Paula Franetti, 67
To see Paula Franetti mixing it up in women’s basketball competition at the National Senior Games last year, we marveled that the Pittsburgh native had worked her way back to a fully active life after a horrific car crash.
In September 2016 Paula was driving to her Pittsburgh office when she was blindsided by a speeding driver who ran the light. The impact was so violent her Honda CRV spun across the road and struck a rowhouse before coming to a rest on the other street. Paula said she felt she had died. “I had no pain,” she says. “I was in a really peaceful place – my car wasn’t even there.”
Paula sustained seven pelvic fractures, five spinal fractures, a collapsed lung caused by a ruptured diaphragm, a punctured bladder, internal bleeding, and a concussion. After three surgical procedures and a stay at a skilled nursing facility, she returned home to a wheelchair and remained on the first floor of her house. It would be 57 days before she could stand up.
There were setbacks as she transferred to a walker and found she had a left knee ligament injury and cartilage tears, bone bruises and microfractures. Another came as she returned to driving and doctors found she had
vestibular dysfunction, which affects balance and eye movements. She was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that required psychotherapy treatment. A fourth surgical procedure in late 2017 fixed an issue with her diaphragm.
In her book Driving Force, Paula describes how she overcame her challenges and fears, having an epiphany that she was the only person who could really take the wheel and she had to get back into the driver’s seat. “The steering wheel represents the way for me to regain my wellbeing…I can be the planner, designer and the owner of whatever I want to be in this new reality,” she wrote.
Exactly one year after the crash, Paula returned to the scene at her psychologist’s advice and re-enacted going through the intersection, making it safely. “I just knew that I had to conquer this fear,” she recalls.
So exactly how did she think she was able to fully recover? “I think the primary driving force to motivate me was that I have been a positive thinker for as long as I can remember. I always look for the better side of things. My sports background taught me discipline, teamwork and having a plan for how to train and when to peak. So combining those two gave me an advantage over most people.”
“Everyone assumes that somebody who recovers fully has some magical edge,” she quickly adds. “That type of perspective gets a lot of people into the problem area of giving up. ‘So and So can do it because they’re an athlete but what about me?’ My sports factor of perseverance comes into the picture, but I don’t want people to think that’s the only way people survive. Anyone positively focused on living a fulfilling life can reach any type of remarkable comeback.”
With a master’s degree in exercise physiology and a past career in rehabilitation, it was not a big leap for her to want to help others overcome similar challenges. In 2019 Paula started a health coaching business called The Rebound Planner, helping others plan their recovery and being a support person through their challenges. “I’ve seen people give up prematurely on the rehab side,” she says. “The key is to get people to understand how you think creates what happens in your life. Your body is going to heal regardless of whether you pay attention or not. But combining a positive outlook with a goal to achieve with the timing of your body’s healing factors, that’s where remarkable outcomes can happen.”
Paula, a lifelong sports lover who played basketball at Penn State, is grateful she can continue in National Senior Games and thrilled that her hometown is hosting them again. “I had just turned 50 and could not qualify when Pittsburgh hosted in 2005. But I did volunteer as a first aid assistant for men’s and women’s basketball so I could watch. I met the Butler Cubs team and started competing with them starting in Louisville in 2007. It was just like a dream come true to continue in sports.”
Paula did probably have a fitness background advantage, but is adamant that factor alone would not have gotten her well. “What really got me back was the mentality of wanting to get back. My injuries were such that no one was willing to tell me I would even be able to run again, let along play basketball. It was really up to me.”