By Doug Ireland
ATKINSON — His body is weak and he can't speak, but Chris DePietro has been given a second chance.
After lying in a coma for weeks at a Boston hospital, the 16-year-old Timberlane Regional High School student was released last week and is slowly recuperating from injuries suffered in a car accident Sept. 10.
But a police officer who responded to the crash and the Atkinson teen's mother, Ruthann DePietro, said he is lucky to be alive.
"It was really bad," Ruthann DePietro said. "He should have died three times in all of this."
Chris is working to regain his strength at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem. He tires easily and has a long road to recovery, but is slowly improving, his mother said.
"He is progressing very well," she said. "He is a strong-willed individual and he wants to get better. It's a miracle."
Atkinson police Lt. William Baldwin agrees. Baldwin doesn't hesitate to say that if it were not for the quick work of a Trinity Ambulance crew, Chris wouldn't be celebrating his 17th birthday on Wednesday.
"That's the reason that kid is still alive," Baldwin said. "They deserve kudos."
Both Baldwin and DePietro said they have been told most people would not have survived such a serious accident.
The Timberlane junior had just returned from a doctor's appointment and was heading to a football game about 5 p.m. that Friday when the BMW convertible he was driving went out of control and slammed into a tree on Maple Avenue near the family's home.
Rescue workers had to use a hydraulic device to remove the driver's side door and pull the teen from the smashed car. He was rushed by ambulance to Lawrence General Hospital and later flown by helicopter to Boston Medical Center, where he remained until last week.
Chris, who was not wearing a seatbelt, suffered a serious brain injury and was in a coma for three weeks after the crash, his mother said.
Even after coming out of the coma, he remained in critical condition for several more weeks.
Chris needed surgery, a tracheotomy and was put on a ventilator to help him breathe. Because of the tracheotomy, he still can't speak, but responds to questions by blinking his eyes, indicating yes or no. He also suffered complications, including an aneurism in his aorta, a nicked colon during a medical procedure, and a bacterial infection that delayed his recovery.
But as Chris undergoes his physical therapy each day at Northeast Rehab, his mother said, his long-term prognosis is good. But doctors said they still don't know if he will make a full recovery. The ordeal has been tough on the entire family, including his 11-year-old sister, Jeni, who was cared for by her maternal grandfather, Richard Reynolds, while DePietro spent countless hours near her son in the hospital.
His mother said she is thankful for the support the family has received. She said Chris has received a lot of cards from fellow Timberlane students, who are wearing "Love for Chris" wristbands in his honor.
"He has friends everywhere," she said.
Principal Don Woodworth has said Chris is very popular at Timberlane and a talented member of the school's music and drama programs.
Both DePietro and Baldwin said they hope his accident sends a message to other young drivers that they can never be too careful when behind the wheel.
An accident reconstruction report revealed that Chris somehow became distracted while driving and didn't even have time to hit the brake before hitting the tree, slamming his head. There were no skid marks and when Chris tried to quickly steer the car away from the tree, it was too late, Baldwin said.
Investigators could not determine how fast the car was traveling, but did confirm he was not talking on his cell phone at the time.
"I want people to learn from this," Baldwin said. "Speed kills. If not, it can hurt you very badly."
The police lieutenant also said he smelled a strong odor of alcohol when he approached the smashed car. An open malt liquor can was found near the driver's seat. Baldwin said the teen won't be charged in connection with the crash and police do not know if he had been drinking because they have not received the test results.
DePietro said she doesn't know if her son had been drinking, but he seemed fine when she spoke to him only a half hour before the accident. The mother also said she has yet to speak to him about the crash.
After the accident, many of his friends said, "'This couldn't happen to Chris,'" she said.
"I think it's important kids know something like this can happen," she said. "It can happen to anyone."
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