering: a skull fracture, shattered jaw, multiple compression fractures of the spine, many broken bones, countless lacerations. The cranial impacts and bleeding under her skull had also caused a brain injury.

 

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Gina Baritimo hiking nine months post fall, which had left her with serious injuries to her body and brain.

Brain injury has been in the news more than ever in the past year. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; the beating of Giants fan Ryan Stow at the Dodgers season opener; the thousands of incidents of brain trauma to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from roadside bombs and other explosions; the realization at all levels of sports that concussions must be handled with the greatest care and, even then, may lead to grave neurological consequences later in life.

In addition to traumatic impact, brain injury can be caused by infectious disease, heart attacks or high fevers. Every stroke is a brain injury. Regardless of the cause, an injured brain does not heal as other parts of the body do. A serious brain injury never fully heals.

Those lucky enough to survive brain injuries — like Clem and Bartiromo, Giffords and Stow — face daunting recoveries. Often they plunge into prolonged comas and ultimately emerge unable to speak or walk. Their brains do not remember how. Difficult, meticulous rehabilitation and educational therapies are necessary to restore those most basic functions.

Even after that, the challenges can last a lifetime: confusion, headaches, anger, inability to drive a car. No longer able to continue careers or perhaps work at all. Personalities change profoundly. Marriages and relationships often do not survive the life changes. Even friends stop coming around.  Brain injury victims without families to help often end up on the street.

In time, the fortunate brain injury survivor leaves the hospital. But that is only one step in a lifetime of challenges for the survivor and his or her family.

Clem continued his rehabilitation after leaving the series of hospitals that treated him.  Things were not the same, nothing came easily, but he did the best he could. He returned to college, this time at Coastline College in Orange County, where helping people with brain injuries was a special focus. Two years later, he returned home to Ojai and enrolled at Ventura College.

He also made an important discovery. There was an organization close to home dedicated to helping people like him. Clem made contact with the Brain Injury Center of Ventura County, attended one of its support groups in Ventura, and he remains actively involved to this day. He has made a number of new friends. They can relate to what he’s going through.

“I have a whole new group of friends now,” Clem said. “They’re true friends and hopefully our friendships will last all our lives. They’re the only ones who really understand what it feels like to have a brain injury.”

The Brain Injury Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping brain injury survivors and their families adjust to this monumental life change. In addition to support groups in several VC communities, it conducts free monthly workshops on different aspects of living with brain trauma, stages the annual Ventura County Brain Injury Conference, one of the leading educational forums in the West, offers advice, education and referral services to survivors and families, and books as many speaking engagements as it can to help county residents gain better understanding of this profound disability. In these programs, survivors talk about what it is like living with a brain injury.

Today Clem, continues taking classes at Ventura College, believing that school is the only way to get anywhere in life.  He’s determined to earn his A.A. degree, then move on to a four-year university. But it’s not easy, not like it used to be. He exercises daily to regain his strength and overcome chronic neck pain and other lingering problems. Clem tried to resume surfing, one of his life’s greatest joys, but now that his neck is fused he finds it too painful.

One of Clem’s goals for the future is to help others recover from brain injury. Back before his accident, he wanted to become a lawyer. He loved flying and hoped to get his pilot’s license. Those goals now seem out of reach. And so he would like to become a counselor, using his communication skills to help others overcome their own serious problems. He has made numerous public appearances around Ventura County, speaking about brain injury — his experiences and what he’s learned from it all.

Bartiromo’s body was broken by her fall off the mountain, but her spirit remained powerful. “The experience has been amazing — like a rebirth,” she says. “Many new possibilities have opened up for me.” She refers to the event as “the fall,” not “the accident.” She continues to do some mother and baby education and has a new focus that is bringing meaning to her life. Twenty months after her accident, Bartiromo earned her certification as a yoga instructor. She is now teaching yoga in Ventura and Camarillo, getting paid for doing something she loves.

“I am continuously amazed at my body’s healing ability, and yoga has significantly helped with that process,” Bartiromo said. “Even more than that, yoga tunes me in to my body, which draws me toward my deeper truth. In teaching yoga, I’m hoping to share the value of awareness and mind-body connection.” 

 

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Gina Bartiromo in Yosemite the day before her fall from Half Dome in June 2009.

 
Fortunately, Bartiromo’s brain damage proved to be somewhat less extensive than that of many other people she has met. “I still have problems with word searching, short-term memory, my eyesight and bouts of fatigue, but I feel I’m making progress,” she reports. “I’m working at it. The tools and techniques I’ve learned through my rehab and through the Brain Injury Center are definitely working.”

Bartiromo discovered the center’s  support group in Camarillo and credits the organization with helping her considerably in her recovery. “I would see others in my same shoes and I knew that I was not alone,” she reports. “BIC provided me with so many resources to meet the physical and emotional challenges — the life challenges. My family really benefited, too. They learned a lot so they could be there for me, understand what I was going through and help me more.” 

       
Through this entire experience, Bartiromo has developed a solid determination to help others, through yoga and life coaching.  She, too, has made television appearances and spoken to groups throughout the county in behalf of the Brain Injury Center.  “I want to help others by telling my story,” she says.  “There have been so many miracles … that I am still even here today … and getting as much as I can out of life.  I’m so grateful that my life is turning out so well!”

Helping others is a common goal among people with brain injuries. Whenever someone in his support group needs assistance, Clem is the first to step forward with an offer to help. “Why should I feel sorry for myself when maybe I can do something for someone else?” he asks. “If I possibly can, I’ll always help someone who needs it. There’s always someone worse off than you.” 

 

The third annual Ventura County Brain Injury Center conference will be held on Saturday, March 24, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Ventura County Office of Education, 5100 Adolfo Road, Camarillo. Dr. David Hovda, Director of UCLA Brain Injury  Research Center will be the keynote speaker.

David Wilk is an author and former journalist who lives in Ventura with his wife, Terryle and their niece, Memory McAdams. Memory has a brain injury. Wilk became involved in the brain injury cause six years ago and serves as president of the Brain Injury Center of Ventura County. The Brain Injury Center serves all of Ventura County. Support groups and most programs are free. They can be reached at 482-1213  —  or online at wwwBrainInjuryCenter.org.