Cooking up a comeback

Following her traumatic brain injury, Catherine DiGiovanni has created a future that’s sweeter than anyone anticipated.

This Glen Cove resident began experimenting in the kitchen when she was 4 years old.

“I come from a long line of bakers and chefs,” she said. “So it’s no surprise that I became interested in cooking at a very young age.”

Ms. DiGiovanni worked in bakeries throughout her youth and, at 21, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. Her dream of becoming a professional baker and cake decorator was within reach when, on March 19, 2010, a drunk driver swerved into her lane and hit her car head-on, crushing the car and trapping her inside.

“I have no recollection of the accident or the days that immediately followed,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “At the time of the crash, doctors gave me a 5 percent chance of survival.”

Ms. DiGiovanni spent several days in a coma before waking up at North Shore University Hospital. Her injuries included a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a shattered skull and sinuses, broken facial bones, a collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, a fractured and dislocated forearm, and vision loss in her right eye. She underwent a series of surgeries and began extensive rehabilitation.

“The accident was seven years ago, and I’m still recovering,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “I followed the doctors’ advice and instructions to a tee, to get back to my life as soon as possible. I had to relearn how to use my hands, how to walk, how to judge depths, and how to speak and comprehend words.”

The accident also took her sense of smell, a vital tool for a chef. “I learned to cope with my vision loss, but being unable to smell was rough,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “I had to relearn all of the recipes I had discovered over the years, but this time without my sense of smell. It actually inspired me to write my first book, Mise En Place of Life.”

On the rise

Rehab at Transitions of Long Island helped Ms. DiGiovanni regain her ability to walk, talk and cook. Transitions specializes in treating people recovering from neurological injury or illness.

“Catherine had a severe traumatic brain injury. The more severe the injury, the more challenging the journey,” said Jean Elbaum, PhD, director of Transitions of Long Island. “She’s made a remarkable recovery, given the challenges she has faced.”

Gradually, her sense of smell began to return.

“One of the first scents that came back to me was the smell of a coffee roll at Dunkin’ Donuts, four and a half years after the accident,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “Months later, I started picking up smells while riding the subway. They’re not particularly pleasant smells, but I was ecstatic.”

Ms. DiGiovanni now uses her love of cooking to encourage others.

“Because of my injuries, I can’t work in restaurants, but this may be for the best,” she said. “I’ve found that my talents in the kitchen can go a long way toward helping other TBI patients recover.”

Over the past few years, she has created a Facebook page to interact with other TBI survivors. She often visits friends she meets online.

“I wouldn’t be here today without all the medical staff, family members and friends who frequently visited and spoke with me,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “Their words and stories distracted me from all the bad and helped me focus on who I was. The idea of being able to do that for someone else is really exciting.”

Now 29, Ms. DiGiovanni is pursuing a post-baccalaureate teacher certification.

“I’m still figuring out where my path will lead, but cooking will always remain a passion of mine,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “Passing this knowledge on to others, whether a TBI patient or a future chef, seems like an excellent next step. After all, who better to work with TBI patients than someone who knows what they’re going through?”

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