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Defying the odds: Maria Gallo’s story

Hannah Yang & Alexandra Thompson

For publication in The Wentworth Courier: Maria’s in-laws own a duo of popular restaurants in Elizabeth Street, Paddington (Cipri Italian and Barbetta Cucina). Her and her sister, Rose, are well known in the area.

Unresponsive and on life support…Maria was in a coma for 17 days after a brutal carjacking in 2003 (supplied).

In 2003, 26-year-old childcare worker, Maria Gallo, woke from a 17-day coma, after being run over by a carjacker in Broadway. Doctors were adamant that she would never again walk, speak or remember her old life. But today, Maria is doing exactly what her doctors told her she couldn’t do. Sitting in Maria’s brother-in-law’s Italian restaurant in Paddington, Hannah Yang and Alexandra Thompson speak to Maria, and her sister, Rose, who has just published a book about the carjacking, the recovery and Maria’s new life, titled Speed Bumps.

March 17th 2003 started as a normal day at work for Maria, and ended on a hospital bed as she struggled to cling to life. Her road to recovery was long, painful and emotionally distressing for both Maria and her family, but now she lives a regular life in The Ponds, with her husband, Yavuz, and two children.

The day of the incident, Maria was visiting her workplace during leave, when she attempted to fight off a man who had just hijacked her black Daihatsu Terios. She was dragged along with the car and the next thing she knew, she was lying unresponsive in the middle of Bay Street.

“I was always a free-spirited person”…Maria worked at a preschool in Broadway, which became the scene of her attack (supplied).

Maria suffered over twenty traumatic injuries to multiple parts of her body, ranging from lacerations to extensive brain and nerve damage, and doctors were doubtful that she would ever properly recover.

“One of them said, “I still don’t know what you’re doing…you shouldn’t be doing that,” Maria recalls. “[He said] ‘You must have rewired something in your brain to be able to walk and talk again’!”

Throughout her recovery, Maria and her family spent time in the Intensive Care Unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, before being transferred to the Westmead Brain Injury Unit for rehabilitation.

“She spent her first night in rehabilitation in a straitjacket,” Rose recalls. “She wasn’t speaking yet, and the right side of her body was still paralysed. It was the first night that Mum or Dad had left her for the entire night alone, and Maria being Maria tried to get out of bed and fell onto the floor. The staff weren’t properly briefed and actually put her in a straitjacket…when we got there the next day she was an absolute mess.”

Maria’s rehabilitation ranged from speech therapy and occupational therapy, to physiotherapy and regular general check-ups that she still attends to this day.

“The first five years was so hard,” says Maria of the rehabilitation process. “I was always a free-spirited person and then…I was stuck in a room…couldn’t do anything or go anywhere, so I fell into this depression…Physio was the hardest. The pain, not doing things that I was able to do before…My family is what pulled me out. There were so many times that I wanted to take my life and the only reason I didn’t is because I didn’t want to hurt them.”

“When I can’t do something, I always tell myself, ‘The old Maria could do it. The old Maria was happier. The old Maria would love to do this,’” she continues. “I always bring myself back [to her old life].”

The Gallo family – parents Frances and Frank, and younger siblings Rose and Johnny – took on Maria’s pain and suffered her ordeal with her. Her father was especially affected by his “little girl’s” suffering.

“We all got the help we needed,” Rose says. “Mum and Maria were on anti-depressants for years after, but my Dad, being an Italian, proud man, just didn’t feel like he needed to speak to anyone or do anything. He kept it all inside…He couldn’t deal with it himself, he still can’t. If he sees her tired or limping…he’ll just break down.”

“It was therapeutic for the whole family”…Rose and Maria spent nearly three years pulling Speed Bumps together.

“If she’s being a brat to us now, we’re like “Hey!”,” Rose continues, “but if she’s in a mood and she’s being rude to Dad he will just accept it. We can’t get away with anything but she can!”

On the other hand, Frances, Maria’s mother was “a pillar of strength”.

“It was tough on my mum too but…she was the tough love for Maria,” says Rose. “She was the one getting her up, doing everything, pushing her, making her get through it…Mum is a constant support to her…Every step of the way when she’s [Maria] expressed or shown that she’s down because of something she’s unable to do, we’ll help her find solutions.”

“One of the biggest challenges for her was giving up high heel shoes and having to… shop in shops that she’d call ‘Mum shops’ for shoes,” Rose jokingly recalls.

“I used to wear high heels even when I went for a walk to the park. Now I’m in joggers day and night. Wherever I go,” Maria says.

While Maria spent most of her recovery determined and optimistic, there were days where she was “very angry and frustrated,” she admits. “I took out my frustration a lot on the family, because I knew they could handle it. When my friends or boyfriend – well, husband, now – came, I put on a different face. A lot happier one.”

“The minute [Yavuz] would walk in the room, Maria was a different person,” adds Rose. “I think it would’ve been a lot harder if he didn’t have the strength to stick around…the fact that he did was that light for her…the hope that she was still going to be able to get married and have children. It wasn’t just going to be, ‘well, what I had is over.’”

Maria now has a son [9] and a daughter [6] with Yavuz, and she is beginning to open up to them about her trauma. Speed Bumps, which was launched on the fifteenth anniversary of the carjacking this March, has been “therapeutic for the entire family,” Rose says. “We were all going through something. We didn’t even know what was happening with the others.”

“My boy is actually reading the book at the moment…so he’s got a fair understanding,” says Maria. “My daughter… knows of it but she doesn’t know the details.”

Signing autographs at her book launch in March. 15 years ago, doctors believed Maria would never even walk again.

“When I read [it], I’ve never told anyone – but I would have to cry and put it down because there were bits and pieces of it that I didn’t even know myself. So that was really daunting. It brought me back there. It was not a nice place. What everyone else went through. It was not a nice feeling,” she admits.

The pain Maria suffered has been long-enduring and debilitating, but her optimism and zest for life is clear the entire time we speak. “Never give up,” she says. “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”