Nikki Trupiano is not someone who gets discouraged easily. While that character trait has probably always been an asset, it's been particularly helpful these past two weeks, ever since she fell asleep behind the wheel and smashed into a tree on Route 6 in Scituate.
Nikki, a senior at La Salle High School who lives in East Greenwich, was returning home from a visit with her sister at the University of Connecticut. She hadn't gotten a lot of sleep in the dorm, but it was only a little over an hour back to EG and it was the middle of the afternoon, so it didn't seem at all like a risky thing to do.
But fatigue got the better of her and, according to witnesses, Nikki drove straight into a tree — no braking, no turning. Police estimated her speed at that time of impact was 62 mph.
After the accident, Nikki never lost consciousness. The first things she did as she sat with the dashboard on top of her was to wiggle her fingers and her toes. "'I'm not paralyzed.'" she told herself. "I said a prayer and then, 'I've got to get through this,'" she recalled.
But the next 51 minutes were brutal as rescue workers tried to free her. One rescue woman, Megan, sat with her the whole time and that was key, Nikki said. "I actually thank her for keeping me alive," she said. "She talked me through it."
Meanwhile, Nikki's parents were waiting for her to arrive home. Just as they were placing calls with both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts state police, another caller left a message – "Hi, this is so-and-so, a social worker at Rhode Island Hospital…" said Kim Trupiano, Nikki's mom. But the caller didn't say why she was calling. "They said, 'Here's a number, you need to call us.'"
It was a parent's worst nightmare. But Nikki was alive and, even in the emergency room at Rhode Island Hospital, she told her mother, "I know everything happens for a reason, I'm just not sure why this happened yet. So, I'm still kind of thinking about it, but I know there's a reason."
Nikki's injuries are not minor. She broke her pelvis, her left elbow, her left leg and her right wrist. She has had several surgeries and is, as she puts it, full of "hardware" now. She lost most of her elbow, so doctors have told her it's possible she will not regain full range of motion there. And she is not supposed to bear weight on her leg for three months. Full recovery could take 6 to 12 months.
Despite all of this, Nikki and her parents know it could have been much worse. "No internal injuries, no spinal, no head trauma – it's like a miracle," said Kim.
After more than a week at Rhode Island Hospital, Nikki moved to the rehab unit at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. She's due to be discharged on Tuesday.
The family is marveling at the outpouring of support that has washed over them since the day of the accident, especially from Nikki's large number of friends. In addition to her friends from East Greenwich, Nikki has friends from school who live throughout the state. And there are her friends from her club swim team, at the Fox Point Boys and Girls Club. They've all come together to support Nikki, even if they haven't known each other. Nikki has been the common denominator.
Five friends started a Facebook group called Trupiano's Troops. The friends, none of whom knew each other before, were all connected to Nikki and now each other.
"It's really cool to see everyone bond and come together over something," said Nikki. "We're turning it into a good thing, a movement rather than a tragedy."
Right now, they are supporting Nikki, with visits, phone calls and texts and LOTS of stuffed animals. But plans are afoot to hold some sort of concert – many of her friends are musical. Any money raised, said Nikki, would go to help the volunteer fire departments that came to her aid that day and the children's hospital.
Nikki said she also hopes to do something "when I get recovered a little more" to raise awareness about driving while tired. "I can start doing some work and figuring out better ways to handle that situation. I think it's such a common thing."
There have been tears, but Nikki insists she's glad that if the accident had to happen to someone, it was her.
"I'm glad that I took one for the team," she said. "I'm going to be strong and get through it."
It helps enormously that so many are out there supporting her.
"She's got so many people rooting for her," said her mom, Kim.
"And I can feel it," said Nikki.