It’s odd, the things Grant Bonavia remembers. One is the stoplight. As he lay on his back on the pavement in the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Saul Road in Kensington, he watched it dangle above him. He doesn’t remember feeling any pain, even though the bone from his fractured right femur had pushed through the back of his thigh, his pelvis was shattered in several places, and he was bleeding profusely.
But he remembers the yellow traffic light.
Moments earlier he had been waiting to walk his bike across Connecticut before completing the ride to his home on Saul less than three blocks away.
It was Oct. 23, 2019, a sunny and warm fall day.
“A Wednesday,” he says. “5:40 p.m.”
More than two years later, Bonavia is sitting at his dining room table with his wife, Mattie, recounting the worst day of his life. He doesn’t talk about the accident much anymore; doing so brings back a smattering of difficult memories and feelings.
“The first thing that was out of the ordinary was the pickup truck,” he says. “A Ford F-150, blue, I think it had gray trim on it. It’s coming south on Connecticut, and he turns into the left turn lane. I’m watching him, and I notice he’s not stopping. I just thought to myself something bad is going to happen here.”
He was right. As the truck tried to turn left on a green light onto Saul, it was struck by two cars traveling north on Connecticut. (According to the police report, the drivers of the cars stated they were traveling in excess of 50 mph in a 35-mph zone. Both were cited for multiple traffic infractions.) The impact of the crash sent the truck into Bonavia, who was standing on the sidewalk.
“It was almost like the wind coming at me,” he says of the split second before the truck’s front left quarter panel hit him. “That’s the best way I can describe it.”
It’s been a long and arduous road back to normality for the 51-year-old father of three. The journey has been filled with pain, but also with plenty of love. Love from his family, of course, but also from his friends, his fellow parishioners at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, and his colleagues at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where he’s a radiologist.
Although he drifted in and out of consciousness while strangers tended to him, there’s another thing Bonavia remembers before EMTs arrived and took him to the hospital.
“When I was lying in the intersection, you lose all concern about all the stuff you’re thinking about at the time that’s always in the back of your mind: work, worrying about finances, the car, the house,” he says. “I remember all that stuff just melting away. None of that mattered. Your family, your loved ones, you’re like: Why did I ever worry about any of this other crap? That was probably the most intense feeling that I had through the whole thing.”
His voice cracks, and he takes a moment to compose himself.
“The upside of what I went through is realizing nothing else matters except your family and how much you appreciate the people around you,” he says. “I always try to think about that feeling as a little gift.”
Bonavia was raised in Groton, a small town in upstate New York. His mother was a biology teacher, and his father is an electrical engineer. They instilled a love of science in him, and one day in high school he went on a field trip to a local hospital.
“They took us in to see the radiologist,” Bonavia recalls. “I see the guy sitting there, and he’s looking at CT scans. I thought, wow, he’s not confined to one type of disease. He looks at oncology cases, ER cases, any type of medicine they do in the hospital. I thought that would be cool.”
After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bonavia earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Syracuse University. That’s where he met Mattie, a fellow graduate student.
“I noticed that he was really a deep thinker. I liked how smart he was,” says Mattie, a business professor at the University of Maryland. “And of course, he was hot. A lot of my girlfriends had said that he liked me. I needed a date for a wedding, and so I took him. He told me at the wedding that he liked me.”
Three years later they were married. The couple has three daughters: Alexandra, 22, Genevieve, 19, and Nicholette, 16. An avid runner, Grant got the girls into running, and he still coaches track at Holy Redeemer Catholic School, which is just around the corner from their house.
Bonavia got his medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Walter Reed and worked at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina before returning to Walter Reed, where he’s been a military physician ever since. He’s a commander in the U.S. Navy.
Before the accident, Bonavia rode his bike to work almost every day. The trip from his house to Walter Reed took him about 15 minutes. For safety reasons, Bonavia rode on the sidewalk instead of the street.
“I see people riding their bikes in the street all the time,” he says. “I never could understand how people felt confident enough to do that.”
On Oct. 23, 2019, Bonavia rode into work on an L.L. Bean mountain bike that Mattie had given him. In the evening, he stopped in Rock Creek Park to use exercise stations on which he did pullups and pushups. It was an occasional detour that required him to cross Connecticut Avenue, which wasn’t necessary when he went straight home.
“The week before, Mattie had seen me coming from the east side of Saul Road,” he says. “She said, ‘Where are you coming from?’ I told her I was in the park doing pullups and pushups, and she gets mad at me. She said, ‘I don’t like you on Connecticut.’ One week before. Seven days. No lie.”
“I gave him hell for even being at that intersection because I don’t trust it,” Mattie says.
Traffic on Connecticut Avenue has been a concern of Mattie’s—and many other local residents—for a long time. A Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) study released in February found that from 2014 to 2018, 566 crashes were reported on Connecticut between the D.C. line and University Boulevard in Kensington. Ninety of those were severe, disabling or fatal, and 11 involved a person walking or biking. (Those statistics do not include Bonavia’s accident or a fatal one in 2021 at the same intersection involving a pickup and an SUV.) According to Montgomery County Police Department records, there were 19 documented accidents at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Saul Road between April 27, 2017, and Nov. 21, 2021.
Although there are dedicated turn lanes onto Saul, there are no turn arrows on the stoplights. Motorists must yield to oncoming traffic that’s often speeding. Bonavia knew the dangers of Connecticut’s intersection with Saul Road firsthand. Almost a year before his accident he witnessed a serious crash there and tried to help one of the victims.
“The young girl was in a Volvo, slumped over on the passenger seat,” he says. “We were talking to her, and she’s not responding at all. So we just kind of sat there with her until the emergency team arrived. They cut her out, and I watched as they put her on a stretcher. She never really gained any consciousness at the time.”
Similarly, onlookers rushed to Bonavia’s aid after he was hit and initially pinned against a utility pole. Miraculously, several were doctors, including vascular surgeon Frederick Beavers.
“It was clear that he was hurt. He was crying out in agony,” Beavers recalls. “His leg was pretty mangled, but he was awake and talking. He had a helmet on, thank goodness. He was bleeding from the leg where he suffered the compound fracture. He lost consciousness for a bit, so we put a tourniquet on. I think somebody volunteered their belt.”
Mattie was cooking dinner at home when she heard sirens.
“I didn’t give it much thought,” she says. “Then the phone rang and they said, ‘Is Marjorie there?’ Nobody calls me by that name. Everybody calls me Mattie. I thought, ‘Oh, they’re selling something.’ ”
She hung up, but it rang again. Again, the woman on the other end asked for Marjorie. Again, Mattie hung up.
“The third phone call came in and she said, ‘Is this Grant’s wife? Your husband is down at the corner of Saul Road and Connecticut.’ ”
Panicked, Mattie threw on Nicholette’s shoes and drove down the street with her. She describes the scene they encountered as a “war zone,” so she left her daughter in the car. Emergency personnel were everywhere, and Bonavia was conscious.
“I remember looking up at the lights on the ceiling of the ambulance,” he says. “I think it was a woman and a man who were talking over me. I remember being really scared because I thought it was possibly fatal. I thought any minute now…this could be the end. They were saying, ‘You’re going to be fine,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s what you say to everybody.’ ”
At Suburban Hospital, Bonavia was awake while he received close to 20 units of blood and platelets.
“They were giving me lots of blood, and I wasn’t holding my pressure,” he says. “I was watching the pressure monitor and I could see the numbers, and they weren’t good. I could tell from the way they were talking and what they were doing and how my pressure wasn’t coming back up; I remember thinking, ‘This is not looking good.’ If they can’t get your pressure back up, they can’t take you to surgery. And if they can’t take you to surgery, they can’t stop the bleeding.”
About two hours later, doctors clotted the bleeding in his pelvis and stabilized some of his broken bones. It was the first of 12 surgeries he would undergo over 12 months. About 2:30 a.m.—roughly nine hours after the accident—Mattie went in to see him.
“He was so swollen that he looked pregnant,” she says. “I had never seen someone like that. I thought, ‘That’s not my husband laying there.’ ”
Over the course of the next week, as Bonavia’s physical state stabilized, his mental state began to waver. He became paranoid and started hallucinating. Both were likely side effects of the powerful painkillers he was getting.
“I remember thinking, ‘They’re never going to let me out of here. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life,’ ” he says.
On Halloween, he was transferred to Walter Reed, where colleague Dr. Melvin Helgeson operated on him.
“He had a bad pelvis injury—it was in poor alignment after it had initially been stabilized at Suburban,” Helgeson says. “I put screws and rods into the spine to help align the top of the pelvis with the spine and correct the alignment. From an orthopedic trauma perspective, it was a significant injury that did require critical care to be able to manage it.”
While Bonavia was still hospitalized in November, his community mobilized. Three women from Holy Redeemer hosted a blood drive with the Red Cross.
“We have a really tight community, and when the accident happened, people were kind of at a loss for what to do,” says Elizabeth Rembold, one of the trio. “Mattie was the one that suggested that there was a high need for blood. People felt, whether they knew Grant or not, that it was a way to help.”
Ann Turgeon, another organizer, says so many people signed up for appointments to give blood that walk-ins had to be turned away.
“Grant runs the cross-country and track program at our parish school. Anyone’s welcome,” she says. “Mattie ran the cheer program. They’ve touched so many lives, but it’s always done in a really quiet, humble way. So I think that when they’re in need, everyone would do anything for them. That’s the type of people they are.”
David Hull, a spokesperson for American Red Cross Blood Services, told Bethesda Beat that donors gave 138 units of blood—enough to help about 377 patients.
A week earlier, the District 18 state legislative delegation hosted a meeting at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington that focused on improving traffic safety in the immediate area of the crash. More than 100 people, including state and county transportation officials, attended.
“I think people were galvanized because we have been asking the state to help with issues in this corridor for so long,” says Jana Coe, town manager of Chevy Chase View, where the Bonavias live.
At the meeting, the girl Bonavia tried to help a year earlier spoke about her own accident at the intersection of Connecticut and Saul. Stella Biles was 15 when she was in the passenger seat of the Volvo her father was driving as it was involved in a collision with a Camaro. She was in a coma for a few days and in a wheelchair for three months.
“I had to relearn how to walk and talk and eat and do basic functions,” says Biles, now 19 and a student at Montgomery College. “I lost a lot of my athletic abilities, and other performance abilities, like music, really went down. I had to really work to get my voice back for singing, and my fine motor skills weren’t good for guitar anymore. I was on the field hockey team at my school, and I didn’t perform as well at all.”
Biles says it took her about two years to recover.
After Bonavia was released from Walter Reed on Nov. 25, he moved into Building 62 on the campus and began physical therapy. Many of his fellow patients were service members wounded in battle.
“I was surrounded by people with amputations, people who had been injured by IED blasts,” he says. “One guy who was a friend was riding his motorcycle and got hit by a truck and had his right leg amputated. I saw a guy with no arms. So I felt fortunate.”
Bonavia’s rehab was often grueling. Therapists would inflate a blood pressure cuff around his leg and have him do squats. His middle daughter, Genevieve, occasionally joined him during his sessions. She sometimes sat and watched, but mostly she kept him company as he moved from station to station.
“I was curious as to how each small activity would build him up to walking again,” she says. “When I first rolled him over in his wheelchair from the rehabilitation building, I questioned how these exercises would ever get him running again. [But] the atmosphere was amazing. I was able to see regularly how [physical therapists] kept [patients’] strength up and built onto it further.”
Genevieve is now a freshman at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where she is majoring in physical therapy. Watching her father during those sessions is a major reason she has chosen that career path.
“I knew that I wanted to be a person that helped give people their independence back, like the physical therapists my dad worked with,” she says.
Bonavia came home on Dec. 7, 2019. A month later he stood up from his wheelchair for the first time.
“You forget how tall you are,” he says. “I stood up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m tall!’ And I’m 5-11—I’m not that tall.”
Progress was slow. After standing, Bonavia began to walk with the use of crutches. After shedding them, he used two canes. Then one. After walking, he began to jog. After jogging, he began to run.
“At each benchmark, when he had to make a transition, there was fear,” Mattie says. “And this dose of fear is something he had to wrestle with because he had never experienced that in his entire life. It took us to some really dark places as a family, as a couple, and I know for Grant it was not a place that he’d ever been. It was scary.”
The transformation from wheelchair reliance to a version of what he once was took about six months.
“It was difficult more often than not,” he says. “I went from being a person who could run a 20:20 5K to having somebody push me in a wheelchair. Which teaches you humility. It was a learning lesson for me, but I wasn’t always graceful at it.”
Bonavia says he has no lingering emotional pain these days, just tightness and discomfort in some parts of his body. “But I always know it’s there.”
“[He had] a severe injury to his pelvis, to his bilateral lower extremities,” Helgeson says. “Most people do not get back to full function. I’m surprised he’s back to running and being able to do what he does. It’s great to see.”
Meanwhile, after years of lobbying by residents for changes to the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Saul Road, the county and state have taken action.
In early 2020, the county tweaked the timing of the lights on Saul Road and increased the time pedestrians have to cross Connecticut Avenue. In January, a speed camera was installed on northbound Connecticut Avenue, near Dresden Street, three blocks north of Saul Road. There’s been one in the same area on southbound Connecticut for years.
“We have been advocating for many years for a northbound camera because we know people come off the Beltway and it’s like the open road,” Coe says. “You would not in a million years know that on Saul Road there is a dense residential area.”
Perhaps most importantly, more change is coming to the site of the crash that almost took Bonavia’s life.
“Our traffic engineers have noticed challenges with left turns along MD 185 [Connecticut Avenue],” MDOT spokesperson Shanteé Felix wrote in an email. “We are in the process of designing a reconstructed traffic signal system that will include dedicated left turn arrows from MD 185 onto Saul Road to improve operations and safety for left turning vehicles. Design activities will continue in the spring, with construction starting in early summer.”
Bonavia, who started working again in March 2020, still commutes by bike sometimes. He vividly remembers the first time he went for a ride after the accident. His cycling partner through his neighborhood on that cool spring day was his daughter.
“I was riding by people’s houses. It wasn’t a big deal to them, but I felt like it was a big deal to me,” he says. “I was waving at people. I remember riding by one guy in particular who did a double take. He hadn’t seen me in a while.”
Every now and then, Bonavia still stops in Rock Creek Park to work out. Much to the chagrin of his wife, he still pedals up Saul Road and waits to cross Connecticut Avenue on his way home. Only these days, after he pushes the pedestrian button, he takes several steps back from the road.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.