Despite the odds, USF student hurt in Cuba crash last year will graduate Saturday

A USF student passes courses after memory loss in a Cuba wreck.

Published August 5 2016
Updated August 6 2016

The only memory Barbara Jimenez can recall from Aug. 3 of last year is landing at Havana's airport. The plane burst into applause, a tradition among Cuban immigrants who return to their country safely.

The next few days are a haze.

Jimenez, 23, doesn't remember getting into a 1952 Chevrolet, nor the truck that slammed into the car.

She suffered extensive head trauma during the wreck. But after taking a couple of semesters off from the University of South Florida, she returned to class this summer to complete the final 12 credits toward her bachelor's degree.

"It's brain trauma. It's a serious thing. But I won't actually know if I can do it until I actually start doing it," she said Friday.

Today, Jimenez will walk across a stage at USF's Sun Dome to get her diploma.

"I went with my gut instinct and it turned out right," she said.

News articles filled in the blanks where Jimenez's memory failed her. On Aug. 3 last year, she landed in Cuba to visit her family and introduce them to her boyfriend. An aunt and a cousin met them at the airport. They hired a cab to take them to San Jose, near the island's capital.

But 30 minutes into their trip, a truck crashed into them. The taxi driver died at the scene, while Jimenez, her boyfriend, and the two relatives were hospitalized.

Jimenez was in a coma for about five days. When she woke up, she struggled to speak and wrote to communicate with her parents, who flew down to be with her.

The family faced an obstacle: Jimenez did not have health insurance. They could not afford a medically supported flight to Tampa, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But with help from U.S. Rep. David Jolly's office, a plan was concocted to bring Jimenez back. Jet ICU, a Brooksville-based medical transport company, contacted his office and offered to fly her to Florida for free. Her sorority, Beta Gamma Chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, raised more than $20,000 for her expenses.

"It really speaks to the spirit of the Tampa Bay area," Jolly said. "No one person could have done this by themselves, but together as a community, we were able to get her home."

Last Aug. 28, after a 90-minute flight, Jimenez was back in Tampa. As Jet ICU medics helped her walk a few steps toward a gurney, Jimenez noticed several people with cameras taking her photo before she was whisked in an ambulance to Tampa General Hospital, where she remained for about two weeks.

Months later, she would see the news photographs of herself, wearing cheetah-print pajamas and aviator sunglasses.

"It was that big of a deal?" she said. "That many people were involved?"

While she was hospitalized, her mother told her she just had a cold. But Jimenez eventually became suspicious, and the family told her what happened.

Traces of Jimenez's head trauma linger. She needed surgery in May after doctors detected a brain aneurism. Jimenez can remember big events in her life, but still struggles with dates.

Her family wanted her to wait a few years before going back to school, but Jimenez wasn't used to staying at home. She started classes in the summer, and soon realized reading was difficult for her. Before, she could breeze through 400-page books. Now, she struggled to finish 15 pages.

"I remember one day getting really disheartened," she said, but a speech therapist told her that it was a good sign that she recognized how much progress she still needed to make.

Now that she has her bachelor's degree in philosophy with a minor in public policy, she plans on applying to law schools while working full time as an elementary school teacher.

"It's surreal. It's just a trippy experience to wake up one day and your life is different and people are taking pictures of you and you're on the news," she said, before smiling. "With pictures of me in cheetah pants."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.