The Todericos make it a point to refer to the event as an incident and not an accident. “We are survivors, not victims.”
As Denise Gorondy-Toderico and Ben Toderico decorate their living room for the holidays, the doors leading to the back yard are left open as their two boys, Gavin (6 at the time) and Cormac (4 at the time) play in the cool winter air as the afternoon shifts from day to night.
One of the boys calls inside, “Mom, Dad! Come here quick and see!” Denise and Ben go to see what their, “savage little monkeys,” as they like to call them, were up to. Look left. No sign of them. Look right. Nothing. “We’re up here!” Look up, and the parents find their little monkeys nearly thirty to forty feet up in their tree.
It was a simple and silly family moment they will remember forever. It was a moment that almost didn’t have Denise in it due to an incident that happened just a year earlier. A moment they fought with everything they had to have.
On June 5, 2016, Denise goes out for her Sunday morning run. The same run she has done for the past thirteen years after sunrise. While wearing her reflector vest, bright colors, and being sure to run facing oncoming traffic, she is struck from behind by an SUV that crosses the double yellow line, traveling at over 60 mph. Denise is thrown in a farmer’s field and left to die.
Over an hour later, a passing cyclist sees car debris scattered across the road which leads him to notice Denise lying motionless in the field. He calls for help and she is med-flighted to VCU Medical Center. Doctors immediately check for head injury where they discover two types of bleeding in her brain and injuries to the arteries that supply it.
The vast amount of injuries to her entire body made it difficult to find a place to insert critical lines of medicine she needed. With Ben at her side, she spends forty long days in the hospital with constant monitoring of her cognitive responses and motor reflexes, which both are limited.
Denise’s injuries from the event include:
Severe Brachial Plexus Injury
Bilateral dissected carotids
C7, T8, T9, and L5 fractures
Bruising and lacerations to kidney and adrenal gland
Right Olecranon fracture
Right open fractures of tibia and fibula
Recovery & Healing
“Ever forward. Even if it’s just a little bit,” becomes the Toderico’s mantra and reality through each step.
Almost every day, something improves, usually a small something, but something none the less. These improvements usually being movements or twitches that were slightly better than the last. It’s important for doctors to constantly be checking that to keep the brain active enough to hopefully get Denise back.
Ben is constantly at Denise’s side. Every day he sat talking with her and whispering in her ear, “I can’t do anything for you right now, but if you just make it through this part, I’ll carry you on my back through rehab. I need you to pull through.”
The doctors were impressed with how much Ben was at the hospital with his wife.
After fourteen days of constant monitoring and Denise remaining unconscious, doctors see if she is ready to breathe on her own. She successfully does so. After twenty days she is able to get her orthopedic injuries repaired. Soon after she starts working with the rehabilitation team to try and get her mobility and cognitive status’s improved, though they were of much concern. After many days of difficult speech, she is speaking full sentences. Denise is coming back, slowly but surely and of course, ever forward.
The first day she was cleared to bear weight on her leg, she walked ten steps.
“It was like the breaks were taken off and now we could go as fast and as far as we wanted,” says Ben.
After being discharged, Denise continues to recover with VCU’s Neuroscience, Orthopedic, and Wellness Center until she is able to work at her own gym. She walks in with a cane on her first day and since then, unknowingly becomes an inspirational icon at her local YMCA, and eventually, the whole community.
“I never wanted to be famous, especially not for being hit by a car,” Denise slightly chuckles, “but if we can inspire people to do better…that’s a good thing.”
People begin coming up to her and expressing their admiration and the motivation seeing her there gives them to finish their own workouts.
Denise continues to recover from several strokes, traumatic brain injury, a brachial plexus injury, several broken vertebrae in her neck and back, and other orthopedic and internal traumas. She has come a very long way. Today, her main issue is the nerve damage in her arm which the couple refers to as “the bugger of all injuries.” The healing and nerve regrowth is slow, unfortunately, leaving Denise in constant pain every day. But she hasn’t let any of that stop her.
“I learned early on that you can achieve desired outcomes by working hard for it.” -Denise
A Plexfit Sling holds Denise’s still healing arm as she does most everything she used to with her family: running, tandem biking, downhill skiing, swimming, horseback riding.
The Todericos have built a very strong and admirable mindset for themselves that they credit with being the main ingredient to their success.
“It takes a lot of reframing. It’s overwhelming to look at everything,” explains Denise,. “You can’t find a reason to why it happened but you can find benefits in the situation like helping and inspiring others to improve.”
“Sometimes your mind will wander to those dark places, and that’s okay,” adds Ben, “you just have to be a tourist to those dark places and come out on the other side looking forward, building on each and every one of those positives you find.”
Denise feels that strength is “the fortitude to keep going and when things get hard, try harder.” Ben adds, “For me, I can’t picture strength because it’s an evolving concept to me. I before all this I used to think ‘true strength lies within self-reliance, but it’s so not. I’ve learned that a form of strength is knowing when to ask for help and taking it.”
Denise and Ben
The couple met at Virginia Tech while they were both working as lifeguards. Ben was wearing a Virginia Tech Swim sweatshirt that caught Denise’s eye since she knew many people from there. When Ben told her he used to swim for Virginia Tech, she snarkily responded, “Oh I know a bunch of people who used to swim for Tech.” Ben was attracted to her confidence and spunk, and she was attracted to his quirkiness.
“He had a special walk to him,” says Denise as she recalls seeing him walking into their gym with somewhat goofy workout attire. “Everything I wore had practical use!” Ben claims.
Denise has always been a strong athlete and go-getter. She has fully embraced the outdoor lifestyle as a triathlete, runner, cyclist, hiker, and skier. Through her high involvement in these sports and her occupation as an equine veterinarian, Denise lives a life inspiring and touching the hearts of many in her community.
“She’s my strength, I rely on her for so much,” says Ben, “She grounds me. She makes me a better person. A better father.”
Ben has devoted his life to helping people as well. He spent eighteen years working for the Richmond Police Department and has resigned/retired in October 2018 to pursue creating a facility that would help others in Denise’s situation thrive. He is a strength and conditioning professional who continues to guide and push Denise throughout her long road of recovery.
“He’s a very humble person and doesn’t give himself enough credit but he has been my personal life coach through all of this,” says Denise.
The Boys – What’s your positive?
The boys, now seven and five years old, have a good grasp on the situation. Ben and Denise make it a point to be open and honest with the boys throughout their journey, answering any questions they have along the way. The boy’s parents admire Gavin’s and Cormac’s acceptingness and understanding to change.
“I think it teaches them grit, perseverance, compassion, empathy,” says Ben. “We started a practice that every night at dinner, we ask ‘what’s your positive?’ Then we go around the table and we all say our positive of the day.”
“The boys say soulful and meaningful things, even at five and seven,” Denise adds. “Sometimes its simple things from that day that they talk about their appreciation for.”
The Rest of the Story
The Family and Community
“The VCU medical staff were seamless and incredible,” says Ben, “though there were big things that started wrong, they were one of the many things that went right.”
The day of the incident Ben calls a friend on the Team who called the Team Commander, a friend, the executive officer, and Ben’s “big brother” on the Team. The Team then had at least one member at the hospital twenty-four-seven for two weeks.
“Many officers in the department donated their own vacation time, some donated 100 hours, to allow me to stay home with pay after my vacation time ran out in August of 2016,” Ben was overwhelmed with gratitude for the support.
Denise’s sister, a mother of three of her own, and other family members move down to help around the house and especially with the boys.
Community members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers all contribute something. People bring groceries and cooked meals, mow the lawn, start fundraisers to help pay medical expenses, pave the gravel driveway so that it wasn’t a hazard for Denise, car maintenance since the family was driving around five thousand miles just for medical services, and so much more to ensure that the Toderico’s focus and energy are put into their epic journey of recovery and healing.
Finding the driver is another one of many ways the community comes together to help the situation. One neighbor has surveillance footage of a car passing their house on the same road of the incident. Once there is a description of the vehicle, word spreads quickly through neighbors and strangers of those country roads to find him. The driver is found around 7:00 p.m. on the night of the incident, after attempting to hide at home and disguise the vehicle.
“He became background noise,” says Ben, “dwelling on him would get us nowhere and I knew that making a positive environment for her and my family was going to be the key to getting through it all.”
“It wasn’t an accident, it was an incident. Because we are not victims.” – Denise and Ben Toderico
What the Todericos are doing now – Thriving
“We’re not done,” Says Ben, “She’s accomplished a lot and has inspired and defied the odds and she’s still not done doing things.”
Ben has begun a personal training program out of his fitness studio in his garage called BT Fitness, LLC. The couple is in the process of creating a facility where people in similar situations as Denise can have the complete support and guidance through their journeys of recovery. It will be called Recovery to Thriving.
“We want to create a facility that has a general fitness population alongside a program that serves polytrauma survivors, adaptive athletes, and the deconditioned,” Ben explains. “We would guide the participants to increase their physical capacity on their path from recovery to thriving.”