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Star athlete's determined recovery

Walking is an activity most people don't think twice about. For Rita Ronchi, walking is a goal she's focused on for close to a year. That goal became a public reality May 25 when she walked across the stage in the Northwestern High School gym in ...

Walking is an activity most people don't think twice about.

For Rita Ronchi, walking is a goal she's focused on for close to a year.

That goal became a public reality May 25 when she walked across the stage in the Northwestern High School gym in Maple -- with the aid of a walker and a prosthetic right leg -- to receive her high school diploma to a thunderous ovation.

"I don't think there was a dry eye in the whole gymnasium," said her longtime friend Nate Thoreson, a fellow graduate. "It was like someone hit a home run or scored the game-winning touchdown. I've never heard it that loud in that gym."

Those small steps were the culmination of large strides

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Ronchi has made since a car accident June 4 -- one year ago Monday -- left her in a coma and near death. Doctors originally gave her a 1 percent chance of survival, but the multi-sport athlete astounded her caretakers with a quick recovery.

Virtually every month in the past year has brought a new milestone in Ronchi's life. From being discharged as an inpatient at Miller-Dwan Medical Center and returning home to going back to school on a part-time basis her senior year, she has made dramatic improvements. Walking on her own is next on Ronchi's checklist, which she says could come by the end of the summer. She's already walked up to 45 feet with just the aid of a cane and works out daily with a walker.

"I need to walk. I'm sick and tired of that wheelchair," she said Friday during outpatient therapy at Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center in Duluth. "It's getting irritating not being able to walk, so therefore I need to do this [therapy] even though I don't want to."

Ronchi says she's exhausted after a day of therapy, which on Friday consisted of her balancing, lifting weights, walking with a walker, working out on an exercise machine and tossing beanbags through a basketball hoop to aid in coordination.

While physical and occupational therapies will continue indefinitely, Ronchi no longer needs psychological therapy since her brain's functioning has returned to normal.

"I'm so proud of the baby steps I've taken, everything that I've accomplished," she said. "I didn't take that to heart until my doctor [Skip Silvestrini] said my cognitive level is all the way back. I'm actually proud of myself."

Marcie Crain has been Ronchi's physical therapist at Polinsky since her arrival there. She sees more than baby steps in Ronchi's recovery.

"She's come an amazingly long way," said Crain, who has 20 years of experience in physical therapy. "She was pretty much in a coma when she first came here. Her mobility was nonexistent. The left side of her body was hemiplegic, so she didn't have any movement in her upper extremity or her lower extremity.

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"She started out from ground zero."

attitude KEy To recovery

At 17, Ronchi seemed to have it all. An affable star athlete with good looks and charisma, she was on top of the world.

That changed June 4 when she was returning from a Junior Olympic volleyball tournament at Duluth Marshall and was involved in a head-on automobile collision on Highway 2 near Wentworth, Wis. Among her many injuries were collapsed lungs, brain damage, a fractured left arm and left leg and, eventually, the amputation of her right leg above the knee.

After several months of ups and downs that included a stroke to her left side, amputation of toes on her left foot and continued difficulties using her dominant left hand, Ronchi's condition has been on the upswing. Named homecoming queen in the fall, the former volleyball, basketball and softball player returned to cheer on her former teammates -- the Tigers had record-setting seasons in volleyball and softball -- and complete her schoolwork.

But gradual improvements often aren't enough for a spirited teenager whose days usually were filled with activities from dawn until dusk. In addition to her sporting life, Ronchi was an accomplished pianist. Not being able to live the life she was used to occasionally has proved hard to handle.

"I have no patience," Ronchi says. "I had the busiest life. It's so hard to take my time. Everyone says, 'Take your time, be patient.' And I don't have it, never have."

At times those frustrations were evident in the journal Ronchi has kept on caringbridge.org. But those moments are an exception.

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"You just have to vent after a while. And I think she finally got to a point where she did that and that made her feel better," said Myrna Ronchi, Rita's mother. "But on a day-to-day basis, she handles it incredibly. I really don't know how she does it. I don't think she's covering up or bottling it up inside her."

It's that same feisty attitude that likely has aided in her recovery.

"She wouldn't be here if she didn't have her attitude," her mother said. "She has always wanted to be the best at everything. If she's doing good, she wants to be better. Determination, drive, she just simply wants to be the best at everything she does.

"You could easily sit back and say, 'My life is screwed and I'm not going to be able to do anything anymore.' But she didn't do that."

She's astounded fellow classmates as well.

"Because she had a 1 percent chance [of living], I never thought she'd get so far so fast," said Thoreson, a friend since grade school, who was one of the first to visit Ronchi in the hospital and has followed her progress since. "Her attitude is one-of-a-kind. Honestly, I don't know anyone else like her. Many people would give up. It's good to see she has that drive."

Crain says Ronchi's work ethic is uncommon in severely injured patients, but it's definitely been a benefit.

"This is unusual," she said. "It's a very miraculous recovery. She's worked very hard. We've had other extended patients, but this is one of the longest. I've never seen anybody maintain their stamina and motivation to improve and persevere like Rita has."

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fitted with 'Bionic' knee

The latest challenge for Ronchi is using her prosthetic leg, which she was fitted for less than two weeks ago.

The device, designed by Hangar Orthopedic Group of Bethesda, Md., uses a microprocessing knee -- often called a "bionic" knee -- and a customized flex socket.

The knee processes information while a person is walking, just as a brain would, said James L'Allier, who designs and fits prostheses for Hanger in Duluth. L'Allier says the knee is programmed for Ronchi's needs and will allow her to walk safely in all environments.

"Ramps, stairs, uneven ground ... in the past, these things have been more of a challenge," L'Allier said. "With the advent of microprocessing prosthetics, it removes [people] having to think of what environment they're in. It reduces the chance of falls.

"Someone 18 years old is going to be active. We want to give [Rita] the potential for whatever she might imagine."

It's that imaginative spark that seems to drive Ronchi. She doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. In her mind, she's just trying to get better and isn't seeking any special attention.

"Everyone says, 'I would never be doing as well as you,'" she said. "I say, 'Wouldn't you want to get better?' I don't understand why if this happened to someone else, why they wouldn't want to get back to as normal as they could."

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Some people, such as her psychologist and mother, question why Ronchi has been unable to cry since her accident. Is it a medical side effect or psychological trauma of some sort? Ronchi doesn't believe so.

"I don't really have emotional scars," she said. "I can cry; I just haven't because I don't see it as something to cry about."

reason to celebrate

Normalcy is something Ronchi has strived for. She returned to class part time March 12, attending rehab in the mornings and school in the afternoon. The high school, which had provided a teacher for Ronchi while she was an inpatient, also paid to transport her by van daily from Miller Dwan.

Returning to school may have been, in some ways, more frightening than the comfort she felt in the rehab center.

"She was apprehensive with what kids were going to think," Northwestern principal Steve High said. "Those are things we tried to work out beforehand."

High said school officials ran a mock drill of what a handicapped person would face in their building in hopes of solving crises before they began. He said the students' behavior was key in welcoming her back.

"When she came back, it was like she didn't miss a beat," High said. "The whole thing about her not being glued in or connected has gone by the wayside. She's been accepted with open arms by her peers."

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Now with commencement over, Ronchi is making the circuit of friends' graduation parties. Her own is sure to be well-attended. She plans on combining the graduation party with the one-year anniversary of the accident, using both as reasons to rejoice.

"I see it now as it happened, and I'm alive and I'm not supposed to be," Ronchi said. "It's something to be happy about, like something to celebrate. I'm coming up on one year from the accident, so we're going to have a wonderful party."

There will be a lot of people celebrating with her. After nearly 250,000 visits to her caringbridge Web site and an untold number of prayers for her recovery, Ronchi has gained friends she didn't even know she had.

That's part of the miracle behind the story.

"This whole thing is beyond a miracle," Myrna Ronchi said. "She had all the right people in the right places at the right time. Had it not been for many of those events, she wouldn't have made it.

"I feel really blessed to say that I'm her mother. As hard as it is and how it's changed our life in everything we do, she has a huge chance at life. She could be in a nursing home or not with us. The [alternatives] could be so terrible."

RICK WEEGMAN can be reached at 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or by

e-mail at rweegman@duluth

news.com.

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