By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Aug. 23, 2003 was the day that forever changed the life of Sarah Panzau Evans.
At the age of 21, Sarah decided to drive home drunk one night with a blood-alcohol limit nearly four times the legal limit. Her car and her life spun out of control.
Missing a highway exit, Sarah rolled her car four times, and was ejected through the rear window of her car, as she was not wearing her seatbelt. Sarah’s left arm was torn from her body and she was thrown into the roadway.
Suddenly Sarah was in the hospital where she remained there for several months and underwent over 30 surgeries.
“It was never supposed to happen to a girl like me,” said Sarah.
Last Wednesday, Sarah shared her story with students at Bristol Eastern High School, showing the reality of what can happen as a result of a poor decision.
Through her presentation, “Living Proof,” students learned how Sarah nearly lost her life as a result of getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. “Living Proof” was sponsored by Anheuser-Busch wholesaler Hartford Distributors, Inc., as part of the company’s commitment to help prevent both drunk driving and underage drinking.
A two-time member of the National Junior College Athletic Association women’s volleyball All-America team, Sarah was on top of her game, and never imagined what could happen as a result of a bad decision. Falling in love with volleyball from the time she picked up a ball in sixth grade, Sarah became a star player. Sarah was not only a member of several select club teams, but she was also a three-year starter for her high school squad. After high school, Sarah accepted a full-ride volleyball scholarship to Southwestern Illinois College where she won Freshman of the Year honors and was named to the National Junior College Athletic Association All-America team as an outside hitter.
“We don’t think bad things could happen to us,” said Sarah, adding how drugs and alcohol were never a big issue for her in high school.
But Sarah dropped out during her sophomore year, and became a bartender at the age of 19, and she made drinking and partying her lifestyle.
“I made it my lifestyle,” said Sarah, adding how she rebelled against her mother. “It is simply not worth it.”
During the presentation, students saw the severity of Sarah’s accident through pictures that were taken on the scene and in the hospital.
Just hours before those pictures were taken, Sarah said she was with the people she thought cared about her the most—her friends. Yet none of them stood by her side in the hospital. Sarah said the only person who remained by her side the entire time was her mother,
“She knew I was a fighter,” said Sarah, who underwent two facial reconstructions after the accident. “She never left me hanging by myself.”
Looking back on her time in the hospital, Sarah recalled the day her mom handed her a notepad and black sharpie, asking her daughter, “why didn’t you call me?” Not being able to speak at the time, Sarah wrote in capital letters, “TROUBLE.”
Like many young adults, Sarah said she chose not to call her mother the night she was intoxicated due to fear of the consequences. During her presentation, Sarah reminded students they can count on their parents to be there for them if in a similar situation.
“If you ever needed them, they’d be there for you that quickly,” said Sarah, adding how she has driven drunk many times before the night of her accident.
That message resonated with Bristol Eastern sophomores Aubrey Cyr and Cailee Jacquette. Aubrey said she felt touched by the close relationship Sarah developed with her mother after the accident.
“It was amazing,” said Aubrey.
Cailee and Aubrey said they hope their peers to learn that it is okay to make mistakes, but to call a trusted adult if faced with the decision of driving while intoxicated.
“It influenced all of us as a whole to make better choices,” said Cailee, adding how inspiring it felt to see Sarah turn a negative experience into a positive one.
Another message Sarah made clear to Bristol Eastern students: accepting others for their differences. From comments to stares to whispers, Sarah said she has experienced different reactions from others on a daily basis when they see her missing left arm. Sarah encouraged students not to allow physical disabilities to affect their thinking and instead to show tolerance of others who appear different.
“Our differences are what make us who we are,” said Sarah.
But today, Sarah has turned a tragedy into triumph. In 2005, Sarah became a member of the Anheuser-Busch Speakers Bureau and ultimately started speaking nationally. Not long after, Sarah began sharing her story with schools, and decided to continue her involvement with volleyball, but not in the same capacity as before. In 2006, Sarah joined the USA Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team and competed in the World Championships. She has also served as assistant coach at Meramec Community College.
Today, Sarah speaks with middle school and high school students as well as college students.
“I’m so much happier now,” said Sarah, who will be celebrating her two-year anniversary with her husband this August.
Comments? Email lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO