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A teenage girl, a terrible injury and a will to recover

Samantha Palumbo, 16, had her future mapped out. Then came the car crash -- and damage to her brain that doctors said was 'not compatible with life.' But they didn't know Sami.

August 26, 2007|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Samantha Palumbo lay still as a stone. She might as well have been dead.

Above her head, a doctor held a needle. It contained Lidocaine, a local anesthetic. First some numbing, just in case she could feel, and then the doctor would insert a fiber-optic probe into what was left of Sami's brain.

For nearly a week, Sami Palumbo, 16, had not moved. Her parents and classmates from her school came to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and prayed. One by one, the kids shuffled into Sami's room to say goodbye. When they saw her head, they cried. A thick white bandage covered a hole. Under the bandage, most of the left frontal lobe of Sami's brain was gone.

On a CT scan, someone had written: "Not compatible with life."

Now, with the needle full of Lidocaine, the doctor pricked Sami's scalp. Sami's left hand shot up. It swiped at the needle and grabbed at the doctor's hand. Sami's hand stayed there, clutching and fishing for what had caused the pain.

What was this? the doctor, Azadeh Farin, wondered. A hiccup in the nervous system? Or a conscious movement? Was this hopeless, silent kid trying to say something?

Procedure completed, the doctor walked into the waiting room.

"Your daughter," she told Sami's mother, Diana Palumbo, in words that neither would forget, "she just moved."

What was happening inside Sami's brain? Was part of it beginning to heal? Were damaged cells beginning to function again? She was ambidextrous, so she was accustomed to calling on more parts of her brain than other people. Was she doing that now? Maybe it was her intelligence. She had been blessed with a high IQ, and maybe she had brainpower in reserve. None of Sami's doctors knew for sure.

Whatever the cause, Sami had moved. Days became weeks, and weeks piled into months, and Sami's fortunes rose and fell like the tides. She fell dormant again. Then she twisted her hand. Then she twitched her right eye and opened it. She seemed to see. But then she stared into nothingness again, lost in the grip of her unfathomable injury.

Her father, Sam Palumbo, in his early 70s, wondered what would happen if she remained like this for good. If she did, he thought, maybe God should take her home. At their house, her mother, Diana, 44, collapsed on the floor, went limp and screamed: "Why? Why? Why?" What would become of Sami? What would become of her brain?

She was a sophomore at San Dimas High School. In two more years, her friends -- the kids she had grown up with since kindergarten -- would be gone, off to college or careers. If Sami lived, would she ever be able to go back to class? Or walk, or eat, or bathe, or get into bed by herself, to say nothing of going to the prom, or graduating. . . ?

All her life, Sami had been impatient. She was still shy of 3 years old when she began to speak in sentences. When she was 4, she started competing.

She took an older stepsister's doll, and they sparred. "You want it back?" Sami said, hands on hips. "Call my lawyer."

In grade school, her teachers remarked about how Sami envisioned her future and was planning to get there. She couldn't wait. When she was 13, she begged to go to high school football games. As a bubbly freshman, she was a cheerleader -- on the varsity. Her boyfriend was a football star -- a senior.

By nature, she was a perfectionist. Two hours of studying, first thing when she got home from school. When she was 15, she wrote in her journal: "I put great care into my schoolwork, and my grades are about as perfect as they can be."

Each day she was up before dawn: curly hair first, then liner around her soft brown eyes, then touches of makeup on her cheeks. Top, pants or skirt: everything pressed, matched. She was beyond cute -- she was extraordinarily pretty.

She entered a beauty pageant, was voted runner-up -- and sulked. About the hardest thing she'd ever done, she told her parents afterward, was to stand up there after the judging with a forced smile, knowing she would not go home the best.

Two months later, she was Miss California Junior National Teenager.

Although she was only a high school sophomore, she signed up for classes at a community college. To get to those classes, and wherever else she wanted to go, she asked her parents for a car.

In March of 2005, just a few days before Sami's 16th birthday, Diana Palumbo took her daughter to an auto dealer.

Sami fell in love with a gleaming white Toyota Scion coupe.

"My parents. . . said it is worth it to see me happy," she wrote in her journal. "I get my license [soon]."

At sunset on a warm evening less than a month later, Sami said a quick goodbye to her parents and drove off to meet friends. About a mile from home, she eased the Scion down a hill. She had just finished dinner, and she had not been drinking.

Nobody was sure why -- maybe an animal rushed across the road, maybe she simply lost control -- but her car veered to the right.

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