It was Dario Minatta’s second run of the day, snowboarding down an easy slope at Breckenridge, nothing daring or high speed. That’s when the accident happened.
One minute he was zipping and the next he was tumbling. When Dario tried to get up he couldn’t move. He didn’t know it yet, but his C6 vertebra was shattered.
Dario and his girlfriend Madison Cain were vacationing with her family in Colorado. Madison had skied down, and when he didn’t meet up with her at the bottom as planned she phoned him. Again. And again. Then a paramedic called her from Dario’s phone.
Dario, 22, was being taken to a trauma center at St. Anthony’s Hospital, a two-hour ambulance ride away. Shaken, Madison called Dario’s parents, Dino and Ally Minatta, in Sonoma. Hours later they were all sitting in the hospital, waiting. By the time Dino and Ally could get there the surgery was over.
Now there is a titanium cage in Dario’s spinal cord between the C5 and C7 vertebrae, stabilizing his back and holding the bone fragments of the C6.
A C6 injury causes paralysis from the chest down. Dario can move his shoulders and arms, but not his fingers. It will be four to six months before the inflammation in his spinal cord goes down, and he will be in a neck brace for another few weeks.
“They told us injuries like Dario’s are like snowflakes, with each patient it’s different,” Madison said, ever hopeful.
The accident happened on Jan. 10. After nine days in intensive care, he was admitted to Craig Hospital, a highly rated spinal-cord injury rehabilitation center in Denver, where Dario is recovering from surgery and learning to cope with his new limitations. For his parents, Dario’s getting the best care possible is paramount, and they were told Craig is the absolute premier place for him to be. And it was only 15 minutes away.
Their insurance company didn’t agree. It wanted to fly Dario back to the Bay Area to be treated at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Although the Minatta’s have excellent insurance that includes out-of-state coverage, Craig is considered “out of network.” The insurer is paying for only a percentage, and the 12-week program Dario is now undergoing is expected to cost the family upward of $300,000.
“He was coming here no matter what it took,” Dino said in a Facetime interview from Dario’s room at Craig Hospital. Ally, briefly home in Sonoma last weekend, agreed. “If we have to work for the rest of our lives we will,” she said. “We didn’t make the decision based on what we could afford. We wanted the best place for Dario.”
Ally has been by Dario’s side every day since the accident. She arrives at the hospital with his requested Jamba Juice each morning and goes with him to his daylong schedule of physical therapy, occupational therapy, recreational skills, and even a trip to the supermarket where patients learn to shop with their physical challenges.
Dino, who owns Belvedere Construction and has five projects now under way, flies to Colorado for long weekends, joining Ally who is living in a hotel room. Their daughters, Natalia, 25, an event manager in San Diego, and Dantia, 20, who is attending Chico State, have flown in twice to visit their brother. Dario is so happy to have his family, and Madison, who has been there almost all the time, there with him.
Dario is smiling on the screen, answering questions via Facetime. “I’m making the best of it,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
He graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2014, where he played basketball and football and excelled on the golf team. He is a junior at University of Nevada, Reno, where during the season he snowboarded everyday. He’d been taking a semester off, and had returned to his parents’ house in Sonoma where he’s lived all his life.
Dario is majoring in business administration with a minor in music production, but said after what he is experiencing at Craig, he’s looking in a new career direction. “Seeing what I’ve seen here with the physical therapists is extremely intense. It’s opened my eyes to new possibilities of working in the medical world.”
He has constant pain in his neck from the surgery, which should eventually subside. “I’ve gotten much stronger than I was upper-body wise,” he said. He’s practicing using a manual wheelchair rather than an electric one, although he notes that it’s pretty cool that the electric one can travel up to seven miles per hour.
The first time he was able to look at his phone after the accident there were 174 messages, and the cards and texts keep pouring in. His “forever friends” from high school have all reached out, and buddies from college, “and I’ve heard from people I haven’t seen since preschool,” he laughs. He appreciates them all, although he is not yet feeling up to answering.
“They all say ‘We love you, get better,’” he said, “But if I respond they will ask questions and I’m not ready to answer questions yet.”
Dario is an outgoing, friendly guy and Ally says all the medical staff at Craig love him because he has such a great attitude. “He’s very funny, very positive,” she said. She shares that he has always been that way. “When he was in high school they used to say a party wasn’t a party unless Dario was there. He loves old people, he loves babies, he can have a conversation with anyone.”
Madison agrees. “He oozes goodness,” she said. “Seeing his progress has been incredible. He’s so kind, so positive. There’s a beacon of light around him.”
Dario’s upbeat persona will serve him well as his new life unfolds. He will leave Craig on April 12, and likely return to Sonoma, where his parents will be doing some remodeling to make things easier for him. “If anyone can do this, Dario can,” his mom said.
“It’s like we are in a bubble right now,” Ally said. “This is our new normal.” Married for 30 years, the couple is deeply connected to the Sonoma community, where her husband attended SVHS while she was going to Santa Rosa High School. They are overwhelmed and deeply grateful for all the support they have received from their friends.
One close, longtime friend, Maddie Morgan, set up a Go Fund Me account for the Minatta’s, although they were at first resistant. “It took a lot for them to allow us to do this,” she said, explaining she and her husband went to high school with Dino and that they raised their family with the Minatta family, even vacationing together. She felt she had to do something.
Ally, who talks openly about Dario and what their family is going through together, clams up at the mention of the fundraiser. “We are having a hard time with it,” she said. “We are upstanding people. We pay for insurance. It’s confusing to me.”
Hard times call for good friends. Friends who will be there for Dario.