Tina Bagneski

Only the Strong Survive

    Imagine waking up from your worst nightmare only to discover that it was real. At age 20, Tina Bagneski emerged from a four-week coma with no memory of the grisly attack that nearly took her life. Fifteen and a half years later, she still struggles to piece the puzzle together. Based on police reports, crime scene photos and her mother's account of the hours and days that followed the violent assault, she shares a terrifying story with a triumphant message.
    It was April 23, 1993. Tina was living in an apartment with her mom in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to attending college full time, she was working three jobs: as an aerobics instructor, cocktail waitress and grocery store cashier. Sometime between her arrival home from work and the 11 p.m. estimated time of her injuries, she was brutally attacked in her home.      Evidence indicated that the intention may have been rape, but Tina put up the fight of her life. Foiling her attacker's attempt at sexual assault, she was stabbed 17 times with her mother's sewing scissors and left for dead.
    Tina's mom, a psych nurse, who worked the nightshift at a downtown hospital, arrived home at 7:30 a.m., opening the door on a gory mess. From the living room, she heard a strange noise, like the hollow sound of air blowing through a straw. And then she discovered her daughter, lying face down on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood, taking in her last labored breath through the gaping wounds in her back.
    Calling for help, she performed CPR until the ambulance arrived, but because of the massive blood loss and the time that had elapsed, Tina had a stroke. ER photos revealed the rage inflicted on her body-not gashes, but huge holes (two in her stomach and 15 in her back)-along with head-to-toe bruises where she was kicked repeatedly and hit in the face with an iron. With one lung sliced in half and the other deeply punctured, miraculously, she had no other internal organ damage-a phenomenon doctors attributed to Tina's muscularity and physical fitness.
    Nevertheless, she was not expected to make it through the night. She did. Next, doctors predicted that she would never awaken from her coma. She did-paralyzed and unable to speak. She did not know who she was, where she was or why she was there. She spent the next eight months in the hospital and was told she would never walk again. But she did.
   "It was anger that got me up out of that wheelchair," said Tina. She looked in the mirror and saw her 220-pound image, a weight gain resulting from depression and immobility. That's when a voice clearly spoke to her, "Get up and do something!" Heeding the call to action, after years of hard work, Tina is back to her normal size and has devoted her life to physical fitness. She works part time at the Player's Club Fitness Center, mostly handling front desk and billing tasks but also setting an important example for others. "Working out is not just good for you. It can save your life. I'm living proof of that," she said.
    In addition to her job at Player's Club, Tina uses her experience to educate others, speaking at juvenile detention centers and putting a face on violent crime. "No one has the right to choose another person's destiny," she said. "Next time they are in a situation where they have to choose, maybe I'll pop into their minds." She also speaks to high school students and women's groups about safety and crime prevention, passing along information she has gathered through research into criminal behavior.
    Reflecting on her long journey to recovery and her ongoing daily struggles, she said, "I used to always strive for what I didn't have. Now I can recognize what I do have. But I'm always going to want more. That's the drive in me. I need to find out what more I can become."
    Because her attacker was never found, emotional closure may never be possible for Tina. But she refuses to allow him power over her life. "I'll be damned if this guy is going to win," she said. "I don't ask why anymore. I lived, and that's exactly what I am going to do."

Up Close

Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin Lowcountry resident: since 2002 Definition of living: experiencing! When not working at the gym, find her: doing water aerobics, walking and going to the movies. In loving memory of her mom, Linda Bagneski, who lost her battle with cancer October 13, 2000: "She gave me life, not once, but twice. I couldn't have made it without her."