Raldenys Tolentino stands in front of her bedroom mirror, takes a deep breath and exhales.
The Massachusetts native has been looking into this particular oval-shaped reflection for 15 years. Adorned with flowers and bound by white tint, the glass was gifted to her at age 11 when her family moved to the Bronx. While some of the innocence of that adolescence remains, a bundle of blemishes on her body serve as a reminder of time’s passage.
“Scars are the tattoos of life,” said Raldenys (pronounced Rawl-Den-Ees).
The 25-year-old remains in recovery more than two years after suffering a horrific motorcycle accident in South Harlem, New York.
On November 8, 2020, Raldenys had finished her shift as a bartender at The Row Harlem around 9 p.m. With her car temporarily out of service, she was presented with two options: Take an Uber ride home, or jump on a joyride with a group of friends. She chose the latter, hopping on the back of her friend Christopher Marrero’s bike – a memory she does not recall as a result of the trauma.
Police reports from that day describe the duo as riding north on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard when a Volkswagen sedan driver – heading south on the same avenue – turned onto West 116th Street, creating a violent collision.
“She takes the turn and all you see is a big fire,” said Raldenys, describing surveillance video shown to her by the assistant district attorney. “I felt detached from it. I know it’s real, but I don’t believe it. It just feels like it’s from a movie. That shit doesn’t happen in real life.”
Raldenys was launched nearly 60 feet from the bike. A violent impact with the ground left her with a broken neck, two broken arms, a pair of broken legs, a broken pelvis, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed right lung and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She was rushed to Mount Sinai Morningside (MSM), while Marrero was taken to Harlem Hospital in serious condition. The Volkswagen driver was taken into custody on suspicion of drunk driving.
Having lost a tremendous amount of blood, Raldenys was given a 30 percent chance to live. She was induced into a coma, where she would stay for two weeks while surgeons attempted to repair her broken body. Her father and brother, who were living in Lynn, Massachusetts, rushed to be at her side, with her mother traveling from the Dominican Republic soon after.
“The first thing I really remember after waking up was it being around Christmas time,” she said, explaining the TBI impacted her memory. “There was just so much pain.”
“Soooooo much pain,” she repeated.
Raldenys stayed at MSM for three months. During that time, she underwent over 30 surgeries, including a spinal fusion to her C-1 and C-2 vertebrae, as well as a variety of skin grafts to patch extensive road rash across her body. With Covid-19 precautions in play, Raldenys was limited to one visitor at a time. Her mother Dilenia and father Rafael alternated weeks at their daughter’s side.
“[My parents] were troopers,” she said, recalling daily treats of homemade meals courtesy of her parents and her uncle, with whom they stayed during the hospitalization. “They were always at my bedside until visitation hours were over.”
Raldenys also received a tremendous amount of support and prayer from the three communities she had been a part of: North Shore, Massachusetts, New York City and the Dominican Republic. A GoFundMe page raised nearly $10,000, helping the family offset the extreme medical costs of a lengthy stay.
“When I look back, they gave me the motivation to get better,” she said. “That experience showed me how loved I am.”
On February 3, 2021, Raldenys was released from MSM and taken to Spaulding Rehab Center in Boston – where she would fast track her healing.
“The best of the best,” she smiled. “Everyone [at Spaulding] was amazing. I had rehab and all kinds of therapy – speech, physical, occupational and even recreational. I learned how to tie-dye shirts, had water gun fights with my nurses, and they even taught me how to cook. They had me walking in just two weeks. It was the first time since the accident that I started to feel like myself again.”
On February 17, 2021 – just 102 days after her accident – Raldenys was allowed to go home to live with her family in Lynn. After months of relying on morphine, dilaudid and oxycodone to lessen the pain, Raldenys’ family was worried she would become addicted to the powerful pharmaceuticals.
“I was at the hospital for so long, all I wanted to do was leave,” she said. “But once I got home, I didn’t feel at home at all. I was uncomfortable. I was in pain. I was miserable. I thought, ‘Why’d they even save me if it’s just going to be like this?’ I thought the pain was forever.”
Little did they know, she had an ace up her sleeve: the medicinal properties of Cannabis.
Raldenys was an avid user of Cannabis before the accident, but wasn’t allowed to partake while in the medical facilities. Once home, she began relying on pre-rolled joints to lessen the pain, improve her mood and take away anxiety.
“I smoked weed [recreationally] before, but now I had a reason to,” she said. “[My use of Cannabis] evolved. Now I’m more conscious of how I use it.”
Cannabis allowed her to see her battle was with one person: the woman in the mirror.
Raldenys didn’t like her scars. She didn’t like being disabled. And she didn’t enjoy having a negative mindset. So she set out to do something about it.
After seeing a few videos on TikTok about the power of affirmations, Raldenys began fighting off the voices in her head that tormented her, winning the battle with potent statements of positivity – voicing them out loud and journaling them at the start and end of each day.
“People were telling me to just stay positive, and at that point, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I gave it a try,” she said. “Affirmations helped calm me down and reassure me that everything was going to be OK. I began brainwashing myself into being grateful.”
Raldenys also had to offer herself grace, forgiving herself for choosing to get on the motorcycle.
“I was blaming myself because if I had just taken the Uber, everything woulda been fine,” Raldenys said, tearing up at the thought of bringing pain to her family. “But as I spent more time with myself, I started looking at other perspectives. I came up with the idea that it could have been my fault; it could have been everyone’s fault; and it could have been no one’s fault. That I got to choose which one of those perspectives I wanted to make my reality – that brought me peace.”
In a moment of bravery, Raldenys stepped in front of the mirror and began addressing her scars, one by one.
“I didn’t know what happened in each,” she said. “But I just thought, ‘It’s OK, because I’m still here. I’m still alive.’ So I looked at every scar and I started accepting them. That was when the shift happened.”
She stayed upbeat with music and a good attitude, while maintaining more solitude than she had prior to the accident.
The family’s four-year old poodle, Odie, became her unofficial service dog.
A believer in true love, Raldenys recently became an ordained minister, with hopes of marrying couples in the future.
This past summer, she visited the Dominican Republic, reconnecting with old friends and visiting churches that helped contribute towards her online fundraiser.
“Some people were relieved to see I was as recovered as I am,” she said, noting it was her first trip to the D-R in 11 years. “Others were just happy to see me in whatever condition I was.”
While a lawsuit against the driver of the Volkswagen is entering its third year, Raldenys has yet to return to the workforce, exclaiming, “Healing is my number one priority.” She still struggles to walk long distances, opting for a cane in moments of weakness. She also has difficulty with her balance, especially when going up and down stairs.
“I can’t stand for too long or my feet start hurting,” Raldenys sighed, acknowledging the end of her bartending career. “I loved to serve, but I guess I’m working on a different way of serving – soul healing.”
Cannabis maintains a role in her recovery, allowing for her to partake in a 10-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout upwards of three times per week. Mandarin Cookies, her favorite strain, helps ramp up the physical activity. She orders it by way of delivery from INSA dispensary in Salem, Massachusetts, as her license remains suspended due to her physical limitations.
“Healing for me is a daily thing,” she said. “My best from yesterday may not be my best today. It can change from day to day. I just take it day by day and accept it.”
Cannabis, she says, offers her the ability to stay in the present moment. Looking forward or looking backwards can evoke feelings of anxiety or sadness.
“It definitely feels like two different lives,” she said. “I don’t want to say I miss it, but it’s something that I notice. There are things I used to do before that I can’t now. The way I battle that is to tell myself that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do that. That’s something that I did.”
“I learned a great deal about myself,” she added. “And I’m still learning daily. But I have the power to create the life I want for myself. I’ve given myself no other option but to get better.”