Graduation day one of celebration for the Pedrotty family
Three years ago, Dominic Pedrotty suffered a brain aneurysm that led to a car accident and the death of his sister. Now, after years of dealing with rehabilitation, physical limitations, memory loss, and stress from a difficult academic workload, he is earning a degree in mechanical engineering
The scars are there, forever reminders of the worst day of his life.
There is the trachea scar below his throat; an eye that sits a little off center; a right hand that responds slowly; and a small incision mark behind his ear.
Dominic Pedrotty will carry these scars with him when he walks across the stage Friday morning at Virginia Tech’s commencement ceremony to receive his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering.
The scars serve as an unwanted reminder of a car accident three years ago that robbed him of a cherished sister, altered him physically and emotionally, left him to endure torturous hours of rehabilitation and the ones yet left to complete, and leave him with occasional feelings of guilt.
That accident, though, couldn’t rob his work ethic or abscond with his motivation to get his degree, or even dent his witty disposition.
“I don’t want all the pain and suffering I’ve endured to be in vain,” he said, not referring to the accident, but rather taking a pointed jab at the grueling workload incurred by engineering students at Virginia Tech.
The accident always will be an indelible part of Pedrotty's life, but never something that defines him, and Friday represents a day of redemption for him. Friday also is a day of celebration for the Pedrotty family.
After more than three long years filled with pain, guilt, and doubt — a family journey detailed through Caring Bridge by clicking this link — step one in Pedrotty's recovery process has reached its conclusion.
“We’re not looking behind,” said Tina Pedrotty, Dominic Pedrotty’s mother. “We’re looking ahead.”
The fateful evening
On May 31, 2018, Dominic Pedrotty, who just had completed his junior year at Virginia Tech, picked up his older sister, Madison Pedrotty, a graduate student at Duke University. The two headed for Knoxville, Tennessee, where they planned to meet their father's, Steve Pedrotty’s, parents and then head to Illinois to attend the funeral of a revered grandfather who had passed away.
Dominic Pedrotty had no history of health issues and felt no symptoms of anything wrong. But 10 minutes from Kingsport, Tennessee, he lost consciousness and veered in front of a tractor trailer. Unable to stop suddenly, the driver of the tractor trailer slammed into the Pedrottys' vehicle, killing Madison Pedrotty instantly.
When rescue personnel arrived, they found Dominic Pedrotty conscious and alert. Then he started vomiting: a sign of a significant head injury.
The doctors at Holston Valley Medical Center, a level one trauma center, originally were puzzled because a CT scan showed no significant brain injury. Fortunately, an observant doctor noticed a tiny shadow near the cerebellum. A detailed look revealed the issue. Dominic Pedrotty had suffered an aneurysm.
An aneurysm is a weakness in the wall of a blood vessel that sometimes ruptures and leaks bloods into the brain, according to Biraj Patel, an interventional radiologist at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. In Dominic Pedrotty’s case, the blood vessel burst, creating a life-threatening situation.
“When an aneurysm bleeds, we typically use the one-third rule,” Patel said. “One-third of people are fine; one-third have a debilitating stroke; and one-third don’t even make it to the hospital. This patient’s aneurysm [Dominic Pedrotty’s] sounds to be in the posterior circulation, which results in higher risk of morbidity and mortality.”
Pedrotty’s team of doctors forced him to rest for a week before performing a 9.5-hour surgery to fix the leak. Then they put him in an induced coma for 12 days to give his body as much rest as possible following the surgery.
Not long after coming out of the coma, Pedrotty felt a range of conflicting emotions, including guilt over his sister’s passing.
“That was pretty tough,” he said. “Finding out about my sister, there’s nothing I could have done about it. That part is both … I wouldn’t say reassuring, but I don’t feel as bad about that. But on the other hand, I was driving, so I do feel bad about that.”
Steve and Tina Pedrotty spent every minute at the hospital. They mourned the loss of their daughter and kept constant vigil over their son.
The Pedrottys found comfort wherever and whenever it made itself available. They took solace in knowing that Madison Pedrotty’s passing had been swift, and they expressed gratitude that the accident took place near one of Tennessee’s six level one trauma centers, knowing that the quick treatment probably saved Dominic Pedrotty’s life.
They also welcomed the various members of a local church who came every day, all of whom brought a combination of food, prayers, and support.
Interestingly, the name of the church was St. Dominic’s.
“There were a lot of things that were telling us, ‘This is going to be OK,’” Tina Pedrotty said.
The road back
Dominic Pedrotty spent five weeks in Kingsport before gaining entry to Shepherd Center, a private hospital in Atlanta that specializes in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with traumatic brain injuries.
Physical therapists at Shepherd Center put Pedrotty on an aggressive rehabilitation plan. He needed to get his muscles stronger and retrain them for balance and coordination, and he needed to relearn certain movements. These would help him learn how to perform daily tasks such as eating, showering, and dressing himself.
His days consisted of getting up between 7:30-8 a.m., showering, eating, and then doing an assortment of exercises until 4 in the afternoon. Even today, Pedrotty doesn’t remember a lot about his six-month stint at Shepherd, but cues from his mother prompt certain memories, most related to physical therapy.
“PT [physical therapy] is not my favorite thing to do,” he said. “The stuff that I do, in my mind, I consider trivial, but it’s very difficult physically. Beforehand, I considered myself a pretty good athlete, so that’s a sobering reminder that I’m not what I used to be, and I’m too young to be saying that.”
Pedrotty’s rehab took several steps backward when he contracted meningitis later that fall while at Shepherd Center. He spent 26 days in intensive care before eventually getting well enough to return to therapy.
In mid-December, Steve and Tina Pedrotty felt a strong desire to bring home their son. They lived in Hunt Valley, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, and wanted to be home for the holidays. Tina Pedrotty had been with her son throughout his rehab process, while Steve Pedrotty, a retired Air Force service member, continued working for a defense contractor. He balanced time caring for their son and flying in and out of the Atlanta airport for various work-related projects.
The doctors agreed to release him, provided he continued his rehab through the RETURN! program, a brain injury re-entry program, at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Five days before Christmas, the Pedrottys returned home.
Dominic Pedrotty felt a little better, a little stronger. He knew he needed more rehab, but he wanted more of a purpose to his life than mundane exercises.
He wanted to return to his classwork at Virginia Tech.
“I was always interested in finishing what I had started,” he said.
Returning to class
Pedrotty never actually lost sight of graduating from Virginia Tech. Graduating gave him a purpose and something to aspire to unrelated to the accident.
It was the first thing on his mind when doctors brought him out of his 12-day induced coma following the surgery to repair the aneurysm.
“He did open his eyes, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Did I finish my finals?’” his mother said. “He must have been thinking about it.”
Pedrotty had taken his final exams approximately two weeks before the accident in 2018 and had just started a co-op. But returning to coursework to complete his degree requirements presented hurdles.
For starters, faculty members within the College of Engineering were in the process of implementing new curriculum requirements in 2019. His course requirements fell under the old curriculum, so he needed to return to school and finish, or else run the risk of needing to retake certain courses to meet the new curriculum standards.
At the time, Heather Whedbee served as his academic advisor. Whedbee, who now works in the same capacity in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, had stayed in constant communication with Pedrotty and his family following the accident. Once hearing about the curriculum changes, she knew the family needed to make some decisions.
“When I got word from our department that we were going to start phasing out classes, I immediately thought of Dominic, and if this happens, he’s not going to be able to graduate without retaking classes,” Whedbee said. “So, at the time, we needed to start thinking about him coming back, and we started that process.”
Whedbee put together a plan that she hoped wouldn’t overwhelm Pedrotty. If he returned to his coursework in fall 2019, he could avoid retaking courses and graduate this December.
Whedbee scheduled everything out. She then presented the plan to her supervisor, Linda Vick, an associate professor of practice in mechanical engineering, and Clint Dancey, the associate department head, for their approval.
“I just thought, ‘We have to do something for this student,’” Whedbee said. “We can’t just be, ‘Oh, everyone needs to be treated fairly.’ It doesn’t apply in this situation. So, ‘Here’s the plan, do you approve?’ And they agreed and approved it.”
Also, Pedrotty needed certain accommodations to return to coursework. He suffered from short-term memory issues – and still does – and certain physical limitations prevented him from finishing tests, quizzes, and exams in the same amount of time as other students.
But Virginia Tech professors were more than gracious in meeting Pedrotty's accommodations. Their message to the family was simple: What can we do? How can we help?
“I had double time for tests, and that was primarily because of my right hand,” Pedrotty said. “Just to not have to deal with that, I’d write with my left hand, and that’s significantly slower. All that was usually done in a smaller, enclosed setting, too, so I had less distractions.”
Pedrotty took one class in spring 2019: a music appreciation course. The class served as a launching spot to see if he possessed the ability to learn again.
That class whetted his academic appetite. In the fall, he decided to jump back into his mechanical engineering curriculum.
“Is anyone really ever ready?” he said, laughing.
Graduation and the future
Pedrotty's first engineering class upon his return was a design class. He and a team of classmates designed an inexpensive threshing machine for Rwandan farmers to help them harvest grains.
He and team members researched and planned the machine in the fall. In the spring, they built and tested it, safely navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic once Virginia Tech cancelled in-person classes.
Pedrotty picked this project because of his love for farming – his late grandfather owned a large farm in southern Illinois that remains in the family. Also, the group wanted to help Rwandan farmers who lack the ability to afford equipment to harvest crops.
“It’s entirely made of stuff that you can find lying around, which is why it’s so cheap and doesn’t require much technology to make,” Pedrotty said. “In theory, if you didn’t make much money and needed a thresher, but probably didn’t need a huge thresher that would be more expensive and more than you’d need, then you could use this one.”
The project excited him and helped propel him toward graduation. He followed Whedbee’s plan, taking two classes in the spring, two classes in the summer, and his final two classes this fall: Computational Fluid and Dynamics and Fluid Flows in Nature. Each class and those with labs required his attendance, so he and his parents stayed in a local hotel this fall.
His parents helped him whenever he needed it. When not traveling for work, his father helped Pedrotty work through labs. His mother shuttled him back and forth to campus and handled his all-important daily schedule, inputting what he has done and needed to do into his calendar. Pedrotty relies on that digital calendar because of his short-term memory struggles, particularly in relation to chronological events.
Those struggles are not surprising, according to Michelle Theus, an associate professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Depending on the location of the aneurysm, the primary neurons in the brain that are responsible for processing long-term memories, such as the neocortex [the center for higher brain function], die as a result of a lack of blood flow,” Theus said. “Other parts of the brain that handle working and spatial memory could be spared, resulting in selective loss of some types of memories but retention in others.”
Pedrotty's team of doctors remain confident that he will get back to normal – walk without a walker or cane, regain full use of his right hand, and enjoy a return of his memory. Traumatic brain injuries need time to heal and require extensive rehabilitation.
Pedrotty took time away from rehabilitation to focus on his studies, so he plans to return to physical therapy in January following eye surgery to correct his right eye. The family continues to explore a possible return to Shepherd Center or potentially going to a research hospital in Chicago.
Pedrotty knows that he isn’t quite ready for the workforce given his temporary memory issues, but in six months or so after unyielding rehab, he expects to be a different person. And armed with a Virginia Tech degree in mechanical engineering, he hopes then to pursue a career working with agricultural machinery.
“It’s certainly nice to have options,” he said. “I don’t know yet what all those are going to be. In theory, I’m going to be getting better. I don’t want to commit to an option based on how I am right now before I figure out how I’m going to be.”
Family members and friends from all over the country plan to attend Friday’s commencement at Cassell Coliseum to see Pedrotty graduate. They all will see a young man with scars; a young man still dealing with physical shortcomings and memory issues from a devastating brain aneurysm; and a young man who occasionally battles feelings of guilt over the loss of his beloved sister.
But they’ll also see a college graduate; a young man driven by a purpose, and who, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, achieved that purpose.
Life nearly ended for Dominic Pedrotty on a dark interstate three years ago. Now, it seems as if his life is just beginning.