TIPP CITY — When Sarah Panzau Evans got behind the wheel drunk one night in 2003, she wasn’t thinking about the consequences, but her mission for the last 14 years has been to make sure others do.
On Tuesday morning, she described in painful detail for the juniors and seniors at Tippecanoe High School the injuries that resulted from a night of bad decision making.
When she rolled her car over on an Illinois highway that summer night 14 years ago, she was dragged, body hanging from the driver’s-side window, for several feet along a guardrail.
Her head repeatedly struck the guardrail, resulting in fractures to her jaw and the loss of much of her scalp, and her left arm was torn from her body.
“I was lying on the highway, pretty much dead. No heartbeat, no pulse, no blood pressure,” she said. The crash also separated her rib cage from her spinal column, fracturing every vertebra in her back and most of her ribs.
The injuries that nearly killed her left her in a coma for two weeks, followed by a long recovery and nearly 40 operations.
The former All-American college volleyball player told students that a series of bad decisions led her to that moment.
“This was never supposed to happen to a girl like me,” she said.
Following a successful high school volleyball career, she turned down dozens of college scholarships and eventually dropped out of school altogether.
She started working as a bartender, despite being underage, and spending much of her time partying with her friends. She lived her life like nothing bad would ever happen to her, she recalled.
Just hours before the accident, Panzau Evans was with the people she thought cared about her the most: her friends. But when she got behind the wheel of her car, clearly intoxicated, those “so-called” friends did nothing to stop her.
“The people who were supposed to watch out for me when I couldn’t watch out for myself,” she said. Those friends never visited her in the hospital, and she never heard from them again.
She told students this, not in an effort to shift blame onto other people, but to encourage them to look at the people they surround themselves with, she said.
“I’m the one who chose to drink and drive,” she said.
When Panzau Evans asked students what they would do if they’d been drinking and needed a ride home, several suggested using Uber.
One student spoke up and said she would call her mother, something Panzau Evans said should be applauded.
She recalled being frightened of her mother, a strict Army colonel. She told students that her mother was the last person she wanted to call after a night of drinking and partying with her friends.
As Panzau Evans lay in her hospital bed, unable to communicate except for writing on a notepad, her mother asked her why she didn’t just call.
Panzau Evans, who said she remembers this moment clearly despite a foggy recollection of much of the time following her accident, wrote just one word: “Trouble.”
“I still haven’t forgiven myself for what I put her through,” she said,
Panzau Evans asked students to go home Tuesday night and talk to their parents about what they would do in that situation, a conversation the school also encouraged parents to have in a post on the high school’s Facebook page.
With homecoming planned for next week, Assistant Principal Aaron Oaks said the administration felt it was a good time to bring Panzau Evans to the high school to share her story.
Panzau Evans, who put her her scars on display so students can see the consequences of drunk driving, also encouraged students to embrace differences and to be good to one another.
As someone who deals with stares and whispers everyday, she said she wants students to understand how easy it can be to hurt people but also how easy it can be to make someone smile.
Panzau Evans eventually played volleyball again for the U.S. Women’s Paralympic Team. She even qualified to go to the Paralympic games in Beijing in 2008, though an injury kept her from competing.
She then signed with Anheuser-Busch to tell her story to teens and young adults across the country. She was brought to Tippecanoe High School Tuesday by Heidelberg Distributing, which has brought her to several area high schools in recent years.
Ever since she woke up from her coma, she knew she wanted to share her story with others. She initially thought she’d speak locally, she said, but in the years following the accident she’s spoken at thousands of schools in the United States.
At Tippecanoe High School on Tuesday, she received a standing ovation from students, many of whom cried and laughed along with Panzau Evans throughout her story.
“It meant a lot,” Panzau Evans said, to see them stand up and applaud.
Reach Cecilia at firstname.lastname@example.org.