By PHIL NOVAK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Tony Villio wasn't supposed to survive the night.
His heart had stopped twice, and a minister had given him his last rites. He sustained so much brain trauma, landing face-first on the asphalt after the car hit him and threw him into the air, that his brain swelled up and several bones in his skull had to be removed along with a portion of his brain.
Even if he did survive, he would never be functional again, the doctors said. With the type of damage his brain suffered, he would be fortunate to wake from the coma.
That was more than three years ago.
Today, Tony, 22, graduates from Chaney High School after a near-impossible recovery that surprised everyone.
"You don't know how awesome that is that I got my diploma," he said.
But it's more: It's a miracle, the doctors told his mother.
"We're so proud of him," Linda Villio said. "He's worked so hard to graduate from high school. We always knew he could do it."
Before the accident, Tony was prepared to go to the Air Force. A new father, he was planning to marry the baby's mother. He dropped out of high school, but was one test away from completing his graduation equivalency exams.
What happened: On Jan. 16, 1998, his car was hit by another car at Glenwood Avenue and U.S. Route 224 in Boardman. As he stepped out of his car to assess the damage, another car raced by and struck him.
After 13 hours of emergency surgery, he spent eight weeks in intensive care. He had numerous injuries from the accident, including a punctured and collapsed lung, a broken leg and broken arm, a shattered eye socket that had to be reconstructed and shattered cheekbones that had to be rebuilt with metal plates.
He then went to Hillside Rehabilitation Center in Howland, semicomatose. When he woke, he had to learn how to do everything again.
"He was like a baby all over again," his mother said. "He had to learn how to walk and talk, brush his teeth, go to the bathroom and dress himself. He had to learn how to eat again because he was on a ventilator for three months and was fed with a tube."
He recovered from most of his physical injuries, but it was the brain damage that everyone was worried about.
Retained many memories: The first positive sign was that he remembered a lot about his life. He never forgot where things were in the city or any of the phone numbers he knew before the accident. He did forget the four months of his life right before the accident, including the death of his grandmother in August 1997 and the birth of his daughter in November 1997.
"But his whole childhood he can tell you," said Ann Villio Gordon, his sister. "He can tell you all you want to know about the past."
With a positive outlook on her son's recovery, Linda Villio asked the Youngstown Board of Education to re-enroll her son, and the board complied.
"I had the full support from the superintendent and everyone else," she said. "He first started at Rayen, but it was too open. He had to have more structure. So they enrolled him at Chaney."
Chaney provided more structured time, but Villio needed constant supervision, so his mother and father, James, decided to tutor him at home, Linda Villio said.
He was going to get only a certificate of attendance from Chaney, but he passed his proficiency tests two weeks ago and will get a diploma.
His short-term memory has suffered since the accident, but he just received occupational therapy at the Vista Center in Lisbon.
"They taught him to be more independent, so when he gets up in the morning, he can take care of himself," Linda said. "He knows what he has to do, and he does it. I can trust him to do things on his own now."
A bit of the old Tony: His sister said he's not fully recovered from the accident, but she can see that the old Tony is in there.
"It's all still right here," she said, pointing to the front of her head. "When he's around some of his old friends, he wants to be the old Tony, but he just can't. But we think things could get even better."
His mother has no doubt that her son can eventually make a full recovery.
"He's very intelligent," she said. "He knows what he's doing at every moment. He just can't do all of the things he wants to do. I just had psychological tests done on him and he passed with flying colors."
Tony will go to vocational rehab soon, where he hopes to learn a trade.
"Someday, he wants to be off Social Security, have a job and making money," his mother said. "I know it's possible. I'm so proud of him and everything that he has struggled to go through. I give credit to him, but I also give credit to all of the people who have helped, because without their support, he never would have made it."
The driver who hit Tony Villio has never been caught. He didn't stop, and the three passengers in Tony's car were only able to give a description of the automobile.
"I hope maybe something will trigger in someone's mind [something] that can help us find who did this," Gordon said. "Or maybe the person who did this will develop a conscience. I really hope so."