By Daphne Sashin
After narrowly surviving the 2015 Amtrak derailment, Geralyn Ritter wants to help heal trauma survivors by supporting more than just their physical recovery.
It took years to recover from the devastating injuries Geralyn Ritter sustained as a passenger on the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia the night of May 12, 2015. Ritter, then an executive with the Merck pharmaceutical company who had been traveling home to New Jersey from meetings in Washington and Philadelphia, was thrown from the train at such speed that the impact crushed many of her ribs, broke her pelvis and multiple vertebrae in her neck and back, ruptured her diaphragm and bladder, badly lacerated her spleen and intestines, and collapsed her lungs, among other injuries that required immediate surgery. Her doctors were stunned that she sustained neither a brain injury nor paralysis.
Over the next few years, Ritter’s recovery would involve more than a dozen surgeries at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. She gradually moved from a hospital gurney to a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to standing; weaned herself off powerful prescription pain medications; underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; and learned new coping skills, all of which she details in her forthcoming book, Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing (available at BoneByBoneBook.com). While Ritter will always be grateful to the Penn teams that saved her life and lovingly cared for her family in those early days – she now chairs PPMC’s Patient-Family Advisory Council and says she won’t ever go anywhere else for surgery – she felt unprepared for the countless ways her traumatic injuries would change her life.
“I had wildly unrealistic expectations. I was telling my office, ‘I’ll be back at work by the end of the summer,’” said Ritter, who didn’t return to work for nearly two years after the accident. “I would have benefited, even if it was hard to hear, from someone really sitting me down and saying: ‘This is life changing. You’re probably looking at a number of follow-up procedures and a couple years of recovery.’”
Now on the other side, this grateful patient and her family were thrilled to build in more support for trauma survivors with a three-year gift to hire a mental health counselor that will be embedded in the Trauma and Orthopedic Trauma outpatient clinics at PPMC. The counselor will help at-risk patients – identified through mood scores and environmental risk factors – navigate their recovery, with the goal of improving patient outcomes.
“Healing looks different for many patients, irrespective of the type of injury,” said Ritter’s orthopedic surgeon, Samir Mehta, MD, Penn Medicine’s chief of Orthopaedic Trauma and Fracture Care. “Orthopaedic literature shows very clearly that patients’ moods have a dramatic impact on their perception of physical pain and physical function.”
Mehta says he’s seen this in his practice. “If you take two patients with the same injuries, and their X-rays look the same, and one person is depressed and the other is not, the depressed person’s impact of the pain they’re feeling is far more significant than the non-depressed person,” he said. “You realize that it’s more than just treating the [injury you can see on an] X-ray. The outcomes often are so much more about not what happens in the operating room but everything that happens afterward.”
The Trauma counselor funded by Ritter’s gift will connect patients with community resources, support groups, and substance abuse treatment; educate them about coping strategies; and refer them to more extensive mental health treatment if necessary – whatever the patient needs to smooth the transition back into work, home, or community life.
While this is a three-year pilot, Mehta and Ritter hope that, with proven success, the program will become a self-sustaining initiative.
“A gift of this nature,” Mehta said, “really has a dramatic impact on our ability to be able to not just pilot opportunities like this, but to measure the outcomes, publish and present the results, and afford change not only here at Penn Medicine – where others realize there is value to this resource and it becomes a more permanent fixture – but also show other trauma centers around the county that this is a valuable resource and an investment that ultimately helps society.”