ST. GEORGE — In July 2019, Cristina Gaona and a group of friends, all from Pine View High School, planned a trip to Disneyland for a weekend before they were set to leave for college. When the group arrived in Anaheim, they went to Walmart to pick up some groceries and on the way back from the store they were T-boned by a drunk driver.
Of the five teens in the car, two were left in critical condition with Cristina being one of them. All five of the teens survived the accident but Cristina was left with serious brain damage as a result of the crash.
“It literally changed her life completely,” Cristina’s dad Jose Gaona said. “She was one of the most social girls in school. She was always at the school events, basketball, soccer, football, baseball, you name it. She was literally there most of the time. Now she’s isolated and she can’t go out or talk. She has to relearn all of that. She can’t even walk right now.”
Doctors removed the right side of her skull for about four months and then they put it back when Cristina returned to St. George from Southern California. Jose said that she has been responding more and more since the surgery.
Cristina has been undergoing therapy but it has been tough on her. It’s painful for her just to stretch her legs, but Jose said that they just continue to push everyday.
She has started to eat, have more trunk control and balance while also being able to smile. There have been some big leaps through her therapy and recovery but there is a lot of unknown going forward for Cristina.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Gaona said. “Traumatic brain injuries are kind of like fingerprints. There are no single brain injuries that are alike. We just have to take it a day at a time and we have to stay positive. Anybody that you ask, including the doctors, doesn’t know. She could start talking next month or she might not talk the rest of her life. We don’t know.”
The family now uses social media and various platforms to speak out against drunk driving, speaking about the impact it has on not only the people who are injured but also their families.
Cristina was set to go to Black Hills State in Spearfish, South Dakota, just two weeks after their trip. She was going to play soccer there on a full-ride scholarship but the crash took those plans away.
“We use social media mainly,” Jose said. “We have an account called the Gaona Strong Foundation and we try to build awareness on how dangerous it is to drive drunk. It impacts not only the person injured but the entire family.”
One of the biggest takeaways for Jose has been the idea that he took certain things for granted prior to Cristina’s accident.
“Growing up I was always involved with coaching and volunteering, just trying to be a good role model to them,” Gaona said. “We took that for granted and now I wish we could go places and do more things together. Now she is stuck at home and we don’t know how long.”
The Gaona family has received a lot of support from the community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are very grateful. Jose said that people will deliver their groceries to the front door to help while dealing with these unprecedented times.
They have also established a GoFundMe account to get an accessible van for Cristina.
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