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Drunken driving incident has sobering, life-changing results

Sarah Panzau uses humor to speak to teens about a topic very un-humorous -- drunk driving.

On Aug. 23, 2003, Panzau went out for a night of drinking only to nearly kill herself in a one-car accident. The resulting list of medical ailments was two pages long.

In a presentation of pictures, Panzau comes out on the stage in a tank top and shorts and asks the students of Perham High School to take a good look at the item wrapped in a sheet lying on the stretcher next to her.

"My left arm was completely ripped off," she said to gasps and moans from the audience.

Making her rounds at high schools in the area -- and throughout the Midwest -- Panzau is speaking to students about making the right decisions.

In high school in Missouri, the now 25-year-old woman was a star volleyball player. She was a two-time All-American player. Drugs and alcohol were never a pressure for her because she was more interested in her games. But, she admitted, she wasn't a saint either.

"I can't honestly stand up here and say I never tried alcohol in high school," she said.

After high school, she took a full ride volleyball scholarship to a junior college near her home.

"I wasn't ready to leave my dog, my boyfriend, my mother," she said.

That didn't last long though.

"I dropped out of college because it was hard and I didn't want to do it," she said.

So, she became a bartender. She also began to drink. She said, like most young people, she thought she was invincible. When her mother suggested he had a problem with alcohol, she of course rebelled more.

That fateful night, she met friends at a bar, went to a Cardinals game for more drinks and finished off the night hitting a few more bars. Around 4:20 a.m., she took a 25-mile per hour ramp at 72 miles per hour. She flipped her car twice. It hit a guardrail, where pieces of her head and hair were found in five of the guardrail posts. The back of her scalp was torn off her head. Her car rolled two more times and she was thrown out the back window of her Saturn, landing in the middle of the road.

"This was not supposed to be my life. This was not supposed to be me," she told the auditorium of teens Monday afternoon. She went from a two time All-American volleyball player to a bartender to a drunk driver in a horrendous accident that cost her her arm and 36 surgeries.

One hundred yards down the road from the accident that early morning, a police officer was on an overpass picking up bullet casings from an earlier shooting. While he had his back to Panzau, he heard the entire accident.

He ran to the scene and immediately set up a roadblock around Panzau, still lying in the middle of the road. Soon after, the first vehicle to arrive was a semi-truck. Panzau said had the police officer not happened to be there, the semi would have run over her. The second vehicle to arrive on the scene was an ambulance. Not the one that was called, but one happening by.

Panzau took what they thought was her last breath in front of that rescue crew. She had no blood pressure and her wounds weren't even bleeding.

She had torn three of the four ligaments in her left knee. She said her thigh was up, but her kneecap was also resting on the road it was twisted so badly.

She said rescue workers didn't know alcohol had any part in the accident. Instead they thought she had fallen asleep at the wheel. At the hospital though, through a routine alcohol blood test, she registered at .308, nearly four times the legal limit in Missouri.

"I chose to drink, and I chose to drive," Panzau said, taking responsibility for her actions. Although she said, " true friends wouldn't egg me on (to drink more). True friends wouldn't have let me drive home."

She added that the friends she thought she had at the time -- the ones she drank with at the bars -- had nothing to do with her after the accident. Her family never turned their backs on her, even though she had pushed them away.

Earlier in the evening, although she doesn't remember doing it, Panzau called her mom and said she'd be spending the night at a friend's house. When two officers knocked at her mother's door that next morning, Panzau said she can't even imagine that pain she put her mother through, having to come identify her body.

"At no time should you ever turn your back on your family," she stressed.

Panzau said it took the accident to wake her up, but now she's free to admit, she's close to her mother.

"I realized my mother is my best friend. I still live with her. She's the best roommate I ever had," she said.

Soon after her accident, two of Panzau's sister's friends were in a drunk driving accident. They were trapped in their vehicle and burned alive because they were too drunk to figure out how to get out. Panzau said it blew her mind that the girls would be involved in a drunk driving accident after they knew what had happened to her. But again, she said, they thought they were invincible.

As Panzau speaks from the stage and walks into the audience so everyone can get a look at the damage she's done to her body, she shows she's secure, but also has a hint of insecurity.

"This is the body I have to live with every day," she said, adding that as girls, the female audience members must be able to imagine how hard it would be to look at themselves in the mirror every day.

A year after the accident, Panzau was forced to face another issue that hadn't occurred to her. She went into the bureau to get her drivers license that had been lost in the accident. Even though it was expired, they made her retake the test because she was classified "handicapped, disabled."

"And I did it to myself," she said. "I look in the mirror every day and know it's my fault."

At times she would get down, thinking things couldn't be much worse. That is until her mother pointed out it could have been much worse. She could have done this to someone else who would have been on the road with her that night.

"I'm so much happier with myself today than ever before," she said.

In 2005, Panzau went back to volleyball. She started with assistant coaching, and was then recruited for the Para Olympic volleyball team. In June 2006, she represented the United States at the World Olympics.

She has also enrolled in college through Phoenix Online for a degree in psychology and communications.

"At 25, it still sucks," she said.

She said she could have given up in life many times, "but I refused to take that road."