Inside internal affairsTwo-year-old Riordan Cavooris started long recovery after off-duty Suffolk officer crashed pickup into family car.
Brain trauma forced Riordan to relearn how to move his body and use his mouth to eat — and still keeps him from running and jumping.
The surgery was underway. Two-year-old Riordan Cavooris was deep in a medically induced coma. A pediatric neurosurgeon cleared bone fragments from the surface of Riordan’s brain and refitted fragments of his skull like puzzle pieces.
“Nobody could tell me if he was alive or if he was going to make it,” his mother, Valerie Cavooris, remembered.
She and Riordan’s father, Kevin Cavooris, were crossing the first hours of a new life that began when a pickup truck rear-ended the family’s car at more than 50 miles per hour.
First, there was Riordan’s survival, then there was the radically altered future that had been thrust upon him in the moment of impact. Would he walk or run normally again? Would the traumatic brain injury cause him to suffer seizures or limit the type of job he’d have in the future?
Life was traumatically new, too, for Riordan’s wrestling partner and big brother, Bastian, then 4.
The children’s unit at Stony Brook University Hospital was stocked with stuffed animals. Bastian picked out a green Ninja Turtle for Riordan. It nestles beside his shoulder in a photograph taken from above. Riordan’s eyes are closed. His neck is braced by a stabilizing collar. Tubing rises from his skull and descends into his throat.
Valerie and Kevin took shifts to stay at Riordan’s side. COVID protocols then in effect mandated that only parents could visit, and only one at a time.
“For 48 hours I didn’t know if he would ever wake up,” Valerie said.
Then, Riordan opened one eye. The other was swollen shut.
“I was staring right at him, I wasn’t distracted in that moment and was just able to take in my son showing life,” Kevin said. “That was the most amazing thing that I’ve ever experienced. Just absolutely incredible, world changing.”
But, Kevin added, “I wouldn’t wish that joy on anyone at all because it only comes from the depths of how low we had to be.”
An off-duty Suffolk officer escaped alcohol testing after he fractured 2-year-old Riordan Cavooris’ skull in a car crash.Watch and Read
The initial outlines of the toll suffered by Riordan emerged quickly.
“When he first woke up, it was like having a newborn baby,” Valerie said. “He couldn’t hold his head up. He had no muscle control, no muscle tone whatsoever. It was just like, limp.”
Riordan was unable to use his lips or tongue, couldn’t swallow or move his hands or legs. Little by little, in the manner of a maturing infant, he gained the capacity to command his body.
He held his head up. He clenched his fingers, wiggled his toes, lifted his arms and kicked his legs. Two weeks after the crash, doctors removed a feeding tube to allow Riordan to begin using his mouth to eat and drink — first during the day, and then at night, as well.
He sipped chocolate milk through a straw and took pudding from a spoon.
He said his first word, “more,” to ask for the cheese puffs his parents used to entice Riordan to feed himself. Hearing him speak for the first time in weeks, Valerie cried and called Kevin.
After three weeks, doctors transferred Riordan to inpatient rehabilitation services at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson.
Little by little, Riordan sat up unsupported, pulled himself to a standing position, and took his first steps with help.
Looking back to Riordan’s infancy, Valerie said, “It was like watching him go through all the same milestones that we’d already seen, just in fast forward over the course of months rather than years.”
She called it “bittersweet magic.”
Kevin said: “You don’t think as a parent that you’re going to have to make a big deal about these milestones again. They’ve been accomplished. And it’s all growth from here, and then something major happens like this and, all of a sudden, you’re celebrating these little things again.”
Riordan went home seven weeks after the crash. Valerie told Bastian that the family would be together.
“So, you and daddy will be home this weekend?” he asked.
“I said, ‘And your brother too,'” she recalled.
“He said, ‘Yeah! I can finally be happy again.'”
What they were never told
No one told Kevin and Valerie at the hospital that the driver who rear-ended their car without evidence of braking was an off-duty Suffolk County Police Department officer. Only later did they learn that the driver, David Mascarella, was a member of the force.
At the hospital, detectives asked Kevin to perform a breath test. The results showed that he had consumed no alcohol. The officer, David Mascarella, refused a breath test, and police never sought a warrant to require him to submit to alcohol testing, according to police records.
Valerie had thought it strange that the driver who had slammed into the family’s car had refused to take a breath test. But police told her that officers on the scene thought the driver was not impaired. She accepted their word. “I just assumed that the officers knew what they were doing and they could tell who was impaired and who wasn’t,” she said.
‘I just assumed that the officers knew what they were doing and they could tell who was impaired and who wasn’t.’Valerie Cavooris
But, she said, learning that the driver was a police officer “completely shifted my entire narrative of the situation. And I felt like I had to reprocess everything all over again.”
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office never told Kevin and Valerie that prosecutors investigated whether Mascarella could be charged with vehicular assault for injuring Riordan. Newsday informed them that the prosecutors lacked evidence that would prove whether Mascarella was intoxicated and closed the investigation.
The Suffolk County Police Department never told Kevin and Valerie that Commissioner Rodney Harrison had suspended Mascarella and a second officer, Kevin Wustenhoff, without pay. Or that the department is moving to fire Mascarella, according to a spokesperson.
Newsday informed Kevin and Valerie that county payroll records showed that on Feb. 3 Harrison suspended Wustenhoff for 45 days. Mascarella remained suspended as of Aug. 17.
Wustenhoff had falsely reported, and then retracted, that Mascarella had taken and passed a breath test, according to a source familiar with the case.
Mascarella and Wustenhoff declined to comment through their attorneys. Mascarella’s attorney, William Petrillo, said in a statement that “alcohol was not a factor” in the crash.
“I think finding things out in bits and pieces the way that we did, it doesn’t help because I have to kind of reprocess new information, almost relive it again and reframe it,” Valerie said. “I think when we have all the information it will help get some closure and to finally be able to put it to rest in a way.”
Their lives before and after
Kevin and Valerie met at Villanova University. He studied math; she studied the classics. After graduating, they each earned a master’s degree, Kevin in business administration, Valerie in theater. They settled in St. James, the Smithtown hamlet where Kevin grew up.
While working as a supervisor at Long Island Adventure Park in Wheatley Heights, Kevin secured a second master’s, this one in applied mathematics.
Riordan was a determined 2-year-old when the crash happened in 2020. He’d climb couches and kick any ball he came across.
“Anything physical. He loved to use his body,” Kevin remembers. “Just forcefully be a little wrecking ball going all over the place and imposing his will.”
Bastian was a bright, sensitive, thoughtful 4-year-old, his parents said.
On that August day when all their lives changed, Valerie dropped the boys off at child care. A photographer took a picture of Riordan there — tousle-haired, wearing a red and gray shirt, smiling with his head and shoulders poking through a cutout of a shark’s jaws.
Kevin picked up the boys that afternoon and buckled them into car seats. He was driving home on Middle Country Road when Mascarella’s Ram spun the family’s Mitsubishi, crushing the subcompact’s hatchback area.
A stranger in a surgical COVID mask took Bastian from the car.
“My baby brother!” Bastian screamed.
Riordan remained trapped, knocked unconscious.
Kevin’s nose broke against the steering wheel. He called Valerie, at home a mile and a half away. Rescue workers were cutting open the car to extricate Riordan when she reached the scene.
“I saw Kevin just covered in blood and I screamed,” she said. “I screamed ‘Where’s my son?'”
Firefighters placed Riordan’s limp body on a stretcher and then into an ambulance. Valerie rode with him to the hospital. A social worker and chaplain met her there.
“I didn’t realize until many weeks later that that’s not normal,” she said. “You’re not greeted with a social worker and a chaplain unless they think there’s a reason.”
Riordan has progressed in the two years since the crash, as has the entire family. All their lives have been governed by the crash.
A week before it happened, Kevin had accepted a new job as a data analyst in Massachusetts. He delayed the start date to care for Riordan. When they moved, he and Valerie searched out doctors for Riordan, as well as physical, speech and occupational therapists.
‘I’ll go to the ends of the earth and back to make sure Riordan has what he needs.’Valerie Cavooris
Valerie, who works in marketing for a nonprofit organization, is pregnant with the couple’s third child.
“I’ll go to the ends of the earth and back to make sure Riordan has what he needs,” Valerie said.
“I never considered I’d have to go to five or six doctors’ appointments a week for one of my kids. When you’re thrown into a situation, you do whatever it takes, and you do what you need to do.”
Bastian, now 6, is protective of his younger brother. He tells strangers to be careful around Riordan. He explains that Riordan wears a leg brace because they were in a car crash that injured his brother’s brain.
“He wants people to understand Riordan’s whole situation,” Kevin said.
Somewhat anxious before the crash, the trauma “has exacerbated it tenfold,” Valerie said.
She recalled dropping the boys off at school this year where Bastian was enrolled in kindergarten and where Riordan gets specially designed services. Riordan walked in with his teacher before Bastian noticed.
“When he realized that Riordan had kind of gone into school without him, he had a complete meltdown,” Valerie said. “He was screaming, ‘I have to say goodbye to my brother. I have to say goodbye to my brother.'”
Valerie said: “It was heart-wrenching. Because things like that, I’m like, ‘Is this because of the accident?'”
When a faulty smoke detector went off in their Massachusetts house shortly after they moved in early 2021, the family waited outside for the fire department to arrive.
Bastian was shaking. “And he kept saying, ‘I’m afraid of sirens. I don’t want to hear sirens,'” Valerie said. She believes the sound reminds Bastian of the sirens he heard after the crash.
Riordan wears a brace to prevent the leg from hyperextending his knee. Doctors believe the cause is neurological. He can’t run or jump. Doctors don’t know if he ever will. Kevin and Valerie wonder whether he’ll be able to ride a bike. His speech is developing, but he’s hard to understand.
“You hope for continuous improvement every single day, every single day, you hope for continuous improvement,” Kevin said. “But you never know what the next day will bring.”
Doctors have told Kevin and Valerie that Riordan has an elevated risk of ligament damage, seizures and epilepsy. They have also warned that a blow to the head could significantly injure Riordan as a result of the traumatic brain injury he suffered in the crash.
Still more, Kevin and Valerie have been left to wonder whether the crash will harm Riordan’s eventual capacity to read, to write, to think.
“You have to worry cognitively he’ll hit a wall at some point,” Kevin said.
“He’s very fortunate to be able to do the things he does right now, to be able to learn and to be able to be expressive, but that might stop before maturity.”
The possibility leads Kevin to imagine a life for Riordan that is very different from the one Riordan was just starting. Kevin questions whether the crash will eventually “affect his ability to ever be employed, or the type of employment, or the quality of life he might have.”
“It might affect, ultimately, life expectancy and the age he actually lives to,” Kevin said. “We just don’t know. And we’ll never know. There’s no point, there’s no point in time where you say — this is it. This is the answer.”
More immediately, Valerie said, the crash is a constant in the family.
“It’s something that I think kind of lives in everyone’s subconscious but it’s very much at the forefront of my consciousness every single day,” she said. “And I think it will be forever.”
‘I’m scared of getting that phone call again.’Valerie Cavooris
Worried when Kevin is 15 minutes late running errands, she texts him, “Is everything okay?”
“Every time the boys go out with just their dad, I’m scared, I’m scared of getting that phone call again,” she said, adding:
“I will never have the experience of an ordinary day ever again because everything about August 10, 2020, had felt routine,” Valerie said. “It felt ordinary in every way until it wasn’t.”
Reporter: David M. Schwartz
Editor: Arthur Browne, Keith Herbert
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