'I Survived the 2015 Amtrak Crash—I'll Never Be the Same'

As the train pulled out of the station, I sat back and kicked off my heels. I was on my way home to New Jersey after a board meeting in Washington. I had worn my favorite suit—ivory, fitted, professional. It was 9:00 p.m. and I texted my husband my ETA. "See you then," he responded.

I stood up to get my iPad out of my bag but I stumbled in the aisle as the train sped up. We started leaning, and I grabbed the luggage rack above my head, holding on with both hands.

We couldn't be tipping, I thought. Trains don't tip. My last memory is the sound of my own scream.

Amtrak 188 was going 106 miles per hour when it derailed on a curve designed for a maximum of 50 miles per hour on May 12, 2015.

Eight souls lost their lives that night, and dozens were severely injured. In photographs of the scene, the first train car where I was sitting resembles a debris field. I have no memory of being found and no idea who found me. Unconscious, barely alive and separated from my belongings, I was taken to hospital as a Jane Doe.

My husband would spend the worst night of his life searching for me until morning. My 15-year old son's texts still haunt me. "Dad, find mom.", "Have you found her yet?", "Dad, people are dead."

I was the last surviving crash victim to be identified. In the hospital, only my eyebrows and bruised forehead were visible above my taped-shut eyes, ventilator, cervical collar, casts and surgical drapes. My husband wasn't sure it was me until he recognized my watch in the unnamed patient's personal effects.

Geralyn Ritter in Hospital
Geralyn Ritter in the ICU in May 2015, holding a baseball from her oldest son. Ritter underwent multiple surgeries after the 2015 Amtrak crash.

A few hours later, a trauma surgeon told my brother that they had done all they could, but it was unlikely that I would survive. My abdominal organs had been pushed up into my chest. My spleen was destroyed, intestines badly lacerated, bladder ruptured, and lungs collapsed. Nearly all the ribs on my left side were crushed, my pelvis was broken in half, and vertebrae in my neck and back were fractured. An object had penetrated my hip, crushing the bone, and the wound had been open and dirty.

I regained consciousness several days after the incident and remember waking up confused. My brother leaned over me. "You were in an accident," he explained. "Don't try to talk. Blink once if you understand." I blinked, but I did not understand.

For weeks afterward, we were just grateful. I was alive, I wasn't paralyzed and I didn't have a major brain injury. Doctors told me it was a miracle.

After multiple marathon surgeries, weeks in the ICU and then in-patient rehabilitation, I came home. I was in a wheelchair and on massive doses of fentanyl, OxyContin, Oxycodone and 13 other medications, but I was home and we celebrated.

Geralyn Ritter in Wheelchair
Geralyn Ritter at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in July 2015. Ritter was discharged from the hospital but had to stay in a wheelchair for a month, before transitioning to crutches.

The bubble of positivity popped almost immediately. It hurt to breathe. I couldn't use the bathroom by myself, I couldn't drive and I couldn't sleep. I was home but nothing was normal. Still, I called my boss and promised him I would be back at work in six weeks. In reality, I wouldn't return for over two years.

My emotions swung to extremes. I screamed at my kids and fought with my husband. I cried. I stared at the walls and sat zombie-like in front of the fireplace late into the night, shivering in my robe, having neither showered nor eaten. I felt guilty, too. Eight people would never see their family again. What right did I have to be sad?

I later learned that major physical trauma and pain trigger physiological changes in the brain. I began to feel less embarrassed about my depression and PTSD. I wasn't wallowing. There was a reason for how I was feeling.

So, as my body slowly healed with daily physical therapy and additional surgeries, I went to work on my mental health in September 2015.I sought professional counseling and realized I needed to allow myself to grieve my losses. I also had to retrain my hyper-vigilant nervous system to recognize what was dangerous and what was not. And I needed to accept a slowness in life that I had never known or appreciated.

Geralyn Ritter
Geralyn Ritter at home in New Jersey, in June 2021. In the background, her husband and sons play volleyball.

I had always ridiculed therapies such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation but I now know the healing effects of mindfulness practices. There was no lightning bolt or immediate relief, but I gradually developed a sense of control over my body, and my pain, that had been missing. It was empowering to find things I could do—and without asking anyone for a favor or a prescription.

That being said, weaning myself off opioids stretched my patience. I hated that it took so long—over a year—to do it safely. And I hated that my body rewarded my determination with nausea, chills, twitchiness, and insomnia—on top of the heightened pain from my injuries.

There is so much I wish I had known at the beginning of my recovery journey. I clung to my unrealistic hopes of a quick recovery for months after the accident, setting myself up for disappointment and frustration. Of course, I needed to stay positive, believing that I would eventually heal – but I also had to accept that I could not set the schedule.

I will never be the same as I was before the accident. I have had a major surgery or been hospitalized every year since 2015, except one. Complications still arise and I am medically vulnerable, immuno-compromised and have tons of adhesions and scar tissue. I walk with a limp when I'm tired. I consider myself healed in the most important senses, but I will never be "back to normal," pain-free or as healthy as I was.

Now I am back at work full-time, helping lead a global company dedicated to women's health. Friends questioned why I wanted to go back to work—shouldn't I just relax and enjoy life? I did it because I believe my work matters.

Most importantly, I now revel in the love that brought me through the fire. I have a new appreciation for the dedication of my husband, thrown into the role of full-time caregiver during those years. My three sons and I now hug each other tighter. I spend many weekends laughing and drinking wine with friends.

The accident is with me, I feel it every day. But I am more than what I have been through. I'm a survivor.

Geralyn S. Ritter is the author of Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.