Baldwin runner remains optimistic during recovery


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An Olympic women's track and field competition was on TV in the Whitehall home where Juliana Fortunato sat with her legs folded in a chair.

She had recorded the contest, but it was hard for her to watch.

On the morning of June 16, the Baldwin High School cross-country runner was hit by a vehicle at the intersection of Route 51 and Brownsville Road in Brentwood while she was training for the fall season.

Seven weeks later, she's still recovering, and she's anxious for her next run -- a date that remains unclear.

"Right now, all I want to do is run," she said. "I don't care if I come in last, I just want to run."

Juliana, 18, suffered several broken bones -- including her jaw -- a concussion and countless cuts and bruises, mostly on her face.

"One of those injuries would have sent a grown-up crying in a corner," said her mom, Susan.

When she smiles, the shiny metal strip that helped wire her jaw shut for five weeks catches the light. Her dentist wants to leave it in a little while longer to ensure her jaw has healed properly. Miraculously, her family said, Juliana's legs were spared any trauma.

Allegheny County homicide unit is investigating (often the protocol when serious accidents are potentially fatal) and no charges have been filed.

Juliana has been running for about six or seven years, starting on a treadmill. Along the way, she said she picked up discipline and motivation that has extended to other parts of her life.

She takes AP classes, reads and helps with activities at a local nursing home. Mom says she's a straight-A student. And like many athletes, she treasures the solitude of her runs.

These days she now walks about an hour around the neighborhood. It's tempting to run, she admitted, but doctors warn that if she hasn't healed enough, the strenuous exercise could cause a setback.

Rich Wright, Juliana's high school cross-country coach, has been accompanying her on the walks. On Monday, the two walked nearly an hour up and down hills.

"I told her that we're in this together and I'm not going to abandon her and she's not going to be forgotten," Mr. Wright said.

She is making progress. Her face is clear of cuts and bruises and at her weekly physical therapy session Monday, she managed to use the elliptical machine.

For the rest of the summer, Juliana will finish summer reading for her Advanced Placement courses in the fall. She's also enrolled in an anatomy class.

"I'll learn all the things that I broke," she said.

Brentwood police Chief Robert Butelli said the driver, Larry McGaffin, swerved to miss Juliana, but a part of his vehicle struck her and sent her airborne. Mr. McGaffin was unconscious and lying across both seats of his vehicle when crews arrived, Chief Butelli said.

Witnesses told police he had a green light and Juliana was not in the crosswalk when she ran across Route 51.

Calls to the county homicide unit were not returned in time for this article. A phone number listed for Mr. McGaffin's address was disconnected.

Juliana said she has no memory of what happened -- only that she had planned to run on the familiar path that morning. She remembers the day before the accident, then waking up a few days later in UPMC Mercy, where she was on a ventilator in the trauma unit.

She's thankful for the support from her cross-country team, family, friends and neighbors.

"It's not every day you get a whole town to help you through the toughest time of your life," she wrote in an email.

The Robinson branch of local retailer Elite Runners and Walkers at 5992 Steubenville Pike will host a fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday featuring the "Brooks Cavalcade of Curiosities," a double-decker bus that transforms in an 18-foot interactive display showcasing Brooks running shoes.

Elite Runners will donate $5 from every Brooks shoe purchase to the Fortunato family, and the Brooks company pledged to match the store's donation.

neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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