Published April 06. 2013 4:00AM Updated April 06. 2013 5:52AM
Her family believes it took a miracle to save Catrina Cecchini's life.
Something extraordinary had to happen on that fateful fall day for Catrina, just 20 years old, to survive a near-fatal heart attack.
In a matter of hours, Catrina went from playing goalie for her Southern Vermont College women's soccer team to lying on a New York highway roadside without a pulse.
If not for the heroics of her 79-year-old grandmother, the quick response of her father and life-saving actions of a passerby, Catrina's story may have had a tragic instead of a happy ending.
"It's a miracle really what happened with her, how it happened and when it happened that she is still alive today," said Carl Cecchini, Catrina's father.
Six months later, Catrina, a 2010 Montville High School graduate, has no memory of the life-threatening event that resulted in a lengthy hospital stay. She is still continuing down the road to recovery, but has returned to school.
Her family will never forget Oct. 6, 2012.
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The day began as a family celebration, of sorts.
Carl and his mother, Margie Keane — who was visiting from Mexico — traveled to Southern Vermont, a small, private college in Bennington, to watch Catrina play soccer.
After a somewhat frustrating high school career, Catrina found a happy soccer home with the Mountaineers.
A three-year starter, Catrina was a vital part of the program's rise to respectability. Southern Vermont went from a winless freshman season to on the way to a school record 11 wins last fall — her junior year — heading into the game against Newbury College.
On a beautiful fall day, Catrina, who owns the school's single-season save record, stopped five shots in a 6-1 victory.
"It was a perfect day for soccer," her grandmother said. "It looked like it was going to be a perfect day all around."
After the game, they began the approximately 90-minute trip to Saratoga, N.Y., to visit Catrina's aunt. Catrina drove her grandmother, following her father's car.
Nearing their exit off I-87 North, something went terribly wrong.
Looking out his rear-view mirror, Carl noticed Catrina's car weaving erratically across the highway. Inside the car, Keane stopped in mid-conversation and was stunned to see her granddaughter passed out against the driver's side door, her hands still gripping the steering wheel.
"I said something to her and she didn't respond," Keane said. "I looked over and she was slumped against the window. … It was a big shock."
As a mother of six, Keane has dealt with her share of emergencies. She took immediate action, grabbing the wheel, tooting the horn to alert other drivers and somehow guiding the car through busy weekend traffic from the far right lane over to the left-hand side onto the grassy median.
She was able to turn off the engine.
Alarmed and concerned when traffic slowed down behind him, Carl cut over to the breakdown lane, backing up until he reached the scene. He ran across the road, dodging traffic.
Frantic and fearing the worst, he lifted his unconscious daughter out of the car.
"I put her on ground," Carl said. "I was beside myself because she's not breathing. I'm trying to do CPR on her and trying to get a pulse. … She was basically dead in my arms."
Just minutes later, Carl heard a voice behind him. An emergency medical technician heard the call and happened to be in the area. He took over CPR until an ambulance arrived.
"This guy showed up out of the blue," Carl said. "It was a miracle. He saved her life."
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Only weeks later would Keane fully grasp what happened to her granddaughter.
"I started thinking about how amazing it was that we were able to get across four lanes of traffic on a busy thruway without hitting anyone or being hit," Keane said. "How, except for a guardian angel, can one explain getting across the freeway unharmed and having a person who knew CPR show up, and the ambulance arriving so quickly and so many caring people who were there for us."
Catrina wasn't out of danger yet. After arriving at nearby Saratoga Hospital, she spent three days in a medically-induced coma.
Tests revealed that Catrina had indeed suffered a heart attack. She had been seeing a doctor for an irregular heartbeat but only had to monitor her condition.
Still, the news was a shock.
"It kind of freaked me out," Catrina said. "I just never thought I'd have a heart attack at such a young age."
She eventually moved to St. Peter's Hospital in nearby Albany, where doctors performed a surgical procedure to implant a defibrillator.
Her family, including sister, Cayla, and mother, Patricia, spent countless hours at her bedside. Her soccer teammates, who kept Catrina's jersey on the sidelines during games in her absence, visited along with coach Michael Zauzig.
After 12 days in the hospital, Catrina returned home. Her cardiologist delivered crushing news during an appointment in December.
Catrina's college soccer career was over, forced to give up a sport that she's had a love affair with since age six.
"When I heard that I couldn't play anymore, I was just devastated," she said. "I tried to talk him out of it."
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Wanting to stay involved, Catrina told Zauzig that she would embrace an off-field role. She has continued attending offseason workouts.
A few weeks ago during a team meeting, Catrinia's teammates showed their love and respect by voting her one of the co-captains for next season. While she was surprised by the selection, Zauzig wasn't.
"We could spend all afternoon together and I wouldn't have enough time to say good things about her," Zauzig said. "She's the absolute definition of an athlete that leads by example. … It's easy to assume that she was voted captain because of what happened, but it's far from that.
"It's her maturity and her commitment. … I'm not sure you could find a sweeter kid on campus."
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Life is gradually returning to normal for Catrina.
Doctors told her it would take up to 18 months to make a full recovery.
While Catrina's health continues to improve, she's still dealing with some issues.
She feels "achy" some days and hasn't been cleared to drive.
She is staying at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington this weekend so doctors can monitor her while she tries a new medication.
"We found out her heart is racing faster than it should be," Carl said. "Hopefully, they can get a grasp exactly what it is."
Still, Catrina is doing remarkable well considering what she's been through. She worked hard to make up for about a month's worth of missed class time last fall. A radiologic technology major, she'd like to return home after graduation and work at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
When hearing stories about that October day, she marvels at the courage that her grandmother showed under duress, is thankful for the wonderful caring people that took care of her, and appreciates the support of her soccer family. She's a Facebook friend with the EMT, Andy Johnson, who helped save her life.
"It's crazy to me," Catrina said. "I was just shocked about everything that happened."
The traumatic experience has altered her outlook on life.
"I do appreciate life more," Catrina said. "I see that life is really short sometimes."