After The Accident

Trupiano finishes running the Tar Heel 10 Miler in April 2017—1329 days after being told she would never walk again. Photo via Nikki Trupiano

Trupiano finishes running the Tar Heel 10 Miler in April 2017—1329 days after being told she would never walk again. Photo via Nikki Trupiano

She woke to a burning smell and smoke.

A man and woman approached her. “They’re coming,” they told her. She felt the weight of the car on her. She was covered in glass. Bones cut through her skin and nerves dangled from her fingers. She was bleeding out and she was trapped.

They had to drill through her bone for IV access. It took 35 firefighters and seven EMTs a total of 59 minutes to extricate her from the car and airlift her to Rhode Island Hospital.

Her parents asked the social worker if she was alive. The social worker did not respond. Doctors said she would not make it through the next three days. The Catholic priest from her school came to the hospital room to read her final rites. Her friends said their goodbyes.

Nikki Trupiano grew up in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Her parents are Phil Trupiano, a gastroenterologist, and Kim Trupiano, a fitness instructor. She has an older sister named Jess.

The day was September 1, 2013. It was her senior year at La Salle Academy, where she involved herself in competitive swimming and various programs for helping students with disabilities. She was driving home in the early afternoon from the University of Connecticut—where she was visiting her sister—when she drove across four lanes of traffic at 65 mph, smashed into a tree and flew 50 feet from her car.

Trupiano was in the ICU for five days and underwent over 20 hours of emergency surgery to repair a shattered right arm, left arm, left leg and left pelvis. Doctors said she would never walk or be able to use her left arm again.

Every morning at 8 a.m., she would wake up and do her physical therapy exercises.

After six weeks of being in a wheelchair, she got back into the pool and swam 500 yards. She swam every day after that. Before she walked on her own once again, she spent a month in the hospital, two months in a wheelchair and another month on crutches.

“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was little,” Trupiano said. “Being in the hospital reaffirmed that.”

Trupiano is a junior in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, minoring in chemistry and medical anthropology. After graduating, she hopes to go to medical school.

Trupiano decided to major in business because she wants to open her own medical practice someday. To do that, she said she needs to understand how to run a business, from organizing finances to managing employees.

On campus, she is an admissions ambassador for both the university and the Business School, a representative for Achieving Carolina Excellence, the vice president of event planning for Pi Beta Phi and a member of Relay for Life and Carolina Women in Business.

“Nikki is passionate, driven and extremely compassionate,” said junior Chrissy Boals, a friend of Trupiano. “She is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.”

In the weeks after the accident, Trupiano applied to colleges from her hospital bed through a voice-to-text application. Both of her arms were in casts. She relied on others to help her do regular tasks including eating and brushing her teeth.

Doctors and nurses told Trupiano she would not be able to do a lot of things. It was in this time immediately after the accident that she knew she had two choices: either wallow in self-pity or fight. She vowed that she would not let the accident define her.

“It was a horrible time for all of us, but Nikki’s strength and perseverance resonated throughout,” said her mother Kim.

In December 2013, Trupiano returned to the swimming pool to compete for her school’s team. After missing the entire first semester of her senior year, she went back to school in January and graduated in May. In August 2014, she moved to Chapel Hill.

The accident did not just affect Trupiano, but it impacted the people around her. Her experience allowed her to reconnect with old friends, she said. She even gives speeches at her old high school to encourage safe driving practices among teenagers.

During a particularly rough semester her sophomore year, Trupiano reminded herself of the things people said she would not be able to do and used those words as a motivational tool. The scars and daily pain reminded her of what she overcame. She trained for weeks and ran the infamous Tar Heel 10-Miler in April 2016.

“I have learned to persevere through whatever life throws at you,” Trupiano said. “Most importantly, I’ve learned the value of never giving up.”