Billy DiCola is beginning to remember things. Little things, like how to smile.
A simple smile was impossible during the 40 days that the former Ridgewood High standout athlete languished in coma after a bicycling accident.
"Billy, smile for the camera," said Janet Markham, a good Samaritan who came to Billy's aid at the accident scene and who has visited him every day since at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
DiCola beamed as he modeled a T-shirt Markham had just given him. It read: "Never give up."
Billy DiCola, 23-year-old Palm Harbor resident, has not given up after the accident April 26 that nearly took his life, and neither have his family and friends who have been by his side.
"It just gives you goosebumps to see him doing so fantastically now," said Robin Falzone, Billy's mother. "Considering he has been sleeping for 40 days and we almost lost him . . . this is a miracle and all we can thank is our faith in God.
"Just look at him smile."
DiCola began to speak June 5, the 40th day of his coma. But it is still very difficult for him to communicate, and he faces a long road to recovery. At times, he still slips back and becomes unresponsive, Mrs. Falzone said.
Thursday, DiCola was flown to Braintree, Mass., near Boston, where he will spend 30 days at Braintree Hospital.
Braintree is world-renowned rehabilitation hospital with one of the nation's leading traumatic head injury centers. DiCola will be treated by several head injury specialists, and his mother is optimistic he will fully recover.
Her son is very lucky, Mrs. Falzone said. Doctors had prepared her for the worst in the beginning. But through a combination of fate, faith and loving care, plus his own strength, Billy DiCola is still alive and fighting to recover.
An avid athlete
Billy DiCola has always been full of life. He is an avid cyclist who was in tip-top condition. Weekends ride of more than 100 miles in the hills of East Pasco were the norm. Also a triathlete and competitive runner, DiCola had finished in 10th place in the 7.5-mile Bay to Bay foot race in St. Petersburg just a few days before the April 26 accident.
In high school, DiCola led Ridgewood to a cross country conference championship in 1987, and he also was a standout soccer player. DiCola took some college courses and eventually decided to work full time.
DiCola, a certified nurse's aide, was riding his bicycle home from work on U.S. 19 in Clearwater about 10:30 a.m. He had worked that morning at a nursing home. DiCola was turning west onto Nursery Road and didn't see the car entering the intersection at the same time.
DiCola was hit and thrown about 50 feet. He landed on his head and began bleeding heavily from his nose and mouth as he lay on the pavement. No one was charged in the accident.
Janet Markham, a veterinary technician who was buying breakfast at the McDonald's across the street, rushed to DiCola's aid, thinking her medical training might be useful.
"He was bleeding profusely and his face was lying on the pavement and he was breathing back up his own blood," said Markham, a 26-year-old Canadian who had just moved from Windsor, Ontario, four months earlier.
"I cleared away the blood and held his head in my lap."
DiCola was not wearing a helmet as he normally did. He might have walked away from the accident if he had, Mrs. Falzone said. But DiCola's helmet had been crushed a few days earlier after falling out of his broken-down car that was being towed.
Markham had just finished working late after a midnight shift and decided to get something to eat before her customary workout at a fitness center. Ordinarily, she headed south on U.S. 19 toward her gym. But on April 26, for no particular reason, she said, she drove north and stopped at the McDonald's at U.S. 19 and Nursery Road.
Fate had drawn Markham to the scene, and she stayed with DiCola until emergency workers arrived a few minutes later. DiCola was taken by Bayflite helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. He was listed in very critical condition and was not expected to live, as hospital personnel urgently sought his family.
But DiCola does not share the same last name as his mother and stepfather, Robin and Sam Falzone, and that delayed the hospital's search. Then fate again played a role.
Traffic was backed up at the scene of the accident, and New Port Richey resident Russell Marretta, headed south to work, inched closer to the scene. Marretta and DiCola were teammates at Ridgewood and are still good friends.
Marretta saw the mangled bicycle lying in the road and immediately recognized it as his friend's. He stopped and called his mother, who instantly contacted Robin Falzone. She rushed to Bayfront and arrived before hospital personnel could locate DiCola's family.
"I can't hit six numbers in the lottery, but Russell just happens to come upon the scene," Mrs. Falzone said. "If his mother hadn't called me, who knows how long Billy would have been there with no one there for him?
"He needed me. Thank God Russell saw his bike."
The guardian angel
A shaken Janet Markham went home to Ellenton after the accident. She could not stop thinking about the young man who she helped on U.S. 19. The next day, a picture of DiCola's crumpled bicycle appeared in the Clearwater Times. Markham learned he was at Bayfront and went to see how he was doing.
"I just couldn't get him out of my head," Markham said. "We were about the same age, both athletic, and something inside me just made me want to see how he was."
Markham was introduced by a volunteer to Robin and Sam Falzone, and she told them what she had done the day before. Markham visited DiCola every day since.
"She is our guardian angel sent by God," Mrs. Falzone said. "She is like family now. She is our seventh child."
The Falzones needed all their family and friends in the first days after the accident. DiCola was in a coma, and doctors prepared Robin Falzone for the worst.
"The doctor took me to the chapel and said Billy might never wake up," Mrs. Falzone said. "He said he could suffer a stroke and that his condition was very critical. He said he did not think Billy would recover.
"That's when the prayers really started."
And that's when Billy DiCola's superior physical conditioning began to pay off. Doctors were amazed as DiCola's vital signs began to stabilize and stayed strong during the coma. They told Mrs. Falzone that her son had one of the most athletic hearts they had ever seen.
"They said he was in fantastic physical shape," said Mrs. Falzone, whose son was 6 feet 2 and weighed 180 pounds before the accident and has lost about 30 pounds since. "The fact he was young and strong was crucial in his recovery."
That, and the support of family and friends. Mrs. Falzone quit her job at Burdines, and she and Sam Falzone, a retired Pasco sheriff, stayed for 38 days at the St. Petersburg Sheraton, which offered a sharply reduced rate.
The New Port Richey residents spent 12 to 13 hours at the hospital each day, visiting their son in the trauma unit a few hours at a time as permitted by doctors. And Markham came from her job every morning and spoke to Billy.
"I'd say, "Billy never says no' and "Billy is a winner,' " Markham said. "He seemed to respond to me." Markham said she now plans to pursue a human medical career after her experience with DiCola.
Then on June 5, after doctors performed a tracheotomy, DiCola stirred, sat up and spoke.
"He said, "I'm trying to get my s--- together' and "I've been with God,' " Mrs. Falzone said. "He started talking Saturday (June 5) and he's been talking ever since. Considering he had been asleep for 40 days I thought he sounded pretty good."
DiCola was moved from the trauma center to his own room. Doctors who had predicted a dire future for DiCola changed their stance and are now telling Mrs. Falzone a full recovery is possible.
"(One doctor) came to Billy's room, took off his shoe and put it in his mouth," Mrs. Flazone said. "He was eating his words and he said he couldn't have been happier."
DiCola arrived at Braintree Hospital on Thursday. For the next month he will be treated by a team of head trauma specialists. Fran Egan, director of professional relations for the hospital's trauma unit, said DiCola will receive the best care possible.
But she said it is too soon to predict whether DiCola will fully recover.
"Billy has a lot of things going for him such as his age and physical condition that make the chances for recovery more favorable," Egan said. "But we can not predict the end run."
Egan said a rehabilitation team of behavioral neurologists, neuro-pyschologists and speech and physical therapists will work with DiCola. Mrs. Falzone said worker's compensation will pay for the more than $1-million in medical costs.
"The team will diagnose the extent of the injury, develop a plan of rehabilitation and treat him appropriately," Egan said. "As the swelling of the brain eases the patient should recover the ability to take in new information and relearn old information.
"The extent of the injury will determine the ability of his brain to encode his thoughts and restore his memory."
In Billy's own words
Billy DiCola already has remembered how to smile and speak a few words. He responded to a reporter's questions Wednesday:
How are you feeling, Billy? "Feeling pretty good."
Do you know what happened? "Hard to say."
Do you know you're going on a trip? "I'm excited."
Billy, sporting his "Never give up' T-shirt, then said, "Thank you," and smiled again for Janet Markham's camera.
"Oh Billy, you look so good in your T-shirt," Robin Falzone told her beaming son.