GEORGETOWN — Sometimes life as we know it can change in an instant.
When Chrissy Borgiorni parked her car in the lot and headed toward Georgetown High School one fall day in 2002, she probably had all the typical thoughts running through her head that most juniors in high school do. The teen was an "A" student, captain of the cheerleading squad and a competitive dancer who dreamed one day of attending college to become a nutritionist.
But the moment Borgiorni stepped off the curb and into the crosswalk that leads over Route 97 toward the high school, her life was irrevocably changed. The driver of the oncoming car was speeding, the road that October morning was slick — and the result was tragic.
When she awoke from a coma two weeks later, Bongiorni was confronted with a world very different from the one she had known. The accident had left her with a traumatic brain injury. Physically and mentally broken, she had to begin the lengthy and arduous process of rehabilitation and healing. She had to relearn basic functions and come to accept that her brain would never again work the way it used to.
But this is not a story of tragedy, rather of the indomitable will to triumph.
It was a miracle that Bongiorni survived after being plowed down by a speeding car, a miracle that she was able to re-teach herself to eat and move afterward. And this spring, she reached another miraculous milestone when she attended commencement at Gordon College in Wenham to receive a hard-earned diploma.
"Chrissy is one of the most hardworking and upbeat students I have worked with in my 19 years at Gordon," said Sarah Smith, an ASC communication specialist at Gordon, "She has a great sense of humor, and I always feel refreshed after meeting with her because she is funny, she is genuinely thankful to be able to be in college, and because her attitude and work ethic are so inspiring."
Because of the injury to her brain, Bongiorni has no memory of the accident or the five months leading up to it, nor can she clearly recall the months she spent getting inpatient and outpatient rehab. In the early days, the main goal of the therapy was just to get her to the point where she could walk again.
"Balance was the issue — along with being able to remember to put my heel down first on every step," she said. Because the right side of her brain was affected, it directly impacted the function of her left arm. It still takes supreme concentration for her to be able to open and close her left hand. To manage her physical disabilities, she goes to the gym faithfully each day to stretch and do therapeutic exercises.
But the biggest ongoing struggle has been learning how to compensate for her short-term memory limitations — a disability she may have to cope with for the rest of her life.
"It interferes with learning, functioning and having relationships," she said. "What my professor lectured about in class is gone from my memory in 15 minutes." She also has trouble with other things most college kids take for granted, like reading, studying, memorizing a schedule or learning new faces and names. "You may have told me your name five minutes ago, but I will forget it. Now, everything is an extra effort for me."
Smith said, "Chrissy compensates for her short-term memory challenges by being extremely organized and diligent. She carries a planner around with her and a supply of Post-It notes. She writes everything down, checks and double checks, communicates with her professors by email and going to their offices, and generally manages her disability by a combination of diligence and true grit."
It was this determination that drove Bongiorni to graduate from Georgetown High School in 2005, a year after her classmates. She went on to Northern Essex Community College for three years before transferring to Gordon in 2008.
While at one time "obsessed" with the idea of becoming a nutritionist, Bongiorni said her brain injury "put an end to those particular dreams." Her memory issues impeded her ability to retain the information and concepts needed to pursue that career path. So, instead, she obtained a degree in communications. She currently works writing promotional material for a real estate agency, but her real love is public speaking.
Last year, Bongiorni told her story for the entire Gordon campus during an evening chapel program. She discussed her accident, showed pictures of her life before the accident and was candid about her current challenges.
"And she told it without a trace of self-pity and with lots of great humor," Jo Kadlecek, senior writer for the Office of College Communications and a member of the Communication Arts faculty said.
"Chrissy is one of the most resilient people I know. She doesn't let her disability get in the way of her achievement, and she's passionate about sharing her story. You can tell that she doesn't do it for herself, but she's all about inspiring others," said Smith.
Bongiorni credits her teachers, her friends and, most of all, her family for helping her stay positive and reach her goals.
"I was always taught by my parents to try your best and never give up. So, I guess that spirit was always in me — and now in even more ways than before my injury," she said.
"I kept working at learning how to improve physically and to accept and grow from the changes in the way my brain worked. My degree not only means that I have learned information; it really means that I can accomplish what my mind is set on — well, after the hard work, of course."