PALO ALTO -- Her legs are pieced together with titanium and cadaver bones, and if you ask Ramona Pierson politely for a history of her replacement body parts, she can produce plastic sandwich bags filled with them. "That was my tibia for a while," she says, casually tossing a metal shinbone onto the conference table at Declara, the Silicon Valley startup of which she is -- miraculously -- co-founder and CEO.
In 1984, a drunken driver ran a red light near the Marine base where she was stationed, hitting her so hard that her body basically exploded.
She had what she calls "moments of being dead" during the ambulance trip to the hospital, but was revived and reassembled in the first of what would be more than 100 operations.
Ramona Pierson, left, co-founder and CEO with Declara, and Nelson Gonzalez, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, in their offices in Palo Alto, Calif., Oct. 1, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
"I still carry around all the rosaries that people put on the hospital bed," she says. Pierson did not actually see any of those visitors, having been in a drug-induced coma for 18 months. When she woke up, she was blind, bald and, at 64 pounds, had lost nearly half her body weight.
Pierson's father died when she was 12, and her family had split apart after that atomizing trauma. So she had essentially been on her own since high school, and after twice being left for dead -- first by the drunken driver, then at the hospital -- Pierson was totally alone, and incapable of taking care of herself. After being shuttled through a series of VA hospitals while she was comatose, in 1987 Pierson was sent to a senior citizens' home in Kremmling, Colo., where she spent three years relearning to speak and walk.
Her speech therapy often consisted of "cussword Scrabble" games with the old men. When she finally spoke her first words in 1988, they were blue as the hair of her old lady friends.
Mercifully, blindness prevented her from seeing the parade of polyester fashions and Korean War-vintage hair bobs that were tried out on her. "Essentially," Pierson recalls, "there were 100 people who became my grandparents."
She would regain her sight in 1996, after 11 years using a cane and a guide dog. She discovered pictures taken while she was blind in which she was surrounded by smiling faces she didn't recognize. "I have no idea who these people are," she recalls thinking. "I believe they're my friends."
At 51, Pierson has been physically remade, but her story is much greater than the sum of her bionic body parts. Not even her journey from vegetative state to venture capital bait -- investors have poured more than $5 million into her company -- is more impressive than her ability to see patterns, and her surpassingly gentle soul.
Those qualities lie at the core of the "radical collaboration" engine she has created at Declara, which last year set up shop in an industrial section of Palo Alto. Designed initially as a tool to connect educators to information and analysis about how people learn, the software was shaped by Pierson to mimic her own experience, particularly her years in the old folks home. "I think that helped me see these elders as experts," she says, "and that's where the radical collaboration came from."
Her new company combines search and social networking with what she describes as "a very powerful cognitive map" that can scour the network and track down other educators who may be trying to unravel similar classroom problems.
Ramona PIerson, right, visiting Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado/Utah border in 1992 with friend Naomi Hoops. At this point Pierson was still blind and recovering from yet another reconstructive surgery on her knee. At lower right is her guide dog, Annie. (Courtesy Ramona Pierson)
The powerful cognitive map is essentially Pierson's own brain, uploaded.
"It's been the culmination of my life," she says of the technology, which already is in wide use in South America and Australia. "It's where my past plays into everything."
As a teenager in Huntington Beach, Pierson didn't collaborate, radically or otherwise -- she was able to teach herself to swim and solve complicated math problems just by watching other people. She enrolled at UC Berkeley at 16, and was quickly spotted by military recruiters. "I was a starving student," she says. "I had an opportunity to get three meals a day and I took it."
Pierson went from Berkeley to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, a 22-year-old Marine with a fitness regimen that included regular 13-mile runs, when one of them ended with her shattered on the ground.
The car that ran over Pierson sliced open her throat and ripped her chest apart. Her left leg became entangled in the wheel well when the driver began furiously attempting to flee, and by the time the car finally spit her out, Pierson's heart and lungs were fully exposed.
One passerby massaged her heart with his bare hands, while another ventilated her collapsed lung and opened her windpipe with a couple of Bic pens.
After a year on a breathing tube, Pierson says even her doctors gave up on her. By 1985 she was viewed as a "gomer," harsh hospital slang for "get out of my emergency room." It wasn't until the senior citizens took her on as a reclamation project that she began to plan a way back to the life she had envisioned as a cardiologist. "I thought that was my path, and I wanted to get back on it," she says. "My big obstacle was that I couldn't see anything."
That ruled out cardiology, so Pierson embarked on a new path. To her, forging ahead meant not looking back -- she never even bothered to find out the fate of the drunken driver who nearly killed her.
Pierson relearned to read at the Braille Institute, then went to guide dog school so she could return to college, led by a resourceful German shepherd named Annie. Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely, an oil-field town, is about as deep in the academic boondocks as you can go, but for Pierson it was about "putting one foot in front of the other." If it wasn't the path she set out on, then that just meant anything was possible now.
When Pierson went to restaurants, Annie would glide right past the hostess, leading Pierson to a table already filled with people from the school. "She forced me to be social," Pierson recalls. "I think that's why the college kids adopted me."
In northwestern Colorado, weekends were often spent scaling local peaks. "As a sighted person, I was afraid of heights," Pierson says, "but what you can't see can't kill you, so it was interesting to take up rock climbing. It was like Brailling the wall. I could feel and map out my path."
When the school's custodian rescued her following a spill, the two became fast friends. "She was full of energy and gettin' after it," says Naomi Hoops, now 81, "trying to get everything she could out of life. Ramona never wanted pity, not at all. I've learned to look at handicapped people differently. She taught me that."
The next stop on her odyssey was Fort Lewis College in Durango, where she completed work on her undergraduate degree in psychology in two years. Pierson began going on tandem mountain bike rides once a week, and soon friends were competing to see "who took the blind girl out" on the world-class trails that descend sharply through red rocks.
She also could feel her path unfolding before her, bump by bump. She then spent three years ending in 2000 working on a doctoral degree in neuro-clinical psychology at what was then the Stanford Consortium -- now Palo Alto University -- that would lay the foundation for Pierson's first startup venture seven years later, an educational software company called SynapticMash, which she sold in 2010 for $10 million.
REBUILDING THE BODY
Throughout her journey, she took a science geek's approach to fixing her damaged body, as if it were a computer that had crashed. She submitted to experimental eye surgery to regain her sight in 1995, receiving a cornea transplant to her left eye in an operation performed by a robot.
The surgery successfully restored the sight to her left eye, but it required Pierson to reacquire the skills of a sighted person. She discovered she didn't recognize objects in her own room. "Your memory tray starts to decay," she explains. "I had to reach out to experts to help me become me again."
Pierson was slowly rebuilding herself -- and her life -- first walking, then speaking, then seeing. A bone saw that her surgeon forgot to take out after one operation remained lodged in Pierson's left leg for six years; it is not among her surgical souvenirs. "It was hard," she says of the occasional stagger steps and setbacks of her recovery. "It meant having to get over the ideal sense of who you thought you were" and just get on with it.
It took years, and numerous operations -- one grafted skin from her butt to her face; another rebuilt her nose using a plastic prosthesis -- but in time, Pierson began to look ... normal.
In 1997, while she was working on a master's degree in social research and political psychology at the New School in New York, she was introduced to Debra Chrapaty, and three months later they moved in together as a couple. After working as an executive at Cisco and Microsoft, Chrapaty recently joined Declara as chief operating officer.
Chrapaty calls it "humbling" to be in love with someone like Ramona. "How many people are struck by a drunken driver, are pronounced dead on arrival, are in a coma for 18 months, resuscitate themselves, are blind for 10 years, come back, get a postdoctorate, build two successful companies, then find love and happiness?" she says, before answering her own rhetorical question. "Not that many."
'SENSE OF IMPATIENCE'
Pierson's determination, in this case to compete in cycling races, nearly undid all her progress. Riding as a blind person with a sighted partner, she had won tandem bike racing's world championship in Russia. Then with her sight restored, Pierson began riding in individual races and was named USA masters cyclist of the year in 1995. But she struggled with depth perception and occasionally crashed, including a terrible accident after running into her coach's bike that same year.
"I ripped my lip off, fractured the top of my left eye socket and suffered a concussion," she says. When she regained consciousness, emergency room doctors asked her what year it was, and she said it was 1984. "I actually thought I was waking up from my original coma," she says.
Her path eventually took her to Seattle, where she created a collaborative learning platform called "The Source" for that city's school system, where she was chief technology officer.
Last year, she started Declara, quickly hiring 35 employees and signing numerous multiyear agreements with countries in Latin America, and the biotech giant Genentech.
"There's a sense of impatience," acknowledges Declara co-founder Nelson González. "We know, Ramona more than most, that life is short and we don't have time to waste. There's a lot of courage we demonstrate as a company that is inspired by Ramona, and a commitment to having a real impact."
As part of a move to form a national public school curriculum, Australia recently signed a contract with Declara, which is building a private social network to link every teacher in the country and allow them to form networks of their own. The software is designed to simulate a map that she sees in her mind's eye, a radiant path she is hoping to share with the world.
"I have finally caught up to where I'm supposed to be," she says. "I always felt like I was 10 years behind, chasing after my own life. Now I feel like I've found the path I'm supposed to be on."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.