Va. Firefighter Cheats Death in Off-duty Wreck

The Chesapeake firefighter beat the odds and his back on duty.


SUFFOLK --A mangled left ankle. A broken pelvis. A fractured clavicle. Two smashed eye orbits. Four compressed vertebrae. Five cracked ribs. 

And that wasn't the worst of it. Doctors removed one-third of Nick Novellino's skull - shattered beyond repair - and stopped a brain bleed.

It didn't look good for the Chesapeake firefighter after the July 2012 motorcycle wreck.

"My first thought was, 'How much of my brain did they take?' " Novellino recalled thinking after seeing himself in the mirror. "I couldn't believe I was alive."

The doctors, it turned out, didn't take any. And despite all of his injuries, the 35-year-old father of two young girls was going to be able to do a lot more than just live.

He was out of the hospital in 16 days, working part time after five months and back on the streets responding to emergencies in seven months. He even returned to the lawn care business he runs with his wife.

"Giving up never crossed my mind," Novellino said last week while serving as an acting lieutenant at the St. Brides fire station. "I always had the thought process that this was just a bump in the road."

Novellino doesn't remember the crash. After talking about it with friends and family for 19 months, however, he can tell an almost seamless version of what happened July 26, 2012, on Nansemond Parkway near Kings Highway.

He and his wife, Ursula, were heading separately to their Suffolk home about 4 p.m. after attending a lawn care class in Norfolk. He was cruising east on Nansemond Parkway on a Harley-Davidson Rocker C. She was in their Ford Expedition.

An 18-year-old woman in a minivan turning left onto Kings Highway cut him off. The two collided head-on.

"I pretty much landed on my head," Novellino said, explaining that his helmet was not able to fully protect his skull.

Ursula Novellino said the right side of his skull shattered "like a piece of glass."

"The largest piece was the size of a quarter," she said.

An ambulance rushed Nick Novellino to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where doctors scrambled to save his life.

Suffolk police officers started investigating the crash as if it were a fatal one. Chesapeake firefighters streamed to the emergency room, fearing the worst.

Phil Waller was one of a few dozen firefighters and medics who packed the hospital waiting area.

"We all thought we'd have to get our Class A's pressed," he said, referring to the dress uniform worn to funerals.

"We'd seen enough people in his condition and didn't think he would make it. We never thought he'd come back to work."

Apparently no one told Novellino. His condition steadily improved. He was off a ventilator within two days. He was out of the intensive care unit within five.

Novellino said he clashed with his doctors from the beginning. He praised their efforts and credited them in large part with making it possible for him to return to the Fire Department. But at the same time, he was never interested in following their timetable.

"People kept telling me to take it easy, to not push. I know it was all for my well-being, but that's not me," he said. "I wasn't a very good patient."

Dr. Beverly Roberts-Atwater, Novellino's rehabilitation physician, agreed he "definitely had his own timeline."

"It was challenging, but he did a great job," she said with a laugh.

Getting out of the hospital was one thing. Getting back to work was another.

When Novellino left Sentara, he still didn't have a complete skull.

"All that was there was the skin," he said.

He had to wear a helmet for the first two months whenever he was not in bed.

He couldn't wash that part of his hair. He couldn't bend over. And God help him if he sneezed.

"Absolute torture," he said.

It wasn't until Oct 8, 2012 - the day after his 34th birthday - that doctors finally installed a custom plastic plate to protect his brain.

Novellino endured extensive physical therapy to become self-sufficient. It was hard for him to walk at first. He also had a significant stutter and spent the first couple of months sleeping in a hospital bed in his living room.

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