Robert Annunziato was playing centerfield in the last game of a tripleheader softball match when a ball was hit deep, flying between him and the left fielder.
The pair both ran toward it, with Staten Island resident Annunziato, now 40, diving for the ball and his teammate leaping over him to avoid a collision.
But his teammate’s knee crashed into Annunziato’s head. “It cracked the left side of my skull, broke every bone but my jaw on my left side and my eye was bulging out,” Annunziato told The Post of the game that changed his life on Nov. 10, 2019.
“I was out cold.”
Luckily the field was only a few blocks from Staten Island University Hospital. When he arrived by ambulance, a CAT scan revealed that he had an acute subdural hematoma. He was also paralyzed on one side.
Dr. Ronit Gilad, the neurosurgeon working that day, was shocked such a gruesome head trauma had occurred on the softball field.
“His injury was similar to a high-speed car accident,” Gilad told The Post.
She remembers: “He quickly became unresponsive, so he needed to be intubated. And his pupil on his left side was becoming larger than the right, which means there was a lot of blood accumulating on that side of the brain.”
During a two-hour surgery, Gilad and her team took out the fractured pieces of skull, rearranged them and secured them with 20 titanium screws and eight plates.
“It was like a jigsaw,” she said. “It was like 10 or 15 pieces, and some were very small and some were larger. We had to reshape the skull as well.”
Gilad also removed the hematoma and coagulated the artery causing the bleeding. She emphasized that his recovery hinged not only on the surgery but also the aftercare — and his own will.
The married father of two, who works in IT, was placed in the ICU, where a medical team monitored the pressure in his head. According to Annunziato, doctors expected him to be there for at least six weeks.
On Nov. 27 — the night before Thanksgiving — he woke up. Though his family was relieved, he doesn’t remember it.
“I didn’t have the capacity to really understand it fully. Your brain is kind of up in the clouds.”
He gained just a little bit of clarity on Dec. 2, when his softball teammates visited him in the hospital.
“I asked my friends, ‘When I dove for the ball, did I catch it?’ They were like, ‘It just nipped off the end of glove, I hate to tell you.’”
A week later, he was transferred to JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, NJ, where he would undergo physical, occupational and speech therapy. “I had the same doctor as Tracy Morgan,” Annunziato said, referencing the comedian who recovered at JRI after a bus crash in 2014 left him in a coma.
Initially, he was struggling to remember much and was frustrated. One night while experiencing horrific stomach pain, he told a nurse he wanted to end his life.
“I felt like I wanted to die,” said Annunziato. As he was writhing in pain, he spoke to his deceased grandmother. “I said, ‘Gram, please bring me back, I am sorry.’ I fell asleep and when I woke up, everything changed. My brain stared working.”
He started shattering expectations with his progress. On Christmas morning, he received the best gift ever: He was discharged.
On Feb. 12, after a few good months at home, he and his family got to meet Gilad, the doctor who had reconstructed his skull, for what he calls “the first time.”
“I was so nervous. She walked in and I gave her a hug and thanked her for saving my life.”
Gilad, who also cared for Annunziato while he was in a coma after the surgery, called the meeting “emotional” and “satisfying”: “In our line of work, we see some really bad outcomes that you can’t help, so you have to hold onto these successes to keep you going.”
Annunziato — who is now back to work full time, can run again and is playing basketball — said his gratitude runs deep.
“There’s a reason God brought me back. There is a reason the doctors were able to save me. I think about that every day, and I try to find out every day.”
But will he be diving for a fly ball on the softball field anytime soon? Annunziato said he physically could, “but I am just not taking the chance.”