‘I was a Jane Doe’: Amtrak train crash mom on surviving the commute…
On a spring evening in 2015, Geralyn Ritter sprinted through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to catch her New York-bound train. The next thing she knew, she was hooked up to a ventilator at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, fighting for her life.
“I remember a flash of realization that we were tipping over, and I remember screaming,” Ritter, 57, of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, told The Post. “That was the last memory I had.”
The infamous Amtrak train crash on May 12, 2015, killed eight and injured more than 200 passengers. Ritter was among 11 passengers who were critically wounded, and the pharmaceutical executive relays her traumatic experience and excruciating recovery in a new memoir, “Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing,” (Core Media Group) out Tuesday.
“The thing that hits me over, and over, again is how ordinary the day was. That morning seven years ago, my life was normal,” Ritter told The Post. “I was healthy, and I will never be that healthy again.”
The evening of the fateful crash, Ritter was seated in business class which occupied the first car on the train. Her husband texted that one of her three sons, Steven, 8 at the time, had done well at baseball practice earlier that evening. Then she stood up to get something from her briefcase and realized something was off.
“I noticed that we seemed to be going faster. Usually the train pulls out [of Philadelphia] really slowly, and I’m always impatient,” she said.
Her instincts were correct. The Northeast Regional service entered the Frankford Junction curve in North Philadelphia going 106 miles per hour — more than twice the 50 mph limit for the notorious, 90-degree turn. The engineer applied the emergency brakes, and seconds later, according to the National Transportation Safety Board accident report, the train jumped the tracks.
“I remember feeling like the train was tipping, and thinking that was impossible because trains don’t tip. I realized we were —” Ritter said, trailing off.
Ritter’s body was hurled from the train with such force that her abdominal organs push through her diaphragm, up into her chest. Or what was left of it. On impact, most of her ribs were crushed, her lungs collapsed. She broke her pelvis and multiple vertebrae in her neck and back. She ruptured her diaphragm and bladder, lacerated her spleen and intestines. She suffered major blood loss and was left unable to breathe.
“My stomach was up above my heart. My colon was under my armpit,” Ritter said.
Complicating matters, she didn’t have her wallet on her and was separated from her briefcase, so nobody knew who she was.
“I was a Jane Doe,” she said.
Doctors weren’t optimistic about her prognosis.
“They weren’t sure at the time whether I was going to be paralyzed,” she said. “My surgeon told me later, ‘I have no explanation for how your body absorbed that much force, and you don’t have a brain injury.’ It’s one of the reasons I can tell my story, because I remember it.”
Meanwhile, Ritter’s husband, Jonathan, finally located her after was searching hospital after hospital. He didn’t initially recognize his wife, who had her eyes tapes shut and was on a ventilator. But when he saw a watch he’d given her, which had miraculously survived the crash, he knew it was her.
We found her, he texted their oldest son Austin. She’s alive.
Still, doctors feared she might not survive.
“They told my family it was unlikely that I was going to make it,” Ritter said. Her brother flew in from Fort Worth, Texas. He packed a dark suit.
After a month — and multiple surgeries to repair her intestines, screw her pelvis back together and plate her broken ribs — Ritter was released from the hospital and went home in a wheelchair. By September, she was able to walk short distances, but her long recovery was just beginning.
Road to recovery
In pain and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Ritter became increasingly depressed and dependent on narcotics.
“I was on massive doses of fentanyl and Oxycontin,” she recalled. “I’d be lying on my back in bed, and I couldn’t even reach the pill bottle beside me.”
The lack of mobility and independence would be difficult for any recovering patient; for Ritter, who lived a fast-paced life where she’d hop off a flight home from China and rush home to the local baseball field to cheer on her boys, the life change was hell — both on her, and on her marriage.
“My husband had to transition from focusing on his career to being a full-time caregiver for me and our sons,” Ritter said. “We both reacted differently to the stress. He had a lot of anger about the accident and I was just sad. There were many times when we simply couldn’t give each other what the other one needed.”
Over time, she became dependent on the opioids.
“In the beginning, it was all about gratitude. We were just so grateful that I lived and I didn’t have a brain injury,” she said. “But you can only be grateful for massive pain for so long,”
Six months after the accident, she decided to try and wean off of the drugs, under medical supervision. She turned to holistic methods of pain control — meditation, breathing, exercise, and gentle yoga.
She was successful, and now relies on over-the-counter meds to manage her pain.
“Only Advil and Tylenol,” she said proudly. “But I take a lot of Advil and Tylenol.”
She and Jonathan eventually got professional counseling that helped them adjust to their new reality. They will soon celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
In 2017, Ritter was finally able to return to the office. She now works as the head of external affairs for a healthcare company, Organon in Jersey City. She is back to riding trains again, including Amtrak, which she admits was nerve wracking at first.
“The journey back [was] a long one,” Ritter said.
In the seven years since the crash, she’s had over 30 surgeries, including a major emergency abdominal operation related to to scar tissue. In August, she’s due for a hernia procedure.
“Everybody faces major setbacks. At some point, we all go through something,” Ritter said. “That metaphor of light at the end of the tunnel – you don’t come out of the tunnel the same way you went in. It’s not a matter of getting back to normal, you’re changed by it, and that’s okay.”