Paula Lopez-Trigo had just started her second year of pharmacy school and was cruising down Interstate 95 near the Blue Heron Boulevard exit when a Jeep Cherokee driven by a woman with an empty bottle of vodka in the front seat slammed into her car.
Lopez-Trigo’s Ford Focus slammed into one wall, bounced back and hit the concrete on the other side.
The date — Sept. 17, 2012 — is etched into Lopez-Trigo’s memory. It’s the date her dreams were put on hold.
Lopez-Trigo, though, refused to let the accident, or the traumatic brain injury it caused, cancel her plans.
On Friday, she graduated from Nova Southeastern University with her doctor of pharmacy degree, her family cheering her on.
‘She was purple… she was in bad shape’
Lopez-Trigo, of Doral, attended Nova’s Palm Beach Gardens campus. She had just finished her first exam of the year and was making a Target run after class about 4 p.m., when she was blindsided by the 51-year-old woman’s Jeep, nearly ending her life.
To complicate matters at the horrific wreck, the 22-year-old’s purse strap was wrapped around her neck, strangling her.
Amazingly, an off-duty battalion chief for the Broward County Sheriff’s Fire Rescue & Emergency Services Department and his son saw the accident in front of them and stopped.
They smashed the glass and crawled through her windows to cut loose the strap with a pocket knife and get her breathing again, said Scott Holloway, the battalion chief and a veteran firefighter/paramedic.
“She was pinned pretty bad inside the car,” he said. “She wasn’t breathing. She was purple.”
It took about 30 to 40 minutes for firefighters and paramedics to cut her out of the car, Holloway said.
Holloway’s 26-year-old son, Kyle, had just graduated from the fire academy and paramedic school. The men were coming back from a celebratory trip to North Carolina when they saw the commotion.
Kyle Holloway had been interviewing with West Palm Beach Fire Rescue. He got the job.
Theother driver, who had no significant injuries, had prior DUIs and went to jail for about three years, Lopez-Trigo said.
A long recovery
Lopez-Trigo was taken by Trauma Hawk to St. Mary’s Medical Center, where her parents, the college’s assistant dean and her classmates gathered. She spent about a month and a half in a coma because of her brain injury.
Lopez-Trigo was an intern at CVS. Her co-workers started a blog so her family in Philadelphia and Mexico could easily keep track of her progress. They even arranged for her parents to stay at the Quantum House while she recovered.
The full recovery took a year, complete with speech, occupational and physical therapies. Her right ankle was so dislocated, doctors couldn’t put a cast on it, because it would wiggle, she said. Four screws and a fixator device held her leg in place.
Because of the traumatic brain injury on her right side, Lopez-Trigo had to learn to do everything again — even seemingly simple tasks like eating and bathing. When she went to the bathroom, an occupational therapist taught her how to shower.
“I just felt like, oh my gosh, am I going to be like this forever?” Lopez-Trigo remembered. “I looked in the mirror, and I completely broke down.”
She couldn’t move her left side, almost as if she had a stroke. She had to regenerate the connections between neurons. She downloaded every imaginable smart phone app with brain puzzles. She had to relearn how to learn.
Lopez-Trigo’s dad is a professor at Florida International University, so she’d sit it on his classes just to see if she could retain information.
“I was not confident. I had to gain my confidence back,” she said.
Crossing the finish line
Lopez-Trigo said she bombed her first exams after the accident. But her professors saw her asking questions and teaching other students, so they knew she could pass.
Because of her brain injury, she was easily distracted by even the slightest cough or sneeze. She was entitled to take her tests in isolation and get extra time to complete them but was too “hard-headed” to ask for the accommodations at first.
After she did, her grades improved significantly, she said.
With associate professor Nile Khanfar, the former assistant dean who rushed to the hospital, she published a research paper about the banning of tobacco sales at retail pharmacies.
Khanfar said he thinks of his students as his own children and is happy to help them succeed.
“I was so proud of her to see her progressing and advancing, all the way until her graduation. Here she is,” Khanfar said. “It’s a lot to be thankful for. I feel so good to be able to see her cross the finish line.”
She has a job lined up with CVS and is also an intern at the University of Miami hospital.
Lopez-Trigo hasn’t forgotten the people who helped her get to graduation day. She used the Broward Sheriff’s Department website, where people can file complaints or commendations, to track down and eventually meet the father and son who saved her.
For Thanksgiving one year, she brought enough Cuban food to feed Holloway’s whole station — about 13 guys, he said. She shoots a text or a note about once a month and even sent gifts when his grandson was born.
“She’s just very appreciative of the fact that she’s alive today,” he said.