“I was playing football with Lino and I was going down and I was hit by a car,” Dan Santillo said.
The accident happened on November 3, 1990. Dan and his now-wife Kris had just welcomed their daughter Jessica in September. Some family members wanted to visit the three of them, so Kris dropped Dan off at his parents’ house to watch a football game.
Kris left to go visit Dan’s aunt and uncle. A short time later, she got a phone call from Dan’s sister.
“I remember walking down this hallway to get the phone that was on the ground and it was like one of those nightmares where the hall is extending itself,” Kris said. “And I can just see that phone on the ground and as I picked it up, Dan’s sister had shared that Dan was hit by a car and she wasn’t sure what had happened but I needed to get home immediately.”
Dr. Mary Dombovy, MD, works at Golisano Restorative Neurology & Rehabilitation Center. She remembers seeing Dan come in a few weeks after his accident.
“He was still in a coma, had a breathing tube, feeding tube, not really responding,” Dombovy said.
“It was just the worst nightmare you could ever imagine,” Kris said. “But then again, each day was monumental.”
“We all knew that Dan was a survivor and that he would make it through.”
“A few weeks later, when he came to the rehabilitation unit at St. Mary’s, he was opening his eyes, looking around, responding by maybe moving as you touched him or looking at you if you spoke to him, but not really saying anything or speaking,” Dr. Dombovy said.
Dan was one of the first significantly impaired and seriously injured patients who was brought into the rehabilitation unit.
“We were elated when we found out that Dr. Dombovy was going to take Dan for in-patient as their first patient in a coma,” Kris said.
“I remember Kris and Dan’s parents talking to me and it’s, ‘We just want him to have some type of normal life,’” Dr. Dombovy said. “And at that time, I was worried about, with the potential complications here, he still may not survive this.”
Dan’s options were to go to St. Mary’s brain injury or another rehabilitation center out of state.
“We were beyond thrilled that Dan was going to be 15 minutes from home so we could visit him all day long and every day,” Kris said.
“Dan, once he became awake and you interacted with him, you could tell he was going to keep going,” Dr. Dombovy said. “He pushed himself.”
Dan’s days were filled with therapy. According to his family, he went daily from physical therapy to occupational therapy to speech therapy to recreational therapy.
In 1992, Dan and Kris got married. At that point, Dan was still in a wheelchair.
“[Dan’s] brother actually helped him walk down the aisle because it was really important to Dan that he walked,” Kris said. “So it was Dan and I and his brother walking back down the aisle together.”
Seeing how dedicated Kris was to Dan was very striking to Dr. Dombovy.
“I remember thinking, ‘She can just walk away from this. She could just walk away from him.’ But she didn’t,” Dr. Dombovy said. “She stuck there the whole time knowing that this is for the long term. And it’s incredible. Their story in and of itself what they’ve done is remarkable and a testament to Kris, Dan, and their entire family.”
As time went on and Dan was able to make progress, he was eventually able to make it to the point where he returned to work.
“So think about it: How many people say, ‘I can’t go to back to work because I have a sore back’ or whatever it is,” Dr. Dombovy said. “This gentleman was incredibly impaired and yet, that was what he wanted to do. He wanted to have a family, have a house some day, and work.”
“We knew that Dan was going to pull through, that he was going to be a miracle,” Kris said. “And he definitely is that miracle every single day. We have this beautiful life, our family, and despite anything that had happened to us, we’ve moved on and we have a great life together. And I think that’s really what matters. We made it through.”
“He was never an angry person and we were told sometimes with brain injury, sometimes personalities can change. Not Dan. He’s the same person that he was when I met him – the same loving person, sweet and kind.”
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