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Rails to Trails Green Issue 2010

Terri Dellamaria: Back From Calamity

By Tony Schaffer

erri Dellamaria, a teacher and mother of two, doesn't remember the accident that changed her life or the eight days that followed it. That's probably for the best. On July 5, 2007, she was riding her bike along Route H, near Elkhorn, Wis., when a distracted driver struck her at 50 mph and sent Dellamaria flying 62 feet. She was transported by helicopter to Milwaukee and treated for multiple injuries, including a severely broken leg, cracked vertebrae and ribs, and significant brain trauma. By all accounts, her helmet saved her life.

Terri DellamariaOver the next year, Dellamaria underwent five major surgeries, extensive physical therapy and a long, painful recovery. Many might have shied away from bicycles after an accident like this, but Dellamaria has been an avid cyclist since childhood. As soon as her left leg—rebuilt with rods and screws—could move in a full circle, she was back on her bike. Now, in her second life as a cyclist, she uses her experience to teach children at local schools about the importance of bike safety. Dellamaria has also become a great supporter of local rail-trails, which allow her to bike and enjoy the outdoors without worrying about the risks of the road.

We recently sat down with Dellamaria to discuss her accident, her volunteer work with young cyclists and her passion for the rail-trail movement.

Terri Dellamaria holds her mangled bike while addressing the audience at a community bicycle event

As part of a safety demonstration with the Elkhorn Police Department, Dellamaria shows students what happened to her bicycle when she was hit.

How did you become involved with teaching bike safety?
After my accident, the police department asked me to speak to a crowd of 500 at the 2008 Elkhorn community bicycle event. It's an event held every June where they talk about bike safety and distribute free bike helmets. I spoke about what happened to me and explained why it's so important that parents promote bike safety with their children. Most of us didn't wear helmets when we were kids, but I wanted to help parents understand that things have changed and that there are many more distracted drivers than ever before.

How have you drawn on your experience to communicate the importance of safety to children?
Along with an officer from Elkhorn, I visited three public elementary schools in the area over three days. I spoke with every class individually about bike safety and what happened to me. I showed them what 62 feet looks like, using a fluorescent cord I had measured out so they would get an idea of how far the car threw me. I showed them my broken bike. I showed them my broken helmet to demonstrate what kind of impact it took and how it protected me.

What do you hope the children take away from your story?
My real mission in these presentations is to get kids to understand that wearing a helmet can make the difference between life and death. I thought if I could make one good thing happen out of [my accident], if I could convince one child to wear a bike helmet for protection, then it would be all good. So far, it's been amazing to see these kids react so positively and to have them come up to me afterward and say how glad they are I'm all right and that I was wearing my helmet.

Besides wearing a helmet, what other safety tips did you share?
I promote a lot of safety measures, such as wearing gloves and fluorescent colors and observing road and trail rules. With officers from the police department, I also talk about the importance of writing your phone number inside your helmet, which is something I learned in the emergency room. I had other identification in my bike, but having a number inside your helmet makes it much easier for emergency personnel to contact loved ones. That's especially important with children since they won't have identification with them.

After such a traumatic accident and long recovery, did you feel any tentativeness the first time you climbed onto your bike?
It never crossed my mind to give up cycling, but there was some hesitancy. And I still stutter when it comes to road biking, which is what I always did before. I used to do 50 miles at a time. I loved being on my bike and on the road. I don't love road biking anymore. I still do it, but to a much lesser degree. That's why rail-trails have become such a passion of mine.

Terri Dellamaria on the trail with her boys
Terri Dellamaria, back on her bike and out on the trail with her boys, Cole and Quinn.

What role have rail-trails played in your rehabilitation?
Rail-trails have allowed me the flexibility to ride my bike and enjoy the outdoors in a way I couldn't on the road, where you have to remain constantly aware of approaching traffic and all the other risks. They have provided a whole new angle on cycling for me. I ride the White River State Trail from Elkhorn to Burlington several times a week, and I've also ridden on the Glacial Drumlin State Trail [in Wisconsin]. They're both beautiful. Rail-trails can be places to train for races and rehab, places to bike at leisure and places to spend quality time with family. My two boys are old enough to come with me now, for part of the trail anyway. I love having them out there, gaining an appreciation for the outdoors and for cycling on a trail where I don't have to worry about their safety.


Tony Schaffer is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn. He rides his bike as often as he can and especially enjoys cycling on the Cannon Valley Trail between Cannon Falls and Red Wing, Minn.

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