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Sarah Panzau was supposed to be dead.
Instead, there she stood April 15 in the gym at Buford High School, the day before spring break, very much alive and telling students how her life changed in the drunken blink of a eye.
Listening to her, it was hard to tell which drove home the message better – Panzau’s words or the sight of her scars and what little remained of her left arm.
Her story started, as all good stories do, in the middle of the action, just as the consequences of her decision to drive home drunk the morning of Aug. 23, 2003, came crashing down on her on a highway outside East St. Louis, Ill.
She was 21 at the time, driving with a blood alcohol level nearly four times the legal limit and wearing no seat belt, when she turned onto the wrong exit. She tried to get back on the highway, lost control and flipped her green 1996 Saturn four times.
“I was pretty much dead, had no blood pressure,” Panzau said of the aftermath. “Seconds before, my head was hitting the guardrail at 60 mph ripping off the back of my head and neck down to the carotid artery and jugular vein. My jaw was broken, hanging open like this, and broken into seven pieces.
“See that blue blanket?” she said, pointing with the stump of her arm at a bloody accident scene photograph on a large screen. “That’s what used to be my arm. When I went through the back windshield, they said my arm bent back like this and it ripped it off.”
And that was just the beginning of her injuries.
Thrown from the car, Panzau slid along the road, stripping the flesh from her back. The impact shoved a piece of metal into her neck and out her mouth, broke her hip, twisted her left leg around backward and broke so many ribs that her chest wall separated from her back.
The list of injuries goes on: lacerated liver, lacerated legs, lacerated ligaments, lacerated side, lacerated face, lacerated ear.
She spent 77 days in the hospital, two weeks of it in a coma, six weeks in intensive care and another year and a half going through several more hospitalizations for life-threatening infections and corrective surgeries.
Poor choices lead
“I was successful in college. I was a two-time national junior college All-American volleyball player,” Panzau said. “I wasn’t the type this was supposed to happen to.
“This was not supposed to happen to a girl like me,” she said.
Wearing a tank top and shorts that hid few of her scars, Panzau told students how her post- high school life leading up to the accident had been a series of poor choices.
She told them how she gave up a chance to play volleyball at a larger school to follow a boy to junior college, gave up a full-ride volleyball scholarship, quit studying and dropped out when the going got tough and became an underage bartender. The drinking and drugs were fun, she told herself – good times, good friends.
Old enough to have learned the value of wisdom, but young enough to still be “cool,” Panzau used humor and tragedy to connect with the students on a range of messages revolving around her decisions and their consequences.
Chief among those messages was to avoid underage drinking, and regardless of their age, never drink and drive or get in a car with someone who has been drinking.
Panzau said her poor choices began when she rebelled against her mother, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, in favor of her friends.
But it was those same so-called friends, who let her drive drunk and never once came to visit her in the hospital, who failed her when she needed them most.
“You know who stood vigil there by my bedside the whole time? My mom, ‘Spawn of Satan.’” Panzau said. “When I woke up, my mom was crying and said, ‘I just need to know why you didn’t call me?’
“I was thinking, ‘Woman, are you nuts? Do you really think I would call the lieutenant colonel?’” she said. “My mom said, ‘I wish you’d have known that if you needed me, I’d have been there for you.’ And I’m sure each and every one of your parents feel the same.”
Panzau said since her accident, she’s learned the value of hard work and never giving up on dreams – a lesson that allowed her to represent the country in the 2006 World Games in Holland as a member of the USA women’s volleyball team.
Panzau implored the students not to make the same poor choices she made and said she guaranteed they would remember her message when they walked out of the gym that day.
“My name is Sarah Elizabeth Panzau,” she said. “I’m 29 years old.
“I took my life for granted. I took my family for granted. This is something I’ll be paying for the rest of my life.”
Buford High School Principal Jonathan Phipps said he and the school staff thought Panzau’s message was an important one for students to hear, especially before spring break when thousands of students are injured every year in drunk-driving accidents.
And it seems Panzau’s message sank in.
“I really enjoyed it,” student Devonta Miller said. “I really learned how much drinking and driving can affect your life.
“We see stuff on TV, but to see her and see her arm and the consequences of her actions made it more real,” he said. “I’ll never drink and drive.”
Contact Reece Murphy at