For Survivors, A Rough Road
John Valenti

May 4, 2003

Seated at the table, Christopher Memoli is surrounded by girls. He is 18 and in a flirtatious mood. Off in the corner Eminem screams on the stereo.

A high school senior, Memoli watches as a young woman massages his right hand. His eyes grow wide. He looks at her, looks at me. He looks at the 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper in front of him -- the one with all the alphabet letters laid out like a keyboard; the one in the black loose-leaf binder that has become his constant companion -- and shakes his hand loose.

He begins to move his index finger fast and furious across the page, pointing at letters.

"N-O E-N-G-A-G-E-M-E-N-T R-I-N-G."

He winks and all of us in the room -- the three young women, who are physical therapists; his mother, Debbie; me -- break out in a fit of uncontrolled laughter. Even here, even now, Chris Memoli remains ever the good-natured class clown. His dark hair shaved short and his boyish face flush with a sense of the mischievous, he lets out a moan that is what passes for a laugh these days and struggles to form a smile, though it doesn't quite happen.

Outside the window, springtime is bursting forth from the shell of a long, dreary winter. Miles from here -- it might as well be a million -- Sachem High School is closed for spring break and the kids are off doing whatever kids do when there is no school.

You tell yourself that Memoli should be with them, not here. But the car accident changed all that. It took all of those carefree days with it.

So here he is in a third-floor room at Transitions of Long Island, a neuro-rehabilitation center in Manhasset run by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital, his muscles being stretched, massaged, flexed. So here he is -- he and those therapists -- trying to prod his now near-useless body into some sense of usefulness. Fighting to regain a life. Or something that will pass for it.

"When I look at Chris, it breaks my heart," Debbie Memoli said, earlier, over coffee and between tears. "He's 18. He's got a life ahead of him. But, I don't ask why it happened. I'm not going to get any answers. I'm just fortunate I didn't lose him."

For the next two weeks, in this newspaper, you will read about those not as fortunate as Chris Memoli. About people who died. Because for the past year a team of Newsday reporters studied a year-in-the-life of fatal motor vehicle accidents on Long Island.

What emerges is a sobering picture of life -- and of death -- on our roads.

But what about the thousands of accident victims across Long Island who are not killed, whose lives are changed forever in those fateful moments on some anonymous patch of asphalt or concrete? Who, like Memoli, come out of accidents left struggling to find some semblance of the life they had before.

For Memoli, it all began last July. He and some friends went to a house party. Some girls were there. The homeowners weren't.Some of the kids drank, depending on whom you believe. Some swam in the pool. A couple even climbed into bed, according to a written statement given to police.

Somewhere near dawn the next morning, Memoli found himself watching "A Bronx Tale" with a girl named Michelle D. Mermigas.

She is from Holtsville and attended Sachem with Memoli, who is from Lake Grove. He was 17. So was she. She had told her mother she was staying the night with a girlfriend in Farmingville.

Now, as the sun started to rise, Mermigas decided she did not like what was going on in the house. When two of the boys decided to go on a bagel run, she said she wanted to go, too, if just to get out of the house for a while. But by the time Mermigas reached the driveway, the boys were gone. So she asked a friend for the keys to a Jeep Cherokee.

Mermigas only had a junior license. She wasn't supposed to drive. Her mother said she did not have permission from the vehicle owner -- the girlfriend's father -- to drive the Jeep. But no sooner had she gotten behind the wheel than there was Memoli, a beer in hand, according to the statement Mermigas gave police, getting into the Jeep to go with her.

It was all pedestrian stuff. Until, that is, the drive back from the store. Two of the boys were in one car. Mermigas was still driving the Jeep with Memoli, who was not wearing his seat belt, in the passenger seat. Out on Portion Road, east of Avenue C in Ronkonkoma, Mermigas decided to play a little cat-and-mouse game with the other boys and so she tried to pass their car. "I wanted to have some fun," she wrote in her statement. But no sooner had she pulled around a line of cars and stepped on the gas than, suddenly, a car in front of her stopped.

Mermigas had not been drinking. She had no alcohol in her system. She was never charged with a crime. But she was an inexperienced driver, her mother said. And she panicked. When she did she turned the wheel too hard to the right and lost control. She drove off the road, hit a guardrail.

The Jeep flipped at least three times, according to eyewitnesses, and hit a tree.

By the time tires had stopped screeching, metal had stopped crunching and glass had stopped shattering, Mermigas, still buckled in her seat belt, had suffered facial lacerations, a bloodied mouth, a puncture wound in her right hand and a punctured lung. But without a seat belt to restrain him, Memoli had been thrown into the back of the Jeep.

Debbie Memoli got the call not long after that. Her husband had died 16 months earlier of brain cancer and her older son was away for the weekend. She was alone and a nervous wreck. Dianne Mermigas got a call, too. It was her birthday.

She and her husband were introduced to Debbie Memoli in the emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital. All of them were very badly shaken.

The fractured right clavicle, the gash in his back and the black eye were the least of Memoli's injuries. But though his spinal cord was undamaged, he had suffered a right subarachnoid hemorrhage and a left subdural hematoma with a "shearing injury" -- both, basically, bleeding and bruising in his brain -- and those now threatened his life. An emergency aspiration tube was fed down his throat, in case he needed to be resuscitated. Doctors induced a coma. He would remain in it for weeks.

He spent 20 days at Stony Brook University Hospital, 10 of them in the ICU. Then he was transferred to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, where he stayed from July 26 to Feb. 10. Since then, he has been at Transitions. But this is just the basic itinerary.

It does not begin to tell you what Chris Memoli has lived through. The brain injuries caused something called a severe "high tone" condition, the coordinator of occupational therapy services at Transitions, Tami Gladstone, said. What this means is his muscles shortened and locked, as if in a state of constant, severe cramp. They twisted his body into absurd, even grotesque, angles. A weakened diaphragm, stressed vocal chords and tightened facial muscles make it almost impossible for him to talk.

He receives botox injections to deaden nerves in his extremities. These are $2,000 a shot. He will need five every three months for as long as he lives. There is Valium to control muscle spasms, Lidocaine patches to ease pain in his wrists, Pepcid for stomach uneasiness, Allegra for allergies. He takes Ritalin.

He also undergoes physical therapy to strengthen muscles and balance so he might one day walk again, speech therapy to strengthen his diaphragm so he might one day talk again and occupational therapy so some day he might be able to function on his own again: bathe, dress and feed himself without supervision. He has made significant progress since the accident and can now lift a glass by hooking the rim with his crooked index finger. But even the most basic chores are an ordeal and the future remains uncertain. For now, he travels in a wheelchair.

"What made up Chris before the accident was his personality and independence and when you take that away you take away a lot of who Chris was," Gladstone said. "That is why we are working so hard on trying to get that back."

Already, the hospitalizations, the medicines, the tests have cost more than $600,000. Insurance from the accident covered $75,000. Lawsuits are possible, Debbie Memoli said, though not likely. Friends and relatives have instead resorted to fund-raising to help her pay the monstrous bills. Future expenses will be covered by Medicaid, though that does not cover his current in-patient care. Within a month or so, Memoli will have to leave Transitions.

You look at Chris Memoli and you see a kid full of life yearning to break free from the confines of a now-contorted body. A kid who won't quit. He points to the unfinished tattoo of an evil clown on his right forearm, to the tattoo that reads "Memoli" on his lower left leg. His face lights up when he opens a photo album. There is a picture of a girl he asked to the prom this June. She said yes.

Actually, it turns out, he asked two girls -- both of them after the accident. Both said yes.

"I-N-S-U-R-A-N-C-E," he taps out on his paper. He had to tell one of the girls to find another date. "You're bad," his mother says. He laughs.

Some of the pictures, though, upset him. You ask why. "I A-M S-T-A-N-D-I-N-G," he indicates.

You think of the thousands like him in hospitals and rehabilitation centers across Long Island, victims from the accident stories that never make the papers. Victims who learn the hard way the consequences of a few seconds of misjudgment.

As the mother of the driver, Dianne Mermigas, tells you: "One little mistake, forget it. It changes everything. Michelle has a burden she has to carry with her the rest of her life. But for Chris? I don't even know what to say ... You wish you could do something to make it different. I feel like I'm responsible." She says her daughter is still so shaken by the accident she cannot talk about it.

Sitting in his room at Transitions, Memoli spells out messages that indicate that sometimes he does get frustrated with his current state, that sometimes he does get angry about what happened. But, mostly, he wears his best face. His game face.

He says he just wants others to learn from the mistakes. That he hopes they will drive safer, that they will not speed. That they will wear their seat belts. Because for him every day, every moment, is now a struggle.

You ask him if he misses the things he used to take for granted. "Y-E-S," he messages.

Like what?

"W-A-L-K-I-N-G. T-A-L-K-I-N-G. L-I-F-E."

There is drool dripping from his mouth, onto his shirt. On his cheek, there is a tear.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.