Tori Vellucci '23 took 124,445 steps in Italy (while on pilgrimage with Management 290); that's 124,445 steps more than her doctors feared she would ever take again.
Tori was working as a college tour guide in the summer of 2021. On June 8, she left for campus at about 8:00 a.m. and was only a mile from home, on a back road in Cambridge, NY, when she took her eyes off the dirt road for a split second. The road was still wet from early morning storms, and in that split second, the tires twisted to the right and the car violently lunged off the road and wrapped itself around a tree.
"When I opened my eyes, my cell phone was miraculously on the seat next to me. The car automatically dialed 911 following the impact, but I was able to call my sister. The only word I could form was 'dirt,' but she knew what I meant. I sensed I was losing consciousness and wanted to get out of the car because I could smell fumes. That's when I realized I couldn't feel my legs."
Morel-Lavallee lesions are very uncommon, difficult to detect, and challenging to treat. Essentially, the skin is intact, but everything underneath is in tatters. In the hospital, Tori regained feeling in her right leg, but her left leg was lifeless. Doctors told her they weren't sure feeling would ever return and that she would certainly never walk the same again. A specialist at Dartmouth diagnosed the Morel-Lavallee injury, but refused to operate (opening up the leg, especially within the first year of the trauma, can do way more harm than good). Tori went home with one functioning leg and a bedazzled walker.
"I was determined to walk. So, I decorated my walker with pink jewels, and went to work. I can feel my lower back and my right toes, and with that limited sensation, I was slowly able to teach myself how to take steps. It was strange moving into a townhouse as a junior with my walker. I was motivated to walk without it, but until I got to that point, it was a bedazzled accessory on a night out."
Tori's progress over the course of a year confounded her doctors, but she didn't surprise herself until she went to Italy. Tori was concerned she wouldn't be able to walk long distances, but 124,445 steps later she realized she had nothing to worry about it. The Italy trip was more than a confidence boost, though: it was an awakening.
When Tori returned from Italy, she decided to confront the scene of the accident for the first time since the ambulance drove her away. For the past year and a half, she took a different route to and from campus to avoid the memory, but after her experience in Italy, she was ready to embrace it.
"I thought, this is my season finale with the accident. It will no longer hold me back. Standing next to the tree, I felt like I did in Italy. I'm ready to move on and start my next chapter."
Sitting above the clouds, Tori found her way.
Tori wasn't counting on an epiphany while in Italy. She spent the first year after the accident focusing on her physical recovery, but mentally, she felt stuck. The pilgrimage would be a nice distraction, but not a cure.
"This past year, I felt like I didn't know who I was. I spent the first three years of college dealing with something. First it was the pandemic, and then the accident. I think I was grieving who I was before all of this happened."
While in Italy, the Saints visited Greccio, an old hilltown in the region of Lazio overhanging the Rieti Valley. As the sun rose, Tori took in the view from above the clouds. In that moment, her own fog lifted.
"I felt like I took my first breath since the accident. The near-death experience from the crash washed over me, and I could feel my life's purpose. I've always said, 'If you can't find the sunshine, be the sunshine.' I lost that perspective following the accident, but in that moment in Greccio, I realized there's so much more out there. I'm alive again."
Once she graduates in May, Tori plans to pursue a career as a crime scene investigator, perhaps in Boston, where it's always been a dream to live.