Binghamton grad found paralyzed
(Originally published in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, July 30, 2003)
By Wasim Ahmad
Press & Sun-Bulletin
Derek Vladescu of Binghamton woke up July 14 with no idea how he ended up in a hospital bed in Spain, nor why he couldn’t feel his toes.
He knows that the crew on a passing train saw him lying on the brink of consciousness near railroad tracks a few miles from a train station in Madrid. Vladescu, incoherent and paralyzed from the waist down, was rushed to the Hospital Universitario de la Princesa in Madrid.
That’s all authorities can tell the 2001 Binghamton High School graduate about what happened to him during a break from a summer trip he planned to spend restoring a church. Neither he nor anyone else knows whether he was thrown off a train, hit by one or attacked and left for dead by the side of the tracks that morning. He has no idea if he had been lying there for two days or two hours.
“I can’t really say too much right now,” Vladescu, 19, said by telephone Tuesday from his hospital bed. “My memory isn’t that well.”
The last thing he remembers is boarding a Madrid-bound airplane July 11 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He was going Europe to restore churches with the Volunteers for Peace program in France. But first, he went to Spain to visit friends in Barcelona.
He never made it the 385 miles to Barcelona.
Vladescu was found at 6 a.m. with multiple injuries, including a fractured skull and collarbone. Emergency personnel found his passport and notified his family.
“It was devastating,” said his sister, Karina, 17. “We thought we were in a nightmare. It was very hard to take in and it still is.”
Derek Vladescu’s mother, Trina, brother Jason and a bilingual family friend flew to Spain a few days later to be at his side. The U.S. Embassy found an apartment two blocks from the hospital for Vladescu’s family and friends.
During the first week after the incident, surgeons put metal rods into Vladescu’s spine to help stabilize it. Doctors are almost certain that his brain will heal fully, but it’s doubtful he will regain use of his legs, his mother said.
Still, Vladescu’s condition has been improving. He has been talking and eating, and he has been out of the intensive care unit for almost two weeks, his mother said.
“I’m feeling better every day,” Derek Vladescu said.
Doctors told Trina Vladescu that memory loss is common in trauma patients. None of what the investigators told him jogged his memory about the incident or the events leading up to it.
“I tried to take in as much as I could,” Vladescu said.
He said the language barrier has been problematic; he doesn’t speak Spanish. In his first encounter with rescue workers, he had no idea what was going on, Trina Vladescu said, because his rescuers were speaking Spanish. Only after one began speaking French was he able to understand.
Vladescu graduated from Binghamton High School in 2001. He was a good student who took several International Baccalaureate classes. He had just finished two years in the honors program at Boston University and was on his way toward a degree in chemistry. High school friends described him as an intelligent and shy individual.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he worked for Volunteers for Peace,” said Erin Galloway, 20, of Binghamton, who described herself as a high school friend. “He was a really bright guy and a kind person.”
Art is one of Derek’s passions, Galloway said. In the hospital, he has an easel set up by his bed, so that he can draw while he waits for his return to the United States. He has no idea how long that wait will be.
The family’s immediate concern, Trina Vladescu said, is getting her son back to Binghamton. The insurance company is paying for his treatment — but only while he is in Spain. The family is talking with the company, BlueCross BlueShield, to convince it that it’s in his best interests to get treatment in the United States instead of Spain, she said.
A family friend, Camille Clarke, helped organize a fund-raising campaign for the family. The money will be used to cover expenses that the family’s insurance won’t cover, including travel to and from Spain and the apartment they are renting in Madrid, Karina Vladescu said.
The family has three children in college and Trina Vladescu’s husband is out of work after undergoing treatment for cancer.
The family is taking Derek’s situation day by day. They’ve paid for a month of rent in Spain, but they are hoping he will be home sooner than that. At this point, doctors have told the family that Derek is not strong enough to make the trip back to the United States. His family here is hoping that will change soon.
“He should be dead, but a miracle happened,” Karina Vladescu said. “All we can do is pray and hope for another miracle.”
© 2003 Press & Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, N.Y.