Column: Fiery wrong-way driver crash has surprise ending
San Diego woman turns a terrible, freak accident into a catalyst for healing
Every Nov. 4, Gianna Mauceri places flowers beside the I-5 north freeway near the Balboa Avenue exit.
The bouquets are in memory of a 21-year-old man who nearly killed her.
As she drove to her home in Encinitas in the fast lane of I-5 on Nov. 4, 2016, Mauceri, then 33, says she glimpsed a vehicle, with no lights on, coming straight toward her through the foggy mist.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in my car with the dashboard and windshield sitting in my lap. I couldn’t breathe.” Mauceri recalls seeing all four freeway lanes blocked, lit by the headlights of a long line of stopped vehicles.
“I remember a lot of people being around my car, trying to get in, but it was on fire.” Then along came her savior — a man who grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck and used it to put out the flames coming from the bashed front end of her Mitsubishi Eclipse as onlookers cheered. She never got to thank him.
The black sedan headed the wrong way had erupted into a fiery torch visible for miles. The CHP accident report identified the other driver, who died in the inferno, as a San Diego Miramar College student named Preet Sheth, who had been drinking with friends. His blood alcohol exceeded the legal limit.
Mauceri’s right arm was broken in half, her legs were trapped in the wreckage, and the driver’s door was jammed shut. Rescuers used the Jaws of Life to pry off the roof of her car to free her, then rushed her to the hospital.
That was the end of the story as far as media reports go. But now, nearly five years later, it’s important to share the rest of Mauceri’s tale because it changed her life — for the better.
“I was in a coma for a week, and woke up to many severe injuries.” Basically the right side of her body had been crushed, leaving a trail of broken bones from her feet to her neck. Her colon also was punctured.
Adding to the stress was the fact that Mauceri had no medical insurance. She was a recently divorced hair stylist, living from pay check to pay check, and now she was out of a job, as well. Plus, all her family was in Australia, where she had lived until moving to the United States in 2009.
She awoke from her induced coma, Mauceri says, “to the worst nightmare. I couldn’t feel or move my legs.” To make matters worse, she discovered 50 staples running down the middle of her stomach, holding it together.
Despite her shock, she was determined to recover.
She began focusing her mental energy and techniques she had learned for meditation, relaxation and breathing on her healing. Instead of self-pity, she envisioned this accident as the key to changing the path of her life, as a message to use her misfortune to help others recover from similar traumatic experiences.
Her journey of self-discovery had begun before the accident. She had been teaching yoga and working with a mentor to develop skills for integrative healing. “I realized, I’d been in training for this my whole life.”
But it took the tragic events of Nov. 4, 2016, to close the hair salon door and eventually open her own healing-from-within mentoring business in Ocean Beach.
After two weeks in the hospital and five surgeries, she spent another month in a rehabilitation facility. Each day she set new goals for her own recovery.
She raised and lowered her arm, used her breathing device, stretched and moved her body, meditated and practiced envisioning a healthy body.
“I would spend hours visualizing my bones healing, visualizing the way I wanted to feel and the way I wanted to see myself move again. There was no other way I could think of to get through this. I started to feel different and feel strong.”
Her doctors saw the improvement, too. They told her they couldn’t believe how quickly her bones were mending.
Meanwhile, her yoga community friends launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised about $12,000 to cover her rent and immediate necessities. Luckily, the other driver had insurance, and Mauceri later was informed of a settlement large enough to cover her medical bills and support her while she recovered. The welcome news was delivered on Dec. 23, 2016 — her 34th birthday.
As she healed, she took copious notes. Nearly five years later, she has turned them into a self-help book: “Soul of a Spirit Warrior: A True Story of Healing, Survival and Resilience,” available on Amazon.
“For me, it’s about getting the book into people’s hands so they can see there is help out there. That’s more important to me than any of the money.”
Mauceri finds that many people suffer from post-traumatic stress without knowing it. Car crashes are just one of many triggers — child abuse, abandonment, health scares, accidents, fires and witnessing shocking events are just a few other causes. This week, she visited with a client whose trauma related to the heroin addiction of a loved one.
“We can get through anything in life by finding the right support,” she insists.
Shortly after the crash, the family of the wrong-way driver reached out to Mauceri. She assured them that she forgave him — and she meant it.
“He was just a young boy, and he did something silly that cost him his life. I say a prayer for him all the time.”
And she never forgets the anniversary of his death, delivering flowers to the freeway in his memory. It is part of her healing, too.
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