Carson Palmer Runs Again on Tendon of Woman Hit by Drunk Driver
Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Julie De Rossi spent the last night of her life passing out fliers for bands she was managing. As she drove home on a Houston freeway, a BMW traveling at twice the speed limit slammed her from behind.
The collision hurtled De Rossi's Volvo into a concrete barrier, crunching the car like an accordion and leaving the 44- year-old mother with only a faint pulse. She died later that day, the victim of a drunken driver.
De Rossi didn't become a meaningless traffic statistic in the early hours of March 17, 2004. An organ donor, she has since helped mend more than 50 people, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, the top-paid player in the National Football League. The knee that Palmer heard snapping apart after a crushing hit during a January playoff game is now held together by Julie De Rossi's Achilles tendon.
``It's amazing to think that somebody else is inside me,'' says Palmer, 26, a former Heisman Trophy winner. ``You look at the scar. You stare at it. You rub it. It's given me a second chance at life. And I'm extremely grateful to this person.''
Palmer is now learning the identity of his donor for the first time. He is banking on a full knee recovery with tissue from the heel of a free-spirited Texas adoptee who was no athlete. De Rossi stood 11 inches (28 centimeters) shorter and was 90 pounds (41 kilograms) lighter than Palmer's 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound frame.
His comeback rests partly on the generosity of an adventurous woman who was married four times, had one son and pursued careers in drag racing, interior design, and music.
`All or Nothing'
``She was so independent,'' says Dorothy Hyde, De Rossi's mother. ``She just went all out at everything she ever did in life. It was all the way or nothing, and I admired that in her.''
De Rossi's family agreed to tell Julie's story after Bloomberg News received clearance from Palmer, his doctor, a Houston organ procurement service and the New Jersey tissue bank where her donations were processed and given serial numbers.
Now, her story is also the story of Carson Palmer.
Palmer, who grew up in Santa Margarita, California, was one of the most talented collegiate players of the last decade. The Bengals selected him out of the University of Southern California with the No. 1 pick in the NFL's 2003 draft. He became the team's starting quarterback in 2004.
Just 10 days before his knee gave way, the Bengals signed Palmer to a contract extension that could pay him as much as $118.8 million over the next nine seasons. He's slated to earn $21.8 million in 2006 alone, including a $15 million bonus he received Feb. 15, according to the NFL Players Association.
As the Bengals entered the 2005-2006 post-season, Palmer was at the top of his game. He led the league with 32 touchdown passes, guiding the Bengals, the NFL's laughingstock for most of the 1990s, to an 11-5 record and a spot in the playoffs.
Everything crumbled on Jan. 8 as the Bengals faced the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium.
On the Bengals' second offensive play, Palmer threw a perfect, 66-yard strike to wide receiver Chris Henry. Just as Palmer released the ball, Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into the quarterback's left knee, buckling it and sending the Bengals star to the ground in pain.
The hit, replayed for weeks on sports shows, had torn Palmer's anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments -- the ACL and MCL -- and dislocated his kneecap. The Bengals went on to lose the game, 31-17, to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
``You hear those two pops, and you know what happened,'' Palmer says. ``It was surreal. You'd see it happen to other people and you knew it could happen to you, but you never really thought it would.
``Then pop-pop. Just like that. Pop, pop. And you know you're done. It's over. Emotionally, it was devastating.''
For Julie De Rossi's family, more profound devastation hit in a series of early morning phone calls. She was on the Southwest Freeway after promoting a nearby music festival. The BMW sport-utility vehicle, driven by Eric Hinton, propelled her car into the barrier, according to the Houston police.
The police estimated Hinton's speed at 117 miles per hour (188 kilometers per hour). The posted limit was 60.
Hinton, then 31, wasn't hurt. His blood alcohol level of .234 was about three times the legal amount. He was convicted of intoxication manslaughter and is serving a five-year prison sentence, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
When paramedics pulled up to De Rossi's Volvo, they found the car so mangled that its brake lights were all the way up to the rear of the driver's seat.
`Saying My Goodbyes'
Officials at Memorial Hermann Hospital called Hyde, Julie's mother, and she phoned Julie's son, Aaron Hehr, who lived near the hospital. Julie's sister, Karen Abercrombie, was vacationing in Colorado with her family and caught a flight out of Vail later that morning.
``I spoke to the neurosurgeon about 5 a.m. and he said she didn't have any brain activity and that she wasn't going to make it,'' says Aaron, now a 26-year-old college business major. ``She was on machines, and I started saying my goodbyes.''
The only visible injury was a knot on her head. Inside, though, bones were shattered and her brain was swollen. ``She was gone, broken,'' says Aaron. His father, Julie's second husband, had died when his van rolled down an embankment, turned over and crushed him. Aaron was 15.
De Rossi's mother has a vivid image of Julie's final moments. ``I saw her for the very last time in intensive care and there was blood running out of her mouth,'' says Hyde, 76. ``I can't forget it.''
Every time a person dies in the U.S., the hospital is required by federal law to ask the family if it wants the organs, tissues or eyes donated.
In some states, signing up to be a donor on your driver's license is enough. In others, like Texas, the family must consent. That was rule in place when De Rossi was killed.
Fortunately, Julie had told her family years earlier that when she died, she wanted to be a donor.
``We figured that when someone dies, their spirit or soul or whatever is gone,'' says Hyde, a former chapter president of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. ``Why just discard the body to deteriorate when it can help someone else? It's what she wanted, and we didn't hesitate.''
The hospital kept De Rossi in intensive care until her organs and tissues could be recovered. The staff contacted the LifeGift Organ Donation Center, a federally regulated not-for- profit organ and tissue procurement company based in Houston.
De Rossi's Achilles tendon was eventually shipped to a tissue bank.
Ski Team Surgeon
Twenty-two months after De Rossi's death, Palmer was in the offices of orthopedic surgeon Lonnie Paulos, who has performed hundreds of knee operations on top athletes. Paulos, 59, was called in after a mutual decision by the Bengals and Palmer.
The surgeon, who had worked with the U.S. Ski team in Salt Lake City, moved last year to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
In most healthy athletes, he can use the player's own tissue to repair ruptures, Paulos says. Palmer suffered more extensive damage and required donor tissue.
``Transplanted ligaments tend to heal slightly weaker and slower than the patient's own tissue,'' Paulos says.
So he decided on a common procedure: use a donor Achilles tendon instead of a donor ACL. Ligaments, like bones, weaken with age, Paulos says, adding that an ACL is about half as strong at age 40 as it is at 20 and can tear more easily.
Stronger Than Ligament
Paulos repairs about 300 ACLs a year. Among athletes, only about one in 10 needs donor tissue. He says that while De Rossi was 44 years old, her Achilles tendon ``is twice as strong as an ACL because of the density and how it's put together.''
In the office, Palmer listened to the doctor's explanation. There was no certainty he would play football again. At 26, his career seemed to be hanging in the balance. To break the tension, Palmer cracked a joke about the anonymous donor.
``I said, `Hey, Doctor Paulos, just make sure this was a guy who ran like a 4.4 40-yard dash, okay?'' Palmer remembers.
De Rossi's family chuckles at the notion of a speedster. She was strong, they say, but not athletic. And she wouldn't have recognized the Pro Bowl quarterback if she had bumped into him on the street.
By all accounts, Julie was the kind of person who took life at full speed. Her mother sees that in Palmer and says she thinks Julie would approve of the donation.
`She'd Be Happy'
``He is someone who has gone after it -- really lived his life with the same energy and enthusiasm and desire that Julie had in her own life,'' Hyde says. ``I think she'd be happy.''
Dorothy Hyde gave birth twice to babies who lived exactly three days. So when her doctor called in September 1959 to say he had a young, pregnant patient who wanted to put her baby up for adoption, it was like a gift from heaven.
``She was a beautiful little girl, who had a mind of her own from the very beginning,'' says Hyde, whose late husband, Buddy Hyde, was senior vice president at Dallas-based Dresser Industries Inc.
``If you said, `No, Julie,' she'd say, `OK.' But you knew it was just a matter of time until she came back at it from another angle until she got what she wanted. She was very headstrong.''
As a 5-year-old, her classroom work prompted teachers to tell Hyde her daughter wasn't following directions. By middle school, parents were calling to tell Hyde that Julie was smoking at the bus stop.
Married at 16
Julie's desire to mark her own path in life became more evident as she got older, so there wasn't as much fuss when she started wearing a hooded vampire cloak as her winter coat.
Sweet Sixteen would produce her first marriage. The union ended within a year. Three marriages later, the former Julie Hyde decided to create a new name for herself. After polling her friends, she decided on De Rossi, and it stuck: Julie Anne De Rossi.
``She didn't care what anybody said or thought,'' Hyde says. ``And I didn't think it was right to try and stop somebody from being themselves.''
De Rossi's family, meeting in Houston last month, swapped stories about Julie that left them laughing out loud. They described her as good-hearted, loving and generous.
Son Aaron, studying at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, says his mother once returned home from a trip during a flood and, after meeting a woman stranded by high water, thought nothing of taking her home.
Eloping in Jamaica
Another time, he says, De Rossi followed a former girlfriend who had broken his heart and ordered her to stay away from her son.
And no one could forget the time she went to Jamaica and called Aaron from the beach to announce that she had just eloped with her third husband. Surprise.
``You never knew what to expect from Mom, but I always knew that she loved me very much,'' Aaron says.
Julie's sister, Karen, 43, a corporate marketing consultant in Houston, remembers when the family vacationed in Germany and her then-16-year-old sister conspired with a bellhop to help them sneak out for a beer at a nearby bar.
``She was always a risk taker,'' Karen says. ``Afraid of nothing.''
When her life was taken, Julie De Rossi left behind much of value. More than 92,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting organ transplants, according to Richmond, Virginia-based United Network for Organ Sharing.
Heart, Kidneys, Tendons
LifeGift and similar U.S. companies usually are the first to contact families about organ and tissue donation. These can include the heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, heart valves, small bowel, bones, corneas, ligaments, tendons and skin.
Separate surgical teams were assembled to remove Julie's organs and tissues once consent was given. The organs usually need to be transplanted within a few hours. The tissues can be removed even after the body has reached the morgue.
``Once the tissues have been recovered -- the process takes about seven hours -- we reconstruct the inside of the body so it looks completely normal when it's sent to the funeral home,'' says Mike Nickel, LifeGift's managing director of tissue services. ``You have to remember that these are real people and real families who are doing something very special for people who need these tissues.''
LifeGift, which recovered 272 organs and more than 2,100 tissues in 2005, checked De Rossi's medical history, conducted blood tests to prevent the spread of disease and put the tissues on ice for processing.
The Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, the biggest U.S. tissue bank, received De Rossi's donations. MTF, based in Edison, New Jersey, re-checked her medical history and tissue tests. Then, technicians wearing head-to-toe protective `space'' suits to keep tissues sterile, prepared and packaged them for either freezing at minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 57 degrees Celsius) or freeze-drying at room temperature.
MTF handles 350,000 tissues annually. Still, more are needed. Paulos says hospitals are 30 percent to 35 percent short of donated tissue and the number is increasing.
``We can use every bit of tissue donated,'' he says.
As is customary, De Rossi's tissue was returned to the part of the country where her donation took place. Her tendon was stored in a specialized freezer at the Baylor College of Medicine.
On Jan. 10, just two days after the tackle sent him off the field in a cart, Palmer was in surgery at Baylor, and Paulos selected the tendon without having to order one. The operation lasted three hours, double the usual time because of the extent of the injury, Paulos says.
The surgeon attached the tendon to Palmer's knee joint using screws that will eventually dissolve. Palmer flew to Los Angeles two days later to start rehabilitation at an orthopedic clinic and returned to Cincinnati in mid-March to continue his recovery.
On July 30, Bengals fans converged on Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky, just over an hour's drive south of Cincinnati. Cars started lining up outside the entrance five hours before the Bengals' first pre-season training camp.
Chants for Carson Palmer started an hour before the 7 p.m. practice, and fans erupted when the star quarterback walked on the field at 6:50 p.m. wearing a knee brace.
He was walking and throwing again.
Palmer says he has taken a realistic approach to his seven- month rehabilitation, which ordinarily requires a full year, according to his doctors. The Bengals and Palmer say they hope he can start the new season next month. There are no guarantees.
`Confident in Running'
``I'm not confident in my knee to, you know, hop over a fence or do anything too crazy,'' Palmer told journalists before the July 30 practice. ``I'm confident in running with it, and planting and cutting.
``But as far as getting hit, having to run full speed and stopping in a small area, I'm not mentally ready for that. And I don't think my knee's ready for that. But I'll keep testing it and see exactly what I can and can't do.''
Among Palmer's new fans is the family of Julie De Rossi. After learning that he was a recipient of her tissue, they ran a Google search on the Web to find out more about the young athlete. Now, they're rooting for Palmer to make a complete recovery and take the Bengals to the Super Bowl.
In time, Palmer's cells will grow in and around Julie's Achilles tendon, genuinely making it part of his own body.
The family members say they hope he thinks of Julie De Rossi not as a piece of tissue but as the person she once was.
``This was not a cadaver who donated this,'' Dorothy Hyde says. ``This was a human being, my daughter. A real, living person with history, who lived life on her own terms. Her name was Julie.''
To contact the reporter on this story:
Curtis Eichelberger in Washington at
Last Updated: August 8, 2006 00:08 EDT