Diane Berardi couldn’t believe her ears. Didn’t want to, actually. Somehow it had happened again. Somehow the scourge of drunken driving had hit her family once more.
In 1987, she was struck by an impaired motorist, leaving her with a broken back, and spent a full decade in physical therapy.
In 1991, her mother died from injuries suffered after a drunken driver struck the vehicle in which she was riding.
And on the night of Oct. 31, 2019, Diane took a call from her son-in-law, Ed Flinton.
This time it was her daughter, Jessica Flinton.
Jessica had been driving back from the beach when she stopped for gas. As she got back on the road, she was hit broadside by a drunken driver going 115 mph.
“It altered our lives forever,” Diane said of the impact of drunken driving. “And now it’s altering our lives forever again.”
Diane chooses from a mix of nearly 20 different medications, crushes the pills and dumps that powder into a blender with whatever she has chosen for breakfast for her daughter that morning.
In the kitchen of her East Cocalico Township home, Diane presses the blender’s power button. When the concoction of medicine and food is liquefied, Diane administers it manually through a feeding tube connected to Jessica’s stomach.
Jessica, 42, is still asleep while all this is happening.
It’s 9 a.m.
Because Jessica needs around-the-clock care, combined with the fact that her husband, Ed, is working full time providing for their four children, Jessica has been living with her parents. She sleeps in a first-floor bedroom, with her mother by her side.
Diane, 62, put a stop to nurses visiting the home when COVID-19 cases started surging over the holidays. Since Thanksgiving, she alone runs her daughter through a variety of occupational, speech, physical and respiratory therapies.
They’re all done in hopes to get Jessica back to the life she had before Oct. 31, 2019.
Before the crash, Jessica, a Conestoga Valley alumna, put her daughter Skylar on the school bus each morning near the family’s East Cocalico home. While her four kids were at school, Jessica brought in a bit of extra income through a part-time job with an accounting firm.
She also managed her family’s busy schedule, making sure the kids got to dentist appointments and that the bills were paid.
“She wanted to be home when the kids came home from school,” Diane said, “which then allowed her time to be able to take the kids to and from practices and games.”
Jessica also provided practical life advice to her children as they grew. She did the same for her neighbor and best friend Diane Pavlek.
“She’s the type of person that will give her shirt off her back for anyone,” Pavlek said. “When we moved here 20 years ago, me being new in Lancaster County, she was just the most welcoming person.”
Jessica and Ed Flinton’s oldest son, Brody, competed in gymnastics before graduating from Cocalico High School two years ago. He’s now a sophomore at Penn State Berks, studying business management.
Steven and Brycen Flinton, both Cocalico juniors, are multi-sport student athletes.
Skylar is a sixth grader at Cocalico’s Adamstown Elementary School. She also plays basketball.
“She was at everything,” Brycen said of his mom. “Everyone in Cocalico knew her because we’re in every sport.”
“She was that super mom,” Brody said.
The Flintons often spent their summers at the beach in the family’s camper in Lewes, Delaware. Jessica had just cleaned and closed up the camper for the coming winter on the rainy Thursday night of Oct. 31, 2019, when her cellphone buzzed.
She had received a text message from her mother: “It’s raining. Why don’t you come home tomorrow?”
Jessica texted back: “No, Mom. I want to be there to put Skylar on the bus in the morning.”
Jessica had been on the highway for about 90 minutes when she stopped for gas in Newark, Delaware, refilling the tank of her black 2004 Volvo.
After pulling out of the gas station, she stopped at a four-way traffic light. When the light turned green, Jessica put her foot on the gas pedal.
Jessica’s car was hit on the driver side as she entered the intersection. Her head whipped to her right side upon impact, breaking her neck in multiple places.
She suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries, injuries to her spine, a crushed pelvis and a destroyed right hand and wrist. Her right foot was nearly severed. She lost bone in her right leg. Her nose and right ear were ripped off, reattached by surgeons after the crash.
Jessica was in a coma for 11 days after the crash. Doctors weren’t sure if she was going to survive. They said she was fortunate ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital was 2 miles from the scene.
“She wouldn’t have survived a helicopter ride,” Diane Berardi said.
As Jessica emerged from the coma Nov. 11, 2019, her mother was at her bedside.
“Jessica, it’s your momma,” Diane said. “Can you hear me?”
Jessica nudged her chin up slightly, indicating she could.
The driver of the car that crashed into Jessica Flinton’s Volvo was Anthony Ratasiewicz, a Wilmington, Delaware, resident who was 23 at the time.
It was his third traffic offense in a 45-day period, including two citations for driving under the influence, according to court documents.
Ratasiewicz, now 24, pleaded guilty to three charges, including two felonies, stemming from the crash: vehicular assault, reckless endangerment and driving under the influence, second offense.
He faced up to nine years, six months in prison and was sentenced to seven years in prison and 2 ½ years of probation by Judge Eric Davis on Sept. 25, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
“I truly don’t know what to say,” Ratasiewicz said in court, when asked by Judge Davis if he had anything to say. “It’s been on my mind for months on what to say come this day. All I can say is, I’m very sorry for what I have done. I’m very remorseful, and I regret it all. I wish I came forward about my alcohol problem before any of this happened. And it’s definitely opened up my eyes and made me look at things differently.”
Judge Davis, however, noted repetitive criminal conduct and said he felt Ratasiewicz was not regretful, even in a letter Ratasiewicz had given to the court before his sentencing.
“I find lack of remorse,” Davis said. “I don’t see that that letter changed me. The offender has demonstrated a total lack of remorse or acceptance of responsibility with regard to this offense.”
“Our family is deeply saddened by the events of Oct. 31, 2019, and all that led to that tragic evening. Anthony and our family extend our most sincere and heartfelt apologies,” Anthony’s mother, Jennifer Ratasiewicz, said in a statement on behalf of the family to LNP | LancasterOnline for this story.
The Flinton and Berardi families asked that details about Ratasiewicz be kept to a minimum for this story. Their focus is on Jessica and their family, they said.
During the weeks after the crash, Ed Flinton split his days between work and staying with Jessica at the hospital in Delaware.
Brody served as a de facto parent back home, waking up his younger siblings and getting them ready for school, making them dinner, shuttling them to and from practices and games.
Ed left a list of chores for the children. He did the grocery shopping at night.
The Flinton children have had to grow up more quickly than anticipated.
“It took me about six months just to process that everything was real,” Brycen said.
“It doesn’t feel real for a long time,” Brody said. “Then it sets in. Then it’s hard. Staying strong is the best thing you can do.”
Because of the pandemic, Cocalico switched to remote learning in March — school is now a hybrid model, with two days in school and three days of remote learning. Brody has been taking his college courses remotely since March.
“(The pandemic) made things a lot harder,” Brody said. “We’re around the house more, so the messes get bigger. There are more dishes, more chores we have to do.”
The Flinton siblings have helped each other more with schoolwork over the last 16 months. They admit it’s difficult to complete without their mother nearby.
“Because you don’t have anyone nudging you,” Brody said.
Eight days after the crash, Steven was in his Cocalico football uniform on the school’s home field for a District Three Class 5A quarterfinal-round playoff game. It was the first time he could recall playing football without his mother watching from the bleachers.
“I’ll be completely honest,” Steven said, “I can’t exactly say how I was feeling, but it was definitely different. Because she was there every game. Same with all of us. It was really hard.”
Cocalico won that night. The next week, in the semifinals, members of the Cocalico student section wore white T-shirts with “Team Jessica” in black lettering across the front and “Students Against Drunk Driving” across the back.
“I still see people wearing those shirts,” Skylar said.
The Cocalico football team put together a magical playoff run that fall, capturing the district championship and reaching the state semifinals.
Ed, Brody, Brycen and Skylar sat together in the bleachers on those Friday nights.
“We all cheered together,” Ed Flinton said. “It was that one part of the week where we could put all of that behind us and not be sad and not be upset.”
This past fall, Brycen joined Steven on the football field. The brothers combined to score nine touchdowns for Cocalico. After each score, they tapped a hand to their helmets.
“Since our mom had a brain injury, I would do that every time we’d score,” Steven said. “Just doing that for her.”
Diane and her husband, Bob Berardi, had the live broadcasts of the games streaming on a big screen TV back home so Jessica could watch.
Jessica has been unable to see Skylar compete this winter in her sixth-grade travel team basketball games because those games aren’t livestreamed. Regardless, Skylar taps her head when her name is announced during the introduction of starting lineups. Brycen does the same before Cocalico varsity boys basketball games. On Brycen’s sneakers, in black marker, are the words, “Team Jess.”
Brycen will play baseball in the spring. It’s the sport in which he excels. He’s already receiving recruiting interest from NCAA Division I baseball programs.
“What she always dreamed of us doing was going D-I for sports,” Brycen said. “That’s what we wanted to do. So, we just have to complete that for her.”
On Nov. 23, 2019, 23 days after the accident, Jessica was discharged to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Chester County.
Jessica was cleared to come home March 6, 2020, 127 days after the accident, after taking 250 steps with the aid of a walker.
Jessica has had more than 25 surgeries since the crash.
Along the way, she has missed family gatherings, holidays and birthdays for each of her four children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things challenging. Because Jessica is immunocompromised, her children visited during the Christmas holiday but were masked and socially distant.
Jessica still has a tracheal tube in her throat. In hopes to get her breathing normally again, she recently underwent the first of three surgeries to reopen her airway.
Before her latest surgery, Jessica could speak only one to two words at a time before taking a breath. She can now speak a sentence at a time.
Diane is hopeful Jessica will walk again.
“Will she do it without a walker? I don’t know.”
In an interview just before Thanksgiving, Jessica said it had taken her until then to accept her situation.
“Only until the last couple of weeks,” she said.
To accept how her life is right now.
To accept the long road to recovery.
To know all of that and to try to live in the moment, pushing forward in hopes to return to being an active mother.
“It’s not easy,” Jessica said. “At all.”
She’s aided by a mom, Diane, who has been in her shoes. Who had been through a similar tragedy and long recovery roughly 30 years ago.
Asked if she has any thoughts as to why this keeps happening to the family, Diane said, “I wonder all the time.”
“I believe God wants us to speak about it,” she said. “To get the message out there.”
A message that drunken driving can devastate families. That it can destroy lives, or worse — an average of 30 people in the United States die in drunken-driving crashes each day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“It’s important to tell this story,” Diane said. “Because it might save one person out there.”
Someday, maybe when Jessica is better, Diane is contemplating taking an activist approach to encourage lawmakers to tighten penalties for driving under the influence.
But for now, Diane gets Jessica out of bed every morning.
She swings Jessica’s legs around and lifts her to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Jessica recently regained feeling below her waist, but her legs are still weak. She raises her arms over her mother’s shoulders and head, and Diana locks her arms around Jessica’s back.
“I put my knees in front of her knees,” Diane said. “I try to lift her up. When we get to a standing position, she locks her knees. Before, she could not lock her knees, they just buckled.”
She’ll lift Jessica to a bedside commode, help her get dressed and move her to an electric wheelchair.
Ready for a new day.
Jessica Flinton’s health insurance provider has paid out more than $1.5 million to help cover her many health-related medical expenses since the crash. But her insurance doesn’t cover everything. The family welcomes monetary support that will be used for Jessica’s care in rebuilding her life through a GoFundMe account: gofundme.com/f/33ffqf-team-jessica.