Former Northwestern athlete moves on after setbacks

Rita Ronchi has achieved many goals since the 2006 car accident that nearly claimed her life, but perhaps her biggest goal was reached this summer when she met singer Dave Matthews -- not once, but twice.


Rita Ronchi has achieved many goals since the 2006 car accident that nearly claimed her life, but perhaps her biggest goal was reached this summer when she met singer Dave Matthews -- not once, but twice.

Ronchi, at Essentia Health Duluth (formerly Miller-Dwan) on Thursday to receive the medical center's Junior Journey Award, discussed her life since the two-car crash along Highway 2 left her with what doctors termed a "1 percent chance of survival," her $70,000 prosthetic right leg and the infections that nearly cost her her left leg.

But the effervescent 25-year-old Northwestern High School graduate really perked up when asked about the Dave Matthews Band.

After several trips to the Alpine Valley music venue in East Troy, Wis., to watch the popular band, Rita made it a goal to meet Matthews when, in 2012, the singer pedaled past her en route to his tour bus on the concert grounds and said "Hey, how are you?"

That meeting finally happened July 4 when Rita and her mother, Myrna, scheduled a backstage appearance to meet Matthews, who hugged Rita, mugged for photos and signed her C-Leg prosthetic limb.


"He was very compassionate, called me a fox twice and hugged me twice," she said. "He signed my knee cover and drew on the knee cover and signed my bag. When I left down the hall, I looked back at Dave and he winked at me. It was a Dave and Rita moment."

At a later concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Quincy, Wash., Rita talked her way backstage to present Matthews with a photo album she created that documented her rehabilitation and first meeting with the singer. He responded by dedicating the song "Grey Street" to Rita at the show.

"I met this amazing girl again today and I want to say thank you to Rita, an amazing young woman and an inspiration," Matthews said in concert. Rita still has that recorded on her phone.

"To me, the moral of the story is she never gave up on this whole journey of her life," said Myrna Ronchi, a vice president in the loan division at National Bank of Commerce in Superior. "She was on a mission (to get better) and she was on a mission to meet Dave Matthews."

Rita was turned on to the group by Essentia Health physician Thomas "Skip" Silvestrini, who took charge of Ronchi's injuries the night her 1992 Ford Tempo plowed into another vehicle on June 4, 2006.

"Two rehab doctors turned me down in the ICU and said there was little to no chance for a successful recovery," Rita recalled.

Silvestrini, on call that night, found no brain activity when he first examined Rita, but returned two days later and found the slightest reaction to stimuli. From that point, Silvestrini never gave up hope despite the dire prognosis.

"He's had the greatest influence on my life," Rita said. "After God's amazing saving grace and his purpose for Skip to be my doctor, Skip is the reason I have a journey to be on. I'm so thankful that he gave me a chance to live life and have a journey."


A star volleyball and softball player at Northwestern, Ronchi's life was forever changed the night of the accident. But after a year of rehabilitation, she walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma.

"I've seen a lot of patients in my 30-year career in rehabilitation, but Rita struck a chord with me," said Sheila Davidson, programs manager at Essentia Health Rehabilitation Services, who presented Rita with her award. "Even though Rita had to relearn everything she ever knew how to do -- talk, walk, eat, dress herself -- it was obvious she had the willpower to keep going."

And Rita doesn't cry or complain about her situation. In fact, the opposite is true.

"I feel I've gained a lot more than I've lost in life, all things considered," she said. "The people who have come into my life and the support they have given me are absolutely amazing. I feel so blessed to have a second chance at life."

There are still demons to overcome, however. Ronchi has had four diagnosed infections in her left foot, stemming from a stroke she suffered shortly after her accident, which led to surgery in 2011. She staved off another infection earlier this year that could have resulted in amputation.

She also battles feelings of depression. After originally taking classes at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, she dropped out and lives with her mother in Superior.

"A lot of the time I feel like a giant failure because I don't have a college degree or a job," she said. "But then the next day, after I'm having those horrible self-doubts, God leads me to an opportunity to share my story.

"It's God's purpose for me. It's his plan that I survived because there's no medical reason for my survival."


  • As part of National Rehabilitation Awareness Week, Essentia Health also bestowed the Journey Award to Betty Lou Wilzbacher of Ely and the Ernie Pearson Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Kris Morse.
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