Five years ago this month, new york city sanitation workers made a gruesome discovery. While emptying garbage cans in the streets of Harlem, they spotted a tiny arm sticking out of the heap of rubbish in the back of their truck. The arm belonged to a dead baby girl, so new to the world her umbilical cord was still attached. Police were called and journalists, including Rebecca Spitz, a reporter for the local cable news channel, NY1, rushed to the scene.
Spitz was the channel’s Manhattan breaking-news reporter. An energetic brunette with dark eyes and an enormous smile, she had worked at NY1 since graduating from college. It was her first and only job. She was thirty-one and loved the fast-paced environment, the storytelling, and knowing what was going on before anyone else did. As her mother, Susan, would later learn, Spitz was known for her smile, her crushing hugs, and her “filthy mouth.” On a personal level, Spitz’s boyfriend had recently proposed and an engagement party full of family and friends was scheduled for the following evening.
During a break in the coverage in Harlem that afternoon, Spitz walked to her car, which was parked nearby, and as she crossed the street near St. Nicholas Avenue and 120th Street, a burgundy van drove by. The van passed so close to Spitz that its passenger-side mirror collided with her head. The impact of the blow fractured Spitz’s skull and knocked her to the ground, cracking her head again as it hit the pavement. In an instant, she went from covering a story to becoming one. As Spitz was loaded onto an ambulance a Daily News photographer snapped a picture. The tabloid’s coverage included a story with the headline, NY1 reporter in van horror.
She was rushed to nearby St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where doctors determined that in addition to having multiple skull fractures, Spitz’s head had hit the ground with such force that her brain slammed forward into her skull, bruising the frontal lobe. In an effort to reduce the swelling, she was given Sodium Pentothal, a barbiturate that sent her into a medically-induced coma. To keep her breathing, Spitz was put on a respirator. It was the beginning of a long, dark night.
Her parents, Henry and Susan, had spent that afternoon strolling around Soho. They returned to their Upper West Side apartment to the flashing lights of police cars and a small group of NY1 employees waiting to escort them to the hospital. There they encountered every parent’s worst nightmare, their child on the verge of death. “There was no medical person who thought she would survive,” Susan, a therapist, recalled recently in the suite of offices on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that she shares with Henry, a psychiatrist.
Their daughter’s brain was swelling uncontrollably. Doctors drilled a hole into Spitz’s skull to monitor the pressure inside; too much swelling could cut off oxygen, leaving her with brain damage, or killing her. They gave orders not to wash her or move her because her situation was so precarious.
As the days turned into weeks, things began to go wrong. Because Sodium Pentothal quiets the nervous system, it can cut off circulation to parts of the body. Spitz had multiple organ failure; her liver, her kidneys, and her small intestine all shut down. At one point, doctors performed abdominal surgery, removing eight inches of intestine that had died, and Spitz was put on dialysis. And once, because her brain wasn’t getting enough nutrients, she had a violent seizure that lasted forty minutes.
Henry Spitz was told by hospital staff four times that it was time to call the family, that there was nothing else they could do. Despite his extensive training as a doctor of the mind, he found himself in a situation where he was just another helpless human being praying for his daughter’s survival. “You die,” he said. “As a psychiatrist, the hardest thing I’ve seen people have to deal with is not bad news, it’s uncertainty, and we had uncertainty.”
Through it all, he and his wife, Spitz’s brother Jake, and her fiancé Stephen Fullington kept vigil over her. They played James Taylor and Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Fullington read to her from the stack of books she kept on her night stand. A parade of New Yorkers visited, including the mayor, the governor, and scores of others who had come to know Spitz as she covered the city. Susan asked everyone she knew to pray for her daughter. An employee from Channel 4, the local NBC affiliate, passed along a strand of hair that supposedly came from Mother Teresa.
After Spitz was taken off the Sodium Pentothal, she remained in a coma as the barbiturate worked its way out of her system. Slowly, she began to come to life. When it became clear that she would eventually awaken, the question on her loved ones’ minds was whether she would still be the person they used to know. The front of the brain where she was injured is home to the personality.
When she finally opened her eyes, they were vacant. And then, on the fifty-seventh day of her coma, Spitz began moving her lips. Her parents and fiancé leaned forward and realized she was mouthing the words, “What the fuck?”
And they knew she was back.
September 19 will mark the five-year anniversary of the accident. It is a date Rebecca Spitz says she will neither dwell on nor celebrate. In the years since she nearly died, she has poured her energy into returning to the life she left behind. “I never once contemplated not being the person I was before this happened,” she says one evening at a Starbucks near the NY1 headquarters in Chelsea. “I don’t want to be known as the girl who got hit by a van. I’d like for it to be an aspect of who I am as opposed to all I am.”
Spitz bears no outward signs of the physical trauma she endured. I tell her this, and she lifts up her sleeve, revealing an inner arm covered with scar tissue from dialysis. Then she points to faint, slit-like scars at the front of her neck where a short necklace would fall. “From the trache,” she says, smiling. Her feet still have a slight drop from the breakdown of nerve tissue during her coma, and she has lost her sense of smell.
Difficult, yet comparatively minor side-effects compared with the diagnosis given when she first awoke from her coma: a neurologist told her parents she might never walk again. But in July 2004, she walked down the aisle, wearing leg braces under her dress, in her wedding to Fullington. The following year, she returned to work at the station. And in January of this year, she gave birth to her first child, a cherubic boy named Quinn. Her neurosurgeon calls her “cognitively perfect.”
But she had spent a year and a half in physical therapy to relearn how to walk and even write, and it is this grueling and protracted struggle, of feeling helpless in her own body, that Spitz remembers best. “It sucked,” she says. “That I wasn’t able to walk was terrifying.” She has no memory of the accident. Most of the details remain rather fuzzy for her, compared to how they are branded into the memories of those who prayed by her side. Spitz says she bears no malice toward the woman who hit her. A breathalyzer test at the scene determined she wasn’t drunk, and no charges were filed against her. As Spitz talks, she thumbs through her BlackBerry, cooing at pictures of Quinn. “I feel like having a baby reordered my priorities more than my accident did,” she says.
Though she could have transitioned into another field after her recovery, one with better pay or shorter hours, Spitz never considered leaving journalism. It was part of her return to who she was. “I don’t know anything else, nor do I want to. I’m passionate about news, and never considered anything but returning to my job in the exact capacity in which I left,” she says.
When Spitz finally did return to work three years ago, she learned that the station had received so many calls and messages from people concerned about her that an e-mail account had been opened in her name. There were more than seven thousand messages in the inbox; most contained prayers and well wishes, others shared knowledge and feelings about their own experiences with brain injury. “It was incredibly emotional to know that even in a remote way you’ve touched people’s lives,” says Spitz.
Since the accident, Spitz has avoided focusing her reporting on the world she came to know of hospitals, physical handicap, and recovery. “That would have been part of letting this define me,” she says.
The only area in which she acknowledges the accident has changed her is her increased empathy for people with mental and physical problems. “Before, I might have been impatient if someone was walking slowly on the sidewalk,” she says. “Not now.”
In 2006, Spitz covered the release from the hospital of a New York City firefighter named Matthew Long, who also happened to be a friend. He was critically injured when he was hit by a bus while riding his bike to work. As he left the hospital, Spitz took one look at his feeble frame and burst into tears. There was so much work he still had in front of him in order to recover. “Fuck, I’ve been there,” she thought. She cried so hard she was unable to go live on the air.