Sarah Panzau used herself as a visual aid when she talked to students at Nation Ford High School last week about making smart decisions. Panzau's left arm was torn from her body just below the shoulder around 4:30 a.m. Aug. 23, 2003. As she drove home from the bar where she worked that night, her blood alcohol level was .308 - nearly four times the legal limit. She missed a turn, overcorrected while taking a 25 mph turn at 72 mph and flipped her car.
It rolled four times. In the process her head was dragged along a highway guard rail, tearing off most of the scalp on the right side of her head and shattering her jaw. Then she was ejected through the rear window, which severed her arm and "de-gloved" the skin on her neck.
Paramedics who responded thought she was dead. She had no pulse. Doctors gave her a 0 percent chance of living. An hour later, two state troopers were standing at her mother's door asking her to identify Panzau's body at the hospital.
"You hear about stuff like this happening all the time, but it's not supposed to happen to us because we're young and invincible," Panzau said.
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She was a star volleyball player in high school. She turned down scholarships to 23 Division I, II and III schools to stay in Belleville, Ill., with her boyfriend. Instead, she played for a local junior college. But, Panzau said, she fell in with the wrong crowd. She drank heavily, took drugs and dropped out of school to tend bar.
After her accident, none of her "friends" from the bar ever visited her in the hospital.
"Those choices led me to where I am now," she said. "You won't forget me because I'm a statistic, but I'm also real and standing right in front of you."
Panzau spoke to the junior class as part of a Safe Prom program that aims to reduce underage drinking. The Nation Ford prom is set for Saturday, May 10. B & B Distributors of Rock Hill, the local Anheuser-Busch distributor, sponsored Panzau's appearance as part of its outreach to discourage underage drinking.
"We know that's a special night and we want to keep it special," Nation Ford Principal Beverley Bowman said. "Drinking and drugs is an issue you can address with kids anytime."
At 26, Panzau is still young enough to still connect with high school students, and she usually does. She plans to continue telling her story as long as that connection is there.
"Oh my gosh, I love her," Nia Gordon, an NFHS student, said after Panzau's presentation. "She's my new hero, I'm going to list her as one of my heroes on Myspace and Facebook."
Another student, Jonathan Benitez, said "It's amazing, her story, how she's able to survive. I know kids my age drink, I hope when I get older her story inspires me to drink responsibly."