ORANGE PARK – Gabriella Manges will walk to the dining room table and enjoy Thanksgiving with her family.
Her steps will be slow and calculated. Her balance will be shaky at times. But she will walk.
Six months ago, Manges wasn’t expected to live, much less walk after suffering critical injuries in a car crash on the on-ramp of Interstate 295 and U.S. 17.
The 20-year-old from Green Cove Springs doesn’t remember the accident or spending a month in the Intensive Care Unit at Orange Park Medical Center. She does recall being told it may take a year to get back on her feet after sustaining a significant brain injury, as well as a broken jaw, cheek and eye socket.
“There was a concern from the very beginning the brain injuries were significant enough that she was going to be neurologically compromised,” said Dr. Miren Schinco, OPMC’s Trauma Medical Director and one of the surgeons assigned to Manges. “In my 25 years, I’ve only seen a handful of people who’ve recovered to this level.”
Mary Manges, Gabriella’s mother, said her daughter’s chances of survival were set at 10% – provided she lived through the first night.
Manges returned to Orange Park last week to thank the emergency medical technicians, trauma team, surgeons and specialists who saved her life following her horrific early-morning crash June 13 when her car hydroplaned on the on-ramped, slid into the ditch separating the on-ramp with the interstate and became airborne before being struck in the driver’s door by a dump truck.
Lt. Matthew Anderson and Eng. William Gaskins of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s Rescue 61 were on the scene in seconds.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Anderson said. “We saw right away it was serious. We worked as quickly as we could to extract her from the car and get her to the hospital. We were the first step in a long chain.”
“They may have been the first step, but they were the most important,” Gabriella said.
Trauma Lead Todd Wimberley remembered the morning Gabriella was wheeled into the emergency room. Like most, he hoped and worked for the best, but expected a difficult outcome.
“We see a lot of traumatic brain injuries and most don’t work out as well as this,” he said. “It didn’t look good for her at all. We got her stabilized and up to ICU. From there, she was a fighter.”
Anderson was the first to greet Manges as she stepped into the lobby at OPMC. He gave her a vase of flowers as other fire, rescue and hospital officials applauded.
Manges spent a month at Orange Park before moving to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for recovery and rehabilitation.
“They told us it would at least a year before she’d walk again,” Mary Manges said. “But she’s a fighter.”
Mary Manges is demanding the Florida Department of Transportation install guardrails on the sweeping right-hand turn merge lane. The state said it will use high-friction pavement to avoid hydroplaning. Manges wants more.
“Gabriella was going 18 mph,” Mary Manges said. “There have been 33 similar accidents there – eight since Gabriella’s accident. When you lose control and hit that ditch, it sends you airborne into traffic. High friction pavement will help, but it will only reduce by a little. A guardrail will save lives.”
Anderson said he’s responded to several accidents on the same on-ramp.
“It was circumstances,” he said. “A puddle of water. That was it. She wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
Manges has stopped by the fire station a few times to visit with her rescuers. While she doesn’t remember anything about the crash, Anderson and Gaskins have become important fixtures in her life.
“God had a plan for her,” Anderson said. “To see how far she’s come is amazing.”
Dr. Schinco agreed.
“That’s the beauty of youth,” she said. “When she came to the hospital, it was bad. I’m pretty sure if I saw her now in the grocery, I wouldn’t think twice that she’s been through all of this.
“That’s a testament to the teamwork of the entire trauma team – the EMTS, trauma team, specialists. Obviously, it took a lot of hard work from her and her family. The amount of recovery, the speed of the recovery, is really amazing.”