D.C. woman caught in the derecho storm is left paralyzed, but her attitude is optimistic

Carolina Alcalde was almost home that night.

Five blocks away, thawed in her refrigerator, was a serving of her mother’s Peruvian specialty, carapulcra, which she planned to have for dinner.

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She had just had a massage in Crystal City and a peaceful ride back to Washington, and as she sat on her red motorcycle at an intersection waiting for the light to change, she anticipated a quiet night at home in Adams Morgan.

But 50 yards north on 15th Street NW, two accidents of nature were about to converge at the instant of her passing and alter her life forever.

One was a ferocious wave of thunderstorms that had been roaring in from the Midwest all day and now was bearing down on Washington with hurricane-force winds.

The other, perched on the eastern edge of Meridian Hill Park, was a tall evergreen tree, stately to the eye but with a partially rotted trunk.

As Alcalde, 37, sat at the corner of 15th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, the stillness of the hot evening had ended. Wind began to buffet her 360-pound motorcycle. She checked the chin strap on her helmet and adjusted her goggles.

Then the traffic light changed, and she started up the hill. It was about 10:45 p.m. on June 29.

Alcalde doesn’t remember what happened next.

She doesn’t remember the loud crack as the wind snapped the tree and drove it down on her like a hammer, breaking her back, severing her spinal cord and paralyzing her from the chest down.

She doesn’t remember the sudden deluge of rain, or the frantic passersby who first spotted the headlight of her fallen motorcycle through the darkness and debris.

She doesn’t remember the river of water cascading down the street as they tried to drag the tree off her, yelling “One, two, three, pull!”

And she has no recollection of the two D.C. fire department medics who carried her through the storm to their ambulance and found, to their dismay, that she couldn’t wiggle her toes.

Alcalde’s memory resumes an hour or so later in the emergency room of George Washington University Hospital, where she began to hear voices asking if she knew what had happened and if she had an emergency contact they should call.

‘I’m going to walk’

Alcalde, an administrator in the Bethesda office of the business consulting firm CBIZ, was one of several people in the area struck by falling trees or branches during the derecho storm of June 29.

At least four were killed, and Alcalde herself nearly perished.

Had she been a split second earlier, she likely would have gone on with her life, motored up the hill, around to her studio apartment and her dinner.

But fate willed otherwise.

As tens of thousands of people struggled with the chaos of lost power, hot weather and downed trees in the weeks after the storm, her tragedy played out quietly in hospital rooms, away from the headlines.

Attended by her devoted parents and a legion of friends, she is now recovering in a local rehabilitation center after three weeks in the hospital and a five-hour operation to insert metal rods along her shattered spine.

Alcalde faces months of physical therapy and will likely never walk again on her own.

But she is a remarkable, vivacious woman with dark hair and eyes and has approached her injury with the same strength and optimism that has been a hallmark of her life.

“I’m totally not afraid of what’s coming up,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s going to be fine. . . . I’ll do for myself again. . . . Someday I’m going to walk again. . . . It might not be next year. It might not be 10 years. But some day I’ll be able to stand eye to eye again.”

‘Such a nice night’

It was beautiful that hot Friday evening as Alcalde headed back into Washington on her Suzuki SV650 street bike.

It was the start of a long holiday weekend, and she had taken off work early to get the massage a friend had purchased for her.

“What better way to start off my Fourth of July weekend?” she remembered thinking.

She had driven home from work, changed and then headed to Crystal City’s Massage Envy. It was so warm that she wore only a light black jacket over her blue jeans and black T-shirt.

She also wore her low-cut black and white Converse All Stars with the Sudoku motif, her red, white and gray helmet, and her riding goggles.

Once in Crystal City, she extended the massage from one hour to two.

Afterward, she felt great: “I thought, ‘This is going to be such a nice night.’ I’m going to just go home, put my feet up and be good.’ ”

Plus, waiting in her fridge was the renowned Peruvian concoction of potatoes, chicken, pork, onions and peanuts that her mother had taught her how to make.

She loved this time of day, especially riding over the 14th Street bridge with nighttime settling over the capital.

She also loved her six-speed Suzuki, which she’d had for several years and nicknamed “Delicia,” Spanish for delight.

She had customized the grips, added aluminum foot pegs, a new seat and additional lights. Her license plate read “Besos” — kisses. She and Delicia had been all over together. “I loved her,” she said. “It was my baby.”

As Alcalde crossed the bridge, entered the city and reached Thomas Circle, she noticed that the wind had picked up.

When she approached 15th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, the bike was suddenly slammed by a heavy gust of wind. “Whoa!” she remembered thinking. She reminded herself to watch her weight and balance on the bike.

As she waited at the intersection, she checked her helmet’s chin strap to make sure it was tight and pushed her goggles tighter against her face. She wanted to make sure no debris blew into her eyes.

The wind grew even stronger as the seconds ticked by, and she gripped the handlebars firmly.

“The light turned green,” she said. “I took off. And I don’t remember much else.”

An impromptu rescue

Wayne Shields, 54, and his partner, Andrew Velthaus, 45, were just pulling up to their home on 15th Street after attending a farewell party that evening for Velthaus’s boss. They were only moments ahead of Alcalde.

As they emerged from their garage, the storm broke in full force. Tree branches tumbled down. The two paused to try to pull some of the debris from the street and were retreating to their home when the tree fell.

“It fell really quickly,” Velthaus remembered. “It was not like a tim-ber kind of thing. . . . It snapped and hit the ground all in about a second. . . . It was like, ‘crack, smash,’ on the ground.”

He glanced from the foyer and through the tree branches spotted a motorcycle headlight. “Wayne,” he said, “I think it hit somebody.”

They ran outside, saw the downed Suzuki, which was still running, and then saw Alcalde, who looked as though she might be dead. “She was under the tree and kind of wrapped around her motorcycle,” Shields said.

The tree, which sat just a few feet from the edge of the park, lay across 15th Street.

“Call 911,” Velthaus said. But Shields couldn’t get through. The men pulled some of the branches aside and heard Alcalde moan.

Velthaus checked her wrist for a pulse and tried to talk to her, saying, “Hello, can you hear me?”

He and Shields and a passing motorist then wrestled the tree off Alcalde. “It was just so heavy,” Shields said. “We had to count to three, like ‘One, two, three, pull!’ We had to do that quite a few times.”

Meanwhile, they still hadn’t been able to get through on 911. Shields ran to some of the cars backed up on the street and asked the drivers to call 911.

Then, in the distance, the two men heard a siren.

Changing course

District firefighter EMT Jeff Lenard, 32, and firefighter paramedic David Brown, 43, were operating Ambulance 3 through what suddenly felt like a hurricane.

The wind had filled the air with debris. An airborne newspaper box blew past.

They had been dispatched from George Washington University Hospital to a call near Howard University and were fighting through the storm and traffic to get there.

Lenard was driving, and when he paused in the downpour at the intersection, he glanced up 15th Street and saw a line of stopped cars, the downed tree and people running around, he said.

“Let’s just actually ride up here real quick and make sure there’s no one trapped underneath this tree,” Lenard said he told Brown.

As they started, they were met by Shields and Velthaus, by then “crazy, rain-soaked people,” Shields said, who had spotted the ambulance and had run to flag it down.

“There’s a tree that came down,” Velthaus told the medics. “It hit a motorcyclist. She’s barely alive.” The two men then ran back up the hill, waving other cars to the side so the ambulance could get through.

Lenard radioed that Ambulance 3 was diverting to the more immediate emergency, and he headed up the street.

As the medics got out of the ambulance, water rushed along the roadway like a river, Brown said. Thunder and lightning crashed. Alcalde was on her back.

“She’s underneath” the tree, Lenard said. “She’s got the water coming down on her. . . . The wind was making the rain come up, left, right, down, every direction. But the scariest thing, honestly, was you could hear the other trees snapping around you.”

The men carefully removed Alcalde’s helmet. They hurried to get her onto a “spine board” and into the ambulance, where they could examine her better.

There were no immediate signs of injury. Brown took off her sneakers, and Lenard asked if she could feel that. Alcalde said no.

Brown then asked her to wiggle her toes. “I am,” she responded.

“There was no movement whatsoever,” Lenard recalled. He looked at Brown and said, “It’s time to go.”

Concerned about parents

“Ma’am, do you know where you are?”

The voice in the hospital emergency room drifted to Alcalde’s brain as if through a haze.

Did she know her name? Did she know what had happened? Did she have an emergency contact?

In her mental fog, Alcalde said she thought, “Why do they need my emergency contact?”

She gathered that she was in a hospital, and she was aware of a searing pain in her back. She realized that if they wanted an emergency contact number, “I’m in big trouble.”

The doctors told Alcalde that they needed to talk to her family, that she had been seriously injured in an accident. She thought, “How?” A doctor said a tree had fallen on her and severed her spinal cord.

“Oh, crap,” she said she thought. “I know what that means.”

Her concern went immediately to her parents, Victor Alcalde, 66, and Carmen Alcalde, 60, back in Richmond, Ind., where the family had eventually settled after moving from Peru in 1976. Carolina is the oldest of their three daughters.

Her father had a heart condition. He’d had a heart attack in 1996 and was due to have a cardiac catheterization procedure in 12 days. She knew her parents would be distraught and would rush to be with her. Somebody would need to watch over them.

“I know that when they get here they’re going to want to be by my side,” she said she thought. “They’re going to forget about themselves, and they’re not 20-somethings. ”

She told her close friend, Melinda Colon, who had hurried to the hospital: “I’m ready for this if it’s the worst, but my parents aren’t. So you have to be there for them.”

Emergency surgery

Warren D. Yu, the doctor who is chief of the spine section in the hospital’s department of orthopedic surgery, was on call that night for spine trauma.

He had left work around 10 p.m. and had battled his way through the storm and fallen trees to his Potomac home, where he, like thousands of others, had no electricity.

He had been in bed an hour when he got the call about Alcalde at 12:30 a.m. The report from the emergency room was dire.

She had two smashed vertebrae — T-7 and T-8 — several dislocated ribs, a broken shoulder and a huge bruise across her back.

Scans and tests indicated that her spinal cord had probably been severed.

Plans were made to operate as soon as possible that day.

Yu was back at work a few hours later, having maneuvered through debris-littered streets to reach the hospital.

In the second-floor operating room, he and another doctor began by making a 12-inch vertical incision down Alcalde’s back.

It went right through the large tattoo she got after she and her longtime partner split up in 2006 following a relationship that had started in college.

The tattoo was an ancient symbol called a portada del sol, which she said characterized a door to the sun kingdom. She got it to remind herself that, after the heartbreak of the divorce, she would be cautious about those she let into her life.

As the surgery reached Alcalde’s spine, Yu could see the damaged vertebrae and the pale spinal cord, which resembled a delicate rubber band. It was severed.

He removed some bone fragments, realigned others and then bolted two titanium rods, like a set of railroad tracks, on both sides of her spine to brace and immobilize about 10 inches of it.

The impact of the tree had essentially bent Alcalde like a piece of cardboard, with the damage at the crease. “She got snapped in half,” Yu said.

“These are random acts of chance,” he said. “A millisecond before, [the tree] hits you in the head, and you are dead. A millisecond later, and it doesn’t even touch you, and life goes on.”

“It’s a terrible thing,” he said. “The first thing I told her parents, because I wanted to be clear: She’s not walking again.”

A fearful drive

Victor Alcalde took the phone call at home in Richmond some time after 4 a.m. He and his wife were in bed. The caller identified herself as a doctor from George Washington Hospital.

“I’m sorry,” the woman began, he related. “I have some bad news for you.”

The doctor explained what had happened and said “your daughter is in the hospital. . . . You need to come.

Alcalde, who is known as Carito from her shortened first name, Caro, was conscious, the doctor said, but was going to need an operation. She then put her on the phone.

“Papito,” he said she told him, “be careful when you come.”

He and his wife prepared immediately to leave. But they could not find any airline flights departing at a suitable time, so they decided to make the the 525-mile, eight-hour journey by car.

He said they stopped once and arrived at the hospital at about 3 p.m. Alcalde was still in surgery. But when she got out that evening and went into intensive care, her parents got to see her.

“I remember hearing my mother’s voice,” Alcalde said. “I heard in my parents’ [voices] fear and desperation when they were saying hi to me. . . . But I was relieved. . . . and I could feel them touching my hands and telling me to relax.”

“They’re always there for me,” she said, crying during a recent interview in the rehabilitation facility with her parents. “And I know that all I need is them and I’ll be fine.”

Gradual improvement

Alcalde was in and out of consciousness for five days. She was in the hospital’s intensive care unit for eight days.

The Fourth of July passed. Two more weeks went by. Gradually she improved. On July 19, she was released from the hospital to the rehab center. On Aug. 15, she sat in a wheelchair for the first time.

In a few weeks, she and her parents plan to move to an intensive spinal rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. After that, she said, they want to move back to the Washington area.

Asked if she was angry about what happened, she said:

“I think it’s really freakish. But I’ve never asked, ‘Why me?’ I don’t think that’s a normal question for me to ask. And who the hell would I be mad at?”

She did say that she wished she had been able to make it home that Friday night and eat the carapulcra.

 
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