Overcoming Devastating Injuries, PG&E Employee Prepares for the Race of Her Life

Overcoming Devastating Injuries, PG&E Employee Prepares for the Race of Her Life

By Denny Boyles

Melissa Montoya was at her kitchen sink the evening of April 6, 2017, while her fiancé Danny Demmon was in the living room watching a baseball game. Outside, an intense wind storm battered their Benicia neighborhood.

Melissa, a PG&E Human Resources Business Partner for the Customer Care and IT teams, had been through countless storms in the 17 years she had lived in the house. The forecast that day called for heavy rain and winds up to 30 miles per hour. The kitchen and dining room were lined with windows, but no lights were on in the backyard, so it was the change in the sound of the wind that brought Melissa’s eyes up from the sink into the pitch-black outside.

“Danny, the winds changed,” she remembers saying. “Danny, I’m scared.” 

Then, it felt like a bomb exploded and the world went as black in her head as it was outside. 

A catastrophic moment, a goal deferred 

Before the moment that changed everything, Melissa was on track toward an ambitious and meaningful personal goal: to run the Boston Marathon. 

Melissa surprised herself when she started running in 2000. “I was never a runner. I mean, I think I’m athletic, but I don’t look like a runner and I don’t run like a runner,” Melissa said.

Her best friend had been diagnosed with cancer, and those first runs were to raise money for Team in Training, the fundraising arm of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Melissa spent six years running with a group that raised nearly a million dollars for cancer research, and later ran to support her sister Liz Trevigne-Juarez, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. She also ran numerous other races to raise funds for a variety of nonprofits supporting many causes.  

Along the way she realized she might be able to qualify to run the 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon, what some call the Holy Grail of running for amateurs. Run annually since 1897, Boston is one of the few marathons in the United States that requires competitive times to qualify, and even meeting those times is not always a guarantee of a coveted spot.

After years of running for others, Melissa decided to run for herself, and picked the Mount Charleston Marathon in Las Vegas to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The race was set for April 29, 2017, and Melissa felt herself getting stronger and saw her run times improving. Boston, to many an impossible dream, was feeling more real every day.

Just three weeks before the race, the storm came. 

You have another chance

“When I woke up, I was buried under the roof and kitchen ceiling in a sea of glass and rubble, squeezed between my crushed refrigerator and dishwasher, with the trunk and branches from an 85-foot pine tree that had fallen on my house over me. I could hear and smell gas leaking, and I knew I had to move,” Melissa said. 

As she crawled barefoot through a narrow gap in the debris, Melissa called for her fiancé, Danny, over and over with no response. She knew she was injured; the splintered roofbeams had hit her on the head and on the back and her feet were cut by glass.  Danny had been knocked unconsciousness by the pressure wave of the impact but was otherwise uninjured. 

They later learned that three immense pine trees in their rain-saturated backyard had been felled by wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour at the same time, blocking the front yard and street. Neighbors reached the pair before emergency workers and described the ear-splitting sound of the trees falling. 

At the hospital, Melissa learned how badly she was injured, and how lucky she had been. A nurse would spend the first hour carefully removing pieces of glass from Melissa’s feet and body. Her head had been split open, and a large shard of glass had impaled her right heel.  X-rays showed no broken bones in her back, but the impact of the trees had been so severe that doctors warned her recovery would be slow.

As the list of injuries grew, Melissa said she began to cry.

““That morning I had woken up in the best shape of my life, and now I was in the hospital injured and using a walker,” Melissa said. “Any moving I did, sitting up, standing up brought excruciating pain and physical therapy seemed impossible.  However, the hospital orthopedic specialist in one extremely painful session told me that where I was hit on my back could have paralyzed me, but my marathon conditioning helped me endure the abuse.”

It’s what the specialist said next that helped Melissa sharpen her focus on recovering.  

“He said, you have another chance. Now, do you want to get on about living again? That’s all I needed to hear to start a different sort of training back to good health,” Melissa said. “I was in a walker for two months, in physical therapy for five months and by August 2017 I started to run again. I knew I would need a purpose to recover from this, and I decided to make Boston that purpose. It would take longer than I had planned, but I would recover, and I would qualify for Boston.” 

The road back hasn’t been easy. But one year after the storm, Melissa ran the Mt. Charleston Marathon on April 28, 2018 in a Boston-Marathon qualifying time of 4:06:45.64.

It wasn’t lost on her that the time, 4:06, matched the date the storm destroyed her since rebuilt home and injured her, or that her randomly assigned race number was the year of her birth. Just as it isn’t lost on her how lucky she is to be running again.

“If I look back at the past two years, maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe the trees could have killed me. I’ve always thought you have a choice when trouble comes. You can stop, or you can keep moving. I’m going to keep running. Boston to me is about resilience and achievement.”

when she runs this year’s Boston Marathon on Monday, Melissa will be honoring her sister, who entered Hospice care last week. Melissa will run for Liz and for the 3PointFoundation, a small charity in Boston that helps inner-city youth have more athletic opportunities. 

“Liz will be with me in spirit and will be following my progress. She’s fought so hard for the last eight years against cancer and is the real champion, and this is as important to her as it is to me.”

To learn more about 3PointFoundation, affiliated with the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation, visit www.3pointfoundation.org.

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