Three years ago, doctors told Rochelle Ann Rosa to not expect to walk again after a bleed in her stomach left her paralyzed.
On Saturday, 68-year-old Rosa will run her second Brooklyn Half Marathon.
“I really lived day by day, moment by moment,” Rosa recalled. “I literally thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be paralyzed the rest of my life.”
The paralysis was the second seemingly unconquerable hurdle Rosa has faced in the last decade. On a crisp March morning some 9 years ago, at the corner of 41st Avenue and Corporal Kennedy Street in Bayside, a distracted cabdriver smashed into Rosa as she was crossing the street, sending her flying “like a bowling pin,” she remembers.
“Your instinct is to turn and grab the hood of the car like you’re Superman,” she said. “When I tried to stand up I knew I was hurt.”
Despite her determination to avoid the hospital and enjoy her impending vacation, she was in surgery 10 days later. As it turns out, her meniscus was “totally shredded,” her tibia “split wide open,” and her left shin fractured.
She spent the next two years in rehabilitation so that she could walk without a cane. Eventually, she did and was soon bit by “the bug” to run. Four years ago, she joined a running group and decided the following year she would run her first New York Road Runners race.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I woke up the next day thinking that (I had) a stomach virus or a case of food poisoning.”
Three hours later, she was delirious and then lost consciousness. After being transported to the hospital, she spent hours in ICU until she was stable enough for surgery. Surgeons stapled her stomach to stop the bleeding and, eventually, moved her to a room for recovery.
“When I went to stand up to go the bathroom and walk, I collapsed,” Rosa said. “The blood oxygen levels in my brain got so messed up that I was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down for a little over six months.”
What ensued were three weeks in Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital, three weeks in a rehab center — “which was the worst experience of my life” — then six months in a wheelchair at home. But, just as after the car accident in Queens, Rosa resolved to walk again. She sought the help of physical therapist Manson Wong, who began making twice-weekly visits to her Lower East Side home.
Wong, 45, of Brooklyn Heights, said he sees patients across the city and had never seen someone as determined as Rosa. The pair began with simply sitting — Rosa couldn’t even sit of her own strength — then moving into the wheelchair, then taking a couple steps. After only three weeks, Rosa was walking to the bathroom, and three weeks later she was walking around the apartment with the walker.
“It’s weird, it should have been a long, long, long process of years and years, when you take into account where she came from, where she needed help sitting,” Wong said. “I can’t explain to you how sick she was. She could have been dead.”
Yet, six months later, she was running. Wong recalled after finishing a race last year seeing someone run by who looked oddly like Rosa.
“I saw her going by and I wasn’t sure if it was her or not, I was shocked,” he said, adding: “For her to go on and finish a marathon is just insane.”
Last year, Rosa completed the New York City Marathon — in a tutu.
One of her beloved running partners, Elena McCalla, first met Rochelle three years ago and said their group was aware of how dire her prognosis was. McCalla, 55, of Park Slope, said she chatted with Rosa on Facebook throughout her physical therapy at home and wasn’t surprised in the least to see her running with the group again last year.
“Rochelle is one of a kind, let’s put it that way,” McCalla said, laughing. “She would show up every week with a different hair color and so much enthusiasm … Rochelle, no matter what’s thrown at her, she will find a way to bounce back.”
Rosa, unaware of McCalla’s accolades, concurred in a prior interview when asked what propelled her through learning to walk not once, not twice, but three times in her life.
“I guess you just have to know me. I’m a very determined woman,” Rosa said, giggling through the phone. “I’m totally age-defying, that’s for sure.”
And odds-defying. That’s for sure.