One year later, teen hit by car improves

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A Petaluma teenager who was hit by a vehicle in a Sebastopol crosswalk last year has been gradually recovering at her home, but it isn't clear how much more improvement will be possible.

"She's improving little by little, and is able to communicate a little bit," said Valerie Bertoli, the mother of Julia Bertoli, the girl who was injured. "She's come a long way, but we don't know how much more she will improve. I've been told to expect a plateau at some point."

Julia Bertoli, 16, no longer is in a coma, but has severe brain damage.

"She recognizes her mother, and seems to recognize her friends," said David Rouda, a San Francisco attorney and family friend. "She's conscious, perceives her reality and can speak, but her brain isn't processing in a normal way —?she can't remember what someone told her five minutes ago.

"And she has trouble walking."

Bertoli is receiving intensive speech, occupational and physical therapy, as well as home-schooling.

"Julia, her parents and medical providers have worked really, really hard with her," Rouda said. "From what I've been told, though, it seems that the best-case scenario is that she will be severely disabled for the rest of her life, with brain processing issues, and physical and mental issues."

Julia Bertoli had traveled to Sebastopol to attend a fireworks show with friends on July 3, 2009. Before the show, Bertoli, then 15, was walking across Healdsburg Avenue, at Florence Avenue, talking on a cell phone when she was struck by a car driven by Linda Chilvers, 65, of Forestville.

The impact knocked Bertoli out of her shoes and threw her some 35 feet. She landed on her head, with a broken neck and skull fractures in four places. She was in a coma, and was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she was put on a ventilator.

Bertoli developed pneumonia and infections in her lungs, requiring a tracheotomy to help her breathe. She also underwent two surgeries to ease pressure on her brain from bleeding.

She was taken off the ventilator later in July, and showed other signs of improvement, such as displaying eye reflexes and blinking. Doctors said that any improvement would come slowly, however, and that she was likely to remain in the hospital for six to eight months.

Family members and friends hoped that Bertoli's strong spirit and determination would help her to recover. Bertoli was about to start her sophomore year at Orchard View School, an independent charter school in Sebastopol.

Bertoli later was treated at Children's Hospital in Oakland. She was released in December, and has been staying with her family in Petaluma while undergoing therapy and slowly improving. Her father, Charlie Bertoli, lives in Texas.

"She was expected to die, but she is still alive. The miracle already has happened," Rouda said.

"I don't think she'll ever be the same, but I'm enjoying every minute of her life. She could have died," Valerie Bertoli said.

After the accident, Sebastopol police did an investigation. They found that Chilvers was not impaired by use of alcohol, drugs or any other substance; had a valid driver's license and insurance; and was driving under the speed limit.

"The only potential violation would have been failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk," said Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver. "But because of varying witness accounts, we were unable to establish where the driver would have reasonably seen the pedestrian.

"The driver could have committed a violation by not yielding, but the pedestrian also could have been violation for stepping in front of the vehicle."

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)

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