I Will Survive

Plane Crash Survivor Nancy Dellamaria…

Nancy Dellamaria wants to tell you about post- traumatic stress disorder.

This 54-year-old Redding woman considers herself well- experienced in trauma after a 10-year series of near catastrophes, any one of which could have ended her life. From a rattlesnake bite, to blood clots leading to a pulmonary embolism, to discovery of a congenital brain stem malformation and the delicate surgery to correct it, to bailing out of her car to escape possibly being immolated by a gas tank puncture, she feels qualified to say something about living with PTSD.

“You can shift your mood. Shift your energy,” she says. “Take a walk outside and just go somewhere other than where you’re sitting with sadness or feeling bad about things. I know that for myself, I’ve had to almost force myself into not getting caught in overwhelming sadness or depression. But I’m still letting myself feel sad, you know? Facing some really, really difficult things.”

Her voice breaks. “See? I’m letting myself feel sad right now.”

Nancy Dellamaria after the crash. Photos courtesy of Nancy Dellamaria.

Mind you, those really, really difficult things were not caused entirely by the ordeals listed above. She sees them more as omens. No, the crowning event that would test her resilience was the plane crash.

Dellamaria and her 16-year-old daughter were passengers on four-seat, single-engine aircraft flying them to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford. Chloe King had discovered that she had the same congenital brain stem malformation as her mother and was to undergo the same surgical procedure to correct it. The pilot botched an attempted landing at Palo Alto Airport and took to the sky to circle around and try again.

The small plane roared in too low, snapping treetops as it angled into the ground. It overshot land and splashed into marsh waters at least 30 feet from the shore. The pilot did not survive. Dellamaria and King found each other alive and conscious, but hurt. Each coped with the impact in her own way. King started screaming. Dellamaria crawled out of the broken fuselage, but beginning to feel the extent of her injuries, she laid down on a wing and waited for help.

King, pushing back the pain of whiplash, willed herself to think. She called to the pilot, reached out and shook him. No response. Then she turned to her mother. “I didn’t know at the time how severely she was injured. And I was floored that she was not freaking out as much as I was,” the now-21-year-old recalls. “I was in flight mode and she just seemed so calm that it was unsettling.”

Nancy Dellamaria and Chloe King. Photos courtesy of Nancy Dellamaria.

Five years later, Dellamaria looks back at the good parts. “We had all the conditions right for us to survive,” she says. “We landed in the bay, so we didn’t go up in flames due to fuel leaking in dry grass. We did land in water, but the tide was out, so we were in water only up to our knees. And Chloe was not badly injured, so she could triage for them and tell them that her mom was terribly hurt and bleeding and on blood thinners.”

Dellamaria survived a gash on the head, shattered ribs and a broken neck. She spent a month at Stanford University Medical Center, during which time King recovered enough from minor injuries to have her surgery.

PTSD plagued them both. Dellamaria recalls that for a year or two after the crash, she found herself locking on the sight of an approaching aircraft and she couldn’t stop watching until she was sure the plane wasn’t crashing. King experienced similar thoughts. “My brain would trick me into thinking something bad was happening even if it wasn’t,” she says. “Say, the dishwasher was left open in the kitchen. I would vividly see myself tripping over the door and feel myself hit the floor without it actually happening.”

Today, Dellamaria wants to tell her story, because she figures it could help others going through rough times. As a medical technologist in MRI and X-ray, she helped others all her life. Retired now, she continues to help others as a lactation consultant, volunteering with support groups for breastfeeding. She believes telling a story that will help others will help her, as well.

“Honestly it took like three years before I could even talk about it without crying,” she says on the verge of tears. “We’ve had incredible therapists and we’ve come a long way. It was pretty intense for about two months after the crash and then slowly got less and less vivid and happened less frequently. It took about four years for the visions to go away completely.”

Nancy Dellamaria and Chloe King. Photos courtesy of Nancy Dellamaria.

Part of recovery for both women was overcoming survivor’s guilt, and King found a unique way. “I had some very tough times coming to terms with the fact that I had lived thought an event that had killed someone else,” she says. “But I had a very beautiful way of reframing that thought. I now live, in part, for him. His life may have ended but I can go on and not allow this tragedy to stop my life. I can grow and experience beautiful things and build a life in honor of him.”

She is also encouraged by new strength she sees in her mother. “I think she is saying yes to more things in life than she ever has before. And she is experiencing more good things because of that. After a tragic experience like that, you have a realization of what life has to offer. And so, how can you not say yes?”

Dellamaria is saying yes to finding words that will help. “I don’t want to leave this life without documenting my story,” she says. “But part of the problem is I feel like I have so much information that it’s really hard to get it all out and down. I’m just trying to give a message to others that they can be resilient, too. My main thing is just telling people, ‘Don’t give up. Life does go on. We are still here, you know?’”•

About Richard DuPertuis

Richard DuPertuis is a Redding grandfather who writes. His stories and photographs have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. He strives for immortality not by literary recognition, but through diet and exercise. He can be reached at [email protected]

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