Nearly one year later: After surviving headfirst fall from moving vehicle and deadly brain injury, Zionsville teen thrives thanks to surgery, therapy and miraculous recovery

Ryan Bardellini of Zionsville was a high school senior who enjoyed fencing and was living life on cruise control with his mind set on graduation, having received acceptance letters from every college he applied to attend. But all of that came to a screeching halt last Thanksgiving weekend when he fell headfirst from a moving vehicle, resulting in a fracture that split open the middle of his skull.

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A Life-Threatening Brain Injury


Immediately after his injury, Ryan was taken to the St. Vincent Indianapolis Level I Trauma Center. Doctors observed that Ryan experienced a life-threatening brain injury, with most of the severity resulting from the swelling and pressure within his skull. 

In addition to his severe brain injury, Ryan experienced paralysis on the right side of his body. Within days of his accident, Ryan became non-responsive and entered into a coma.

Dr. Charles Kulwin was the neurosurgeon with Goodman Campbell Brain & Spine at St. Vincent Indianapolis who led the operation to remove a part of Ryan’s skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. 


At first, nothing seemed to work as the pressure in his skull refused to subside.

“I was being told he might not make it. Because of the severity of his injury, I had to face the possibility of losing him,” said Kimberly Bardellini, reflecting on the idea of losing her only child and family here in Indiana.


A Miraculous Recovery


Ryan’s brain injury took place on November 26, 2017. Fast forward, two months and a few surgeries later to January 30.


That’s the day this 18-year-old who was on the edge of death – emerged from his coma, moved the fingers on his right hand, gave a thumbs up, and spoke his first words since his first surgery.


“His first words were, ‘My leg hurts’,” said Kimberly. “The next thing he said was, ‘I love you’.”


It was also around that time that his mother left a Disney movie playing on the iPad in front of him. Once the credits began rolling, and before she could get up to change the film, Ryan surprised her by reaching to touch the iPad, using his fingers to select another movie himself. “He actually changed it from a Disney film to a Bruce Willis film,” his mother said while laughing.


From Surviving to Thriving

Since his injury last Thanksgiving, Ryan has thrived as a young adult. Within months of being released from the hospital in March, he went to prom, graduated from the International School of Indiana and confirmed plans to attend college next year. He’s currently taking an English course at Butler University to get his feet wet for college life. He also spends a few days each week going to therapy sessions with NeuroHope and the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana.

Over the past several months, Ryan’s personality and intellect have returned to normal, although he experienced slight dexterity loss and has occasional challenges with short-term memory. Soon, Ryan began to regain full feeling on his right side, although it’s not yet as strong as his left. Not long after that, he began to feel more like his normal self.


Amazingly, this traumatic brain injury survivor was able to resume his ability to run on a treadmill and speak fluent French.


While he has yet to fully regain his fancy fencing footwork, he has been able to resume some of his blade work and even helps to officiate matches with other fencers to keep his mind sharp.

Talking to him now, you’d have no idea that he has experienced a life-threatening brain injury,” said Kimberly.


A Story of Survival and Gratitude

Through it all, Ryan’s mother never left his side. “He’s my only child. I never left the hospital. I slept there every night,” said Kimberly, who also shared that when they returned home after his release from the hospital in March, their home still had Thanksgiving decorations, showing how much time had passed. 

Ryan’s mother credits Dr. Kulwin and the entire St. Vincent Indianapolis ICU team with his miraculous recovery and expressed immense gratitude for their dedication to his survival. 

“They were lifesavers,” said Kimberly Bardellini. “They absolutely refused to give up on him. And,  for that, I am eternally grateful.” 

Amazingly, this traumatic brain injury survivor has also retained his ability to speak fluent French!


Ryan’s will be a speaker at the 4th Annual  Brain Bolt 5K.

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With his amazing rehabilitation, Ryan Bardellini has returned to fencing.