Va. Firefighter Cheats Death in Off-duty Wreck

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.

In time, however, he got better. He started working at the Chesapeake Fire Department's warehouse in December 2012 and returned to his old fire station in Deep Creek in February 2013.

Novellino works a 24-hour shift as a firefighter-EMT about every three days. Any given day, he might be driving a fire engine, treating a patient in the back of an ambulance or running into a burning building.

"I was asked several times from the fire chief all the way down to the firefighter level if I needed anything, just ask," said Novellino, who started with the Fire Department in September 2001. "And if I did ask for some assistance, it was provided without hesitation."

The wreck required Novellino to make one major change. He eventually asked to be moved from Deep Creek - one of the city's busier stations - to St. Brides, one of the slower ones in the rural, southern end of the city. The fewer calls he has to answer, the better he feels the next day, he said.

Novellino's doctors attribute his recovery in part to his physical condition before the wreck.

"He was in terrific shape and that certainly helped," Roberts-Atwater said.

She said Novellino's recovery can be considered "somewhat of a miracle" in light of all the injuries he sustained - not just the head trauma.

She stressed that he is not necessarily unique, though. She and her colleagues at Eastern Virginia Medical School work with a lot of severely injured patients, and many of them also make full recoveries.

"That's what we do," Roberts-Atwater said.

Novellino and his family are still trying to put the traumatic incident behind them. He and his wife took the uninsured driver of the minivan, Zsarie Wilson, to court earlier this month and won a $2.5 million judgment.

Mike Imprevento, the couple's attorney, noted that the only other punishment Wilson has faced is a ticket for failure to yield, which cost her $91 in fines and fees.

Imprevento said Wilson was apologetic and respectful at the trial, where she represented herself because she could not afford an attorney.

"I don't ever expect to collect anything from her, but the Novellinos deserved a day in court," he said.

Attempts to reach Wilson were unsuccessful. She moved after the accident and did not return a Facebook message.

Novellino said the one-day trial was hard for him.

"It made everything come back to the surface," he said.

But he and his wife needed it, too.

"It was kind of the last step for us," Novellino said. "Now we can move on."

Scott Daugherty, 757-222-5221, scott.daugherty@pilotonline.com

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