Getting Back on Her Feet – and Behind the Wheel – Again!
At just 23 years old, Siona Zellis had endured more than a lifetime’s worth of surgeries, doctor visits, and therapy sessions. But the accident that changed her life a few years ago also helped her discover her career.
In fall 2012, Zellis moved to Brooklyn, NY, from her parents’ home in Bucks County, PA. She had her own apartment, worked as an assistant in a pre-school during the day, and took college courses at night. It was a full, busy and independent life.
One night in January 2013, she was talking with a friend outside her apartment. Two cars crashed at an intersection, and one slammed into Zellis as she stood on the sidewalk. The impact caused a severe injury to her right leg. Skin and tissue were torn off in a glove-like fashion, medically termed “degloving.”
“It’s almost like a bad burn because of the skin and tissue loss,” Zellis says. “There were doctors who thought I might be happier if I elected to amputate.”
Zellis had nine surgeries at three different hospitals before arriving at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia.
When she got to rehab, Zellis was hurting both physically and emotionally. Bedridden for weeks and unable to take care of herself, she felt incredibly vulnerable.
I remember thinking, ‘Rehab is my life now.’ Even though I didn’t ask for it, it’s my responsibility to try to get better. I knew I wouldn’t get my life back if I didn’t work for it.
“I had just become an adult and then I lost all my independence,” Zellis recalls. “I had a job and was going to college on my own, and this just felt like going backwards.”
But one day in the therapy gym, Siona had what she describes as “an awakening.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Rehab is my life now.’ Even though I didn’t ask for it, it’s my responsibility to try to get better,” Zellis says. “I knew I wouldn’t get my life back if I didn’t work for it.”
The Joy of Cooking – and Driving
As Zellis began to reach goals in rehab, she enjoyed therapy more and more.
“Being hospitalized was so liberating even though I was still so impaired,” Zellis recalls. She especially liked occupational therapy, because it allowed her to get back to the things she enjoyed. For example, she likes cooking so she worked on prepping meals while on crutches.
“Even if you have people who can do these things for you, just knowing you can do them yourself is healing in itself,” Zellis says.
After about a month, Zellis transitioned to Magee outpatient therapy in suburban Langhorne, PA, close to her parents’ home. She’s had a number of skin graft surgeries since 2013 and has resumed outpatient therapy after all of them.
For example, because Zellis cannot drive with her right foot, she underwent driving therapy with a driving simulator, a computerized system using three video monitors to create a virtual road, so she could safely practice important skills indoors, like following directions, visual scanning, hand-eye coordination, reaction time and speed, alternating attention, range of motion and visual and cognitive processing. She also had her parents’ car adapted by having a left-foot accelerator installed.
“Driving really gave me my life back,” Zellis says. “I was determined to make life as normal as possible.”
She moved back to New York in the fall of 2013, driving herself back and forth to Pennsylvania periodically for wound care. The preschool where she worked had held her job for her.
Finding a Purpose
It wasn’t until 2015, when she was nearly 21 years old, that she was ready to try college again. But by this time, Zellis knew for sure what she wanted to do with her life. She enrolled in an Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Eastwick College.
“I fell in love with OT while I was at Magee because it’s all about engaging in what we enjoy and what’s meaningful to us,” Zellis says. “For therapists, nothing is impossible.”
She graduated in December 2016 with a 4.0 GPA and received her class’ merit award of excellence. She was also asked to speak at the ceremony. The following month, she passed her boards to become an Occupational Therapy Assistant. Her subsequent plan was to get stronger so she could manage the physical demands of her new career, and then begin her job search.
“To anyone going through something like this,” concludes Zellis, “I would just say your story has changed, but you’re going to write a new one.”