Anna Ciufo rememberes the sunny daylight as she rode the bus next to one student, Merissa Ford, and across the aisle from another, Anabel Ried.
“I feel like we were talking about goats or llamas or something like that,” Ciufo said with a laugh.
The rest, she said, gets fuzzy.
“When I woke up, they said I remembered running off the road and the jolting, kind of like being thrown up in the air and then I blacked out,” Ciufo said.
Since then Ciufo, a junior kinesiology/pre-PT major from the Woodlands, has dealt with eight surgeries, has suffered through metal pins inserted into her leg and still wears a clunky, metal brace.
On Nov. 4, 2011, Ciufo was among the group of students and faculty traveling to Medina Children’s Home for the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s annual service project.
The southbound bus drifted off the highway into a ditch, hit a concrete culvert, flipping the bus end-over-end and landing on its wheels with the body nearly removed from the frame.
The tragic accident claimed the life of sophomore student Anabel Reid and left 15 other passengers hospitalized, including Ciufo.
The crash left Ciufo with three jaw fractures, a breastbone fracture, a fractured shoulder, eight pelvic fractures, a stretched PCL, a fractured foot, and a crushed heel. She spent 11 days in Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
In her signature, self-sacrificing style, Ciufo told her family when she woke up they didn’t need to stay with her at the hospital. But now, she said, she’s thankful they did.
“From the very beginning, my family was there and they were my rock,” Ciufo said. “They just kind of pointed me to God and the fact that it was going to be okay.”
Facing the Fixator
She had surgery to fix the injuries. One was not enough, however. Ciufo braved a total of eight surgeries since the wreck.
After being released from the hospital, Anna spent three months on crutches and was fitted with an external fixator – a metal pole with needles surgically inserted into the bones of the foot to help strengthen or lengthen the foot. The fixator, she said, felt like a medieval torture device.
When Ciufo first saw the contraption, she was startled by its gruesome appearance.
“When they took the wrapping off I was like, ‘If I knew that was there I would have been more careful with it,'” she joked.
But three months shackled in the fixator couldn’t quite fix the damage; one month and a walking boot later, the external fixator was reattached to her foot.
To make light of the leg-cuffs, Ciufo said she named the first fixator Alejandro and the second one Perry.
“It reminded me of a platypus tail,” she said.
This was her favorite game, she said, trying to find the positives in the darkest situations.
When her right leg painfully throbbed, she would think, “Left leg, you’re a good leg.”
“I was always thankful for the body parts that were fully functioning,” she said.
Despite the multiple post-surgery pains, the aches nor the strains of getting around were Ciufo’s main concerns.
“I couldn’t help people because I had my hands on my crutches and people had to help me,” she said. “It was kind of a perspective shift, but in a good way; God showed me how good people are.”
‘Let’s finish this thing out’
“Anna Ciufo is the most genuinely happy person I have ever met,” Zeta Rho President Kelsie Andrews said about her fellow club member. And Andrews’ description is echoed by many who know Ciufo.
The portrayal is well-deserved, watching Anna in a full library, unable to go ten feet without running into a familiar face, greeting each one with an undeniably genuine interest.
Just one glance at her pleasant face makes it easy to assume she’s had it complaint-free and easy. Julie Brinkman, junior music education major from McKinney and Ciufo’s roommate since their freshmen year, said Anna’s recovery attitude was inspiring.
“She was so cheerful during the whole thing,” Brinkman said. “There was never any time that I would see her that she would have a bad attitude about it.”
When friends commented on Anna’s good spirits, all glory was given back to God, Brinkman said.
“She was so humble about it and was like, ‘I’m nothing special; I’m just here and God blessed me with another chance,'” Brinkman said.
Ciufo hasn’t let the wreck bound for Medina Children’s Home stop her from serving others. In fact, she’s been back twice.
Ciufo had dÃ©jÃ vu on her first return, passing the accident site.
“I sat with Merissa Ford again who I had been sitting with when we wrecked,” Ciufo said. “She said, ‘Let’s finish this thing out, Anna.'”
And she plans on returning again next year.
Before the wreck, Ciufo loved to run and said she can’t wait to get back to training.
“Just the fact that I haven’t been able to for so long,” she said. “I think running without my brace is going to be the thing that’s like ‘I have arrived.'”
Five months crutch-bound, two months wheelchair-chained, eight surgeries, two external fixators and three months in a walking boot later, Ciufo can finally say she’s finished with medical treatments and on the last leg of recovery. Her final surgery was Dec. 20.
Ciufo became quiet and thoughtful when asked what she’s learned through the trying experience.
“A greater trust in God, like a heart-trust, not just a head-trust,” she says. “He’s brought me and other people through so much.”
Ciufo advised others struggling with downhill battles to hide themselves away in the Lord.
“He will take care of you and it might not look like what you think of,” she said, “but His plans are greater than our plans and it’s greater than what we think we have in store.”