Fiery wrong-way driver crash has surprise ending for local woman
Gianna Mauceri turned a terrible experience into a catalyst for healing and helps others recover from similar trauma through her mentoring business in Ocean Beach.
Every Nov. 4, Gianna Mauceri places flowers beside northbound Interstate 5 near the Balboa Avenue exit.
The bouquets are in memory of a 21-year-old man who nearly killed her.
As she drove to her home in Encinitas in the fast lane of I-5 on Nov. 4, 2016, Mauceri, then 33, glimpsed a vehicle with no lights on coming straight toward her through the mist.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in my car with the dashboard and windshield sitting in my lap. I couldn’t breathe,” Mauceri said. She recalls seeing all four freeway lanes blocked, illuminated by the headlights of a long line of stopped vehicles.
“I remember a lot of people being around my car, trying to get in, but it was on fire,” she said.
Then along came her savior — a man who grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck and used it to put out the flames coming from the bashed front end of her Mitsubishi Eclipse as onlookers cheered. She never got to thank him.
The sedan that was headed the wrong way had erupted into a fiery torch visible for miles. A California Highway Patrol report identified the other driver, who died in the inferno, as a San Diego Miramar College student named Preet Sheth, who had been drinking with friends. His blood-alcohol level exceeded the legal limit.
Mauceri’s right arm was broken in half, her legs were trapped in the wreckage, and the driver’s door was jammed shut. Rescuers used the Jaws of Life to pry off the roof of her car to free her, then rushed her to a hospital.
That was the end of the story as far as media reports go. But nearly five years later, Mauceri’s tale has changed her life — for the better.
“I was in a coma for a week and woke up to many severe injuries,” she said. Basically the right side of her body had been crushed, leaving a trail of broken bones from her feet to her neck. Her colon also was punctured.
Adding to the stress was the fact that Mauceri had no medical insurance. She was a recently divorced hairstylist, living from paycheck to paycheck, and now was out of a job. Plus, all her family was in Australia, where she had lived until moving to the United States in 2009.
She awoke from her induced coma “to the worst nightmare. I couldn’t feel or move my legs,” Mauceri said. To make matters worse, she discovered 50 staples running down the middle of her abdomen, holding it together.
Despite her shock, she was determined to recover.
She began focusing her mental energy and techniques she had learned for meditation, relaxation and breathing on her healing. Instead of self-pity, she envisioned the crash as the key to changing the path of her life, as a message to use her misfortune to help others recover from similar traumatic experiences.
Her journey of self-discovery had begun before that. She had been teaching yoga and working with a mentor to develop skills for integrative healing. “I realized I’d been in training for this my whole life,” she said.
But it took the tragic events of Nov. 4, 2016, to close the hair salon door and eventually open her own healing-from-within mentoring business in Ocean Beach.
After two weeks in the hospital and five surgeries, she spent a month in a rehabilitation facility. Each day she set new goals for her recovery.
She raised and lowered her arm, used her breathing device, stretched and moved her body, meditated and envisioned a healthy body.
“I would spend hours visualizing my bones healing, visualizing the way I wanted to feel and the way I wanted to see myself move again,” she said. “There was no other way I could think of to get through this. I started to feel different and feel strong.”
Her doctors saw the improvement, too. They told her they couldn’t believe how quickly her bones were mending.
Meanwhile, her yoga community friends launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised about $12,000 to cover her rent and immediate necessities. Luckily, the other driver had insurance, and Mauceri later was informed of a settlement large enough to cover her medical bills and support her while she recovered. The welcome news was delivered on Dec. 23, 2016 — her 34th birthday.
As she healed, she took copious notes. Nearly five years later, she has turned them into a self-help book, “Soul of a Spirit Warrior: A True Story of Healing, Survival and Resilience,” available on Amazon.
“For me, it’s about getting the book into people’s hands so they can see there is help out there,” Mauceri said. “That’s more important to me than any of the money.”
Mauceri said she finds that many people suffer from post-traumatic stress without knowing it. Car crashes are just one of many triggers — child abuse, abandonment, health scares, accidents, fires and witnessing shocking events are a few others. Recently she visited with a client whose trauma related to the heroin addiction of a loved one.
“We can get through anything in life by finding the right support,” Mauceri said.
Shortly after the crash, the family of the wrong-way driver reached out to Mauceri. She assured them that she forgave him — and she meant it.
“He was just a young boy, and he did something silly that cost him his life,” she said. “I say a prayer for him all the time.”
And she never forgets the anniversary of his death, delivering flowers to the freeway in his memory. It is part of her healing, too.