Vickroy: Split-second decision and life is thrown off course
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy June 5, 2013 4:56PM
Tiffani Ntanos is recovering from broken vertabrae suffered during a swimming accident in the Kankakee River. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Funds for Tiffani
A fundraiser will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. June 30 at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St., Merrionette Park; (708) 388-8881. For more information, visit fundsfortiffani.net.
Updated: July 7, 2013 7:31AM
In May 2010, Tiffani Ntanos had a plan.
Among the first teens to graduate from the newly opened Lincoln-Way North High School, she would work for a few years, put away some money and then enroll in a cosmetology school in Chicago.
The plan meant moving from the southwest suburbs into the heart of the city. It meant independence and freedom. It meant a future.
Things were in motion on June 3, 2012, when Tiffani finally got a break from her waitress job at Zante Lounge in Orland Hills. For the first time in a long time, she’d be able to spend the weekend afternoon with friends — and on a boat on the Kankakee River.
Dive into disaster
They had spent the day anchored near Joliet, just swimming, sunning and goofing around. They didn’t notice that another boat had crossed over and severed their anchor line. They also didn’t notice that their boat had drifted over a sandbar.
“While they were looking for the anchor off the back, I decided to take one last dive off the front,” Tiffani said.
Her whole world changed the moment her forehead cracked the bottom.
Tiffani, who turns 21 on June 27, can’t help the tears that accompany her story.
Her mom, Michelle Clifton, said, “She’s still so emotional about it.”
Brushing away her own tears, it’s clear Clifton is, too.
To be sure, it has been a long, difficult year, riddled with broken dreams and exhausting therapy sessions.
But Tiffani is far from being defeated. In fact, her progress has amazed doctors and onlookers.
With help, she can stand up. With support, she can walk.
Quite a comeback for the young woman who was told she’d never do either again.
She never lost consciousness. She’d later learn how that fact likely saved her life. If she’d passed out, she would have instinctively begun breathing in water. She would have drowned.
“I remember hitting the bottom and then just floating. I couldn’t move my arms or my head,” she said. “For about two minutes I was drifting, drowning.”
Panic quickly morphed into peace as she accepted what seemed inevitable: She was about to die. She started to pray.
“And then Kevin (Miller) came and lifted me out of the water,” she said.
Miller, who owned the boat, had paramedic training. He knew to keep her still and not to administer CPR. If he’d tried he could have crushed the already damaged vertebrae.
Tiffani remembers telling her friends to call her mom. She remembers giving them the password to her cellphone. She remembers being transported to South Suburban Hospital and, later, St. Joseph Provena Hospital in Chicago.
She also remembers the diagnosis: broken C5 and C6 vertebrae.
Mostly, vividly, she remembers the prognosis: Doctors told her she’d never walk again.
Unable to lift her arms or even use her hands, she believed them.
It’s hard to know how many people are injured each year diving off a boat. The Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety considers accidents in which a person dies or is injured as a result of jumping, diving or swimming for pleasure from an anchored boat to be “nonreportable” boating accidents.
According to the Mayo Clinic, athletic activities, such as impact sports and diving in shallow water, cause about 8 percent of spinal cord injuries each year.
Tiffani, like so many others whose lives have turned 180 degrees in a heartbeat, immediately descended into a depression. She’d already enrolled in school. She’d already put a deposit on an apartment. She’d already wrapped her head around a new lifestyle.
“Everything stopped,” she said. “Everything I’d hoped for was gone. I was 20 years old and wearing a diaper.”
She would have to move back in with her mother and stepdad, Chris Clifton, in Frankfort. She wouldn’t be able to do the things she loved, including fishing with her older brother, Bobby, and their dad, Bob Ntanos.
Things were looking pretty gloomy. But then she got a visit from Dr. Asad Cheema, a wholistic doctor whose office is in Joliet. He examined her and gave her a very different diagnosis.
“He was the first doctor to tell me I would walk again,” she said. “He has the gift to heal people.”
She started therapy and worked harder than she’d ever worked in her life. But so did many others at Next Steps Chicago in Willow Springs. So did a new friend who’d suffered the same kind of injury on the very same day — but his progress was miniscule.
Before long, Tiffani could move her arms. She still has issues with her hands but she can hold a bottle of water, apply makeup and text her best friend, Paige Jurak.
“I’ve gotten all my function back,” she said. “Feeling is still pretty dull, but I can walk with my trainer guiding my hips.”
At an upcoming benefit, she hopes to surprise guests with a demonstration of her newly acquired skills.
“I’m going to walk for them,” she said. “My trainer is going to be there. He’s going to help me.”
She still has a long way to go. She still battles frustration, guilt and overwhelming sadness.
“This is the worst thing a human being can go through. You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to have to learn everything all over again, like you’re a baby,” she said.
A reason to hope
But knowing she has defied the odds is reason to keep going. It has also given her a new take on life. She no longer wants to be a hair stylist. She wants to work with the handicapped one day.
Despite all the rotten luck and all the hardship she’s been through, she knows she is blessed. She gives some credit to her doctor and some to her own hard work, but most of it, she said, goes to God.
“I’ve become very religious,” she said. “I tell everybody who’s fighting like me to keep at it. Don’t give up. Ask God to help you because he will.
“And surround yourself with people who believe in you.”
She has become good friends with Chris Medina, a singer from Oak Forest who performed on “American Idol” and who knows a bit about life after a serious accident.
His fiancee, Juliana Ramos, suffered a severe head injury in a car accident. He will play at Tiffani’s benefit. Ramos is a frequent visitor to Tiffani’s house.
Michelle Clifton said the support from the community has been amazing.
“So many people have helped. We’re so grateful,” she said.
“It’s hard because Tiffani doesn’t want me to treat her like a baby,” Clifton said. “But she is my baby, you know?”