As Gabriela Rosales crossed the Williamson Avenue crosswalk on March 16, 2015, she was excited to attend her first meeting of the Eta Zeta chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha at Elon University. Instead, she was struck by a Toyota Camry that left her with a shattered skull and multiple fractured bones.
It was around dusk as she laid on the crosswalk. She heard the sound of sirens growing louder and her friends telling her everything was going to be OK.
“I was like estaba con pena [embarrassed] of what people would say about me,” Gabriela said. “I was like ‘What are people thinking about me?’”
Gabriela’s sister, Carmencita Rosales, said she had dreamt that something bad had occurred, and when she woke up to her phone blowing up with people asking her about her sister’s health.
As Gabriela was flown by helicopter to UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill, her family that lives thousands of miles away in Managua, Nicaragua, was notified of what had occurred. Her parents dashed to the airport to find two seats left on the earliest flight to North Carolina.
“It changed the life for my whole family,” Carmencita said. “Gabby is my best friend. Since the accident, at first I felt my best friend was gone.”
Before her parents arrived, Gabriela’s aunt and cousin, who lived in Raleigh, were notified about the incident. They were at UNC Health Care that night along with Sylvia Munoz, interim director for the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education. Gabriela’s close friends, Claudia Rodriguez and Sofia Wensel, were also at the hospital.
During that night, doctors said they couldn’t do surgery because of the injuries Gabriela’s brain had sustained. There were fractures on three parts of her skull. The Wednesday following the accident was one of the most critical days in Gabriela’s health, according to Munoz.
The doctors said procedure would be done where part of Gabriela’s skull had to be taken out to relieve the brain pressure. If they did not operate, they said she would die or remain in a vegetable-like state.
At 2 a.m. that Wednesday night, Gabriela’s brain pressure went down and stabilized. The doctors told her family that the surgery would no longer be done.
“The doctors insisted that medically they cannot explain why she woke up and why she was alive because, according to her injuries, she shouldn’t have been,” Munoz said.
Gabriela said she fell asleep and did not wake up until three weeks after being in a medically induced coma for about two weeks. Gabriela was in the intensive care unit for a fractured skull and a broken hip and right scapula.
Gabriela said that it was “amazing” to wake up to the sight of her mom by her bed.
“I tried talking to her, but I couldn’t,” Gabriela said. “I forgot how to talk.”
Gabriela could not speak, walk, read or feed herself. She was discharged from UNC Health Care in late April and was transferred to WakeMed and Health & Hospitals in Raleigh to receive speech, occupational and physical therapy.
Claudia Rodriguez, currently a senior at Elon and one of Gabriela’s closest friends, visited her numerous times and noticed her progress in a few months.
“We saw this gradual progress, and you could tell through the hope that her parents had, that her family and friends had, that she was gonna get better even though the doctors didn’t think it was a possible outcome,” Rodriguez said.
Therapy still underway
Gabriela recalls that the day she began to speak again through speech therapy, the doctors told her family they had a surprise for them. They placed a poster behind her bed that said: “Gabby started talking today.” Her first words were, “Mom, I love you.”
The improvements happened slowly, as the support Gabriela received from her family and the Elon community helped her with her recovery.
“Every day we would motivate Gabriela to keep going,” Carmencita said. “That is what kept her motivated.”
Munoz and Gabriela’s Elon friends visited her in both hospitals during her recovery.
Gabriela also began physical therapy, which required her to use a wheelchair. When she was placed in the wheelchair, Gabriela remembers that she did not want to return to Nicaragua and have people feel bad for her. The moment she stood up from her wheelchair hurt. Gabriela remembers saying to herself, “I am not gonna fall. I want to make them see that I can actually do it.”
Rodriguez always knew that Gabriela remained determined and hopeful throughout her recovery. She admires how Gabriela has gone through something so difficult that she said she could never imagine happening to herself. She recalls that despite the difficulties, Gabriela always kept smiling — from the moment they met to when she was in therapy.
“Seeing how they have stayed strong as a family and just as support for her and for each other really shows me that there’s not anything that we can’t go through that is going to be tough enough to put us down or have us stop because she showed me that you can literally do anything,” Rodriguez said.
Through months of therapy, Gabriela said she even learned to cook while at WakeMed. She also said that with her mother’s help and Facebook, she was able to remember names of friends and family that she might otherwise have forgotten.
Returning to the scene
Gabriela recalls asking her mother to take her to the scene of the accident to show her where it had occurred and in what part of the crosswalk.
Rodriguez, who considers Gabriela a sister because of their friendship while they were together at Elon, said that seeing her on campus was a unique experience.
“She was so happy, you could see that Elon was where she wanted to be because she was so ecstatic to be here and see her friends, the faculty, her professors that she hadn’t seen in a long time,” Rodriguez said.
Returning to Nicaragua
On Oct. 27, 2015, Gabriela was discharged from WakeMed and allowed to return to her home in Managua. She arrived as a surprise for her younger sister Maria Fernanda’s 15th birthday.
Though no longer in the hospital, Gabriela continued different types of therapy. Through therapy with classical music, she could remember a lot of what she had forgotten, even the specific details of how the accident occurred.
She also picked up a passion for drawing. Gabriela has a book of all her sketches featuring Disney characters with inspirational quotes on each page.
Gabriela’s experiences at Elon encouraged Carmencita to apply to the university two years later. She was accepted and is currently a freshman.
“If it wasn’t because of Gabby, I wouldn’t be here at Elon,” Carmencita said. “Ever since I came here, I had this feeling that my sister is always here with me.”
Carmencita believes that a part of her sister is with her at Elon. Their relationship has grown stronger since the accident and Carmencita is glad to get to know the little things such as friends and memories that her sister had at Elon.
With hopes of returning to Elon as a full-time student, Gabriela is currently a student at Universidad Americana in Managua. She is studying marketing with a minor in business administration.
“I will keep going until I get back to Elon,” Gabriela said. “It would be amazing to get back.”
Gabriela has returned to Elon multiple times to visit friends such as Rodriguez and now her sister.
“She really wants to just be here and have the normal life of taking the classes and having her friends, living here,” Rodriguez said. “She’s pushing for that, that’s what she’s working toward.”
Gabriela will have her two-year checkup at WakeMed on April 10 and 17 this spring. During these appointments, the doctors will confirm whether she will be able to return to Elon next fall.
“My hopes are for her [Rosales] to be back at Elon,” Carmencita said. “She’s ready to have her life back. She felt like her wings were cut, but she’s building them up again.”
Opening rehabilitation center
Gabriela has big plans in mind after graduation. She wants to study physical therapy and open her own rehabilitation center in Nicaragua. She wants it to be called “Miracle,” and the motto, “Si, se puede,” which means, “You can do it.”
Gabriela said that she has grown as a person and learned to appreciate what really matters in life in the past two years. She said that she has learned the meaning of goodness and helping others.
“If you’re a good person, good things happen to you, and I think good things have happened to me,” Gabriela said.
Carmencita said that other patients in Nicaragua have noticed her sister’s improvements and work in therapy.
“She inspired others with her work,” Carmencita said. “The work she’s done is showing to other kids, that, ‘You can also do it.’”
Carmencita believes that her sister’s purpose in life is to open the rehabilitation center because having personal experiences with therapy can help her connect with other patients. Gabriela wants her story of recovery to be an example for many others.
“I want to show people that you can do it,” Gabriela said. “Yes, it was hard at first, but you can overcome it.”