Drunk driving crash survivor shares story with athletes
by Trent Zbichorski
One poor decision changed her life forever. On Aug. 23, 2003, Sara Panzau was found lifeless on Interstate 64 in East St. Louis, Mo. Her 1996 green Saturn had flipped four times and finally came to rest in the middle of the Interstate, upside down with all of the windows busted out.
When police and ambulances arrived at the scene, she didn’t have blood pressure or a pulse, and was no longer bleeding. Clumps of her hair and skin were found attached to the guardrail. Right before authorities were going to report the death of a young woman, she showed a sign of life. She was immediately transported to St. Louis University Hospital by helicopter. But how did this happen?
Panzau shared her powerful story with MSUM athletes, students, and community members. The event was free and made mandatory for all MSUM student athletes.
Prior to the accident, Panzau was a three-year varsity starter for her high school volleyball team. She had 18 different colleges trying to get her to attend their school.
“Drugs and alcohol were never a huge issue for me in high school,” Panzau said. “I had a wide range of colleges try and recruit me.”
She ended up accepting a scholarship to Southwestern Illinois College, where she played volleyball for two years. During her time playing volleyball in college, she received awards.
“I was freshman of the year in volleyball,” Panzau said. “I was also a two-time national ranked all American college volleyball player.”
However, she didn’t attend college for the same reason many of us do.
“I went to college to play volleyball,” Panzau said. “I hated studying. I ended up dropping out my sophomore year of college.”
The decision to drop out of college led her to a new way of living. It was a lifestyle that she began to pursue when she was only 19 years old.
“I bartended underage and ended up drinking and partying all the time,” Panzau said. “I lived like I would never die and I pushed my family so far out of the way that I didn’t care about them.”
When she was 21 years old, a night with friends turned into a nightmare for her and her family. She made decisions that led her “to the inevitable.”
“All my ‘true friends’ watched me stumble out of the bar that night, barely able to walk on my own two feet,” Panzau said.
Little did she know that her blood alcohol content was of .308, almost four times the legal limit.
“I made the choice to get behind the wheel,” said Panzau. “I’m not blaming anyone.”
The poor decision she made that night resulted in a car accident that only involved her. It left her with a nearly non-existant chance of survival. Not to mention, she sustained many injuries, leading to a procedure to amputate her left arm.
“I wasn’t wearing a seat belt and they found me hanging out of the driver’s window,” Panzau said. “I fractured each vertebra in my back, dislocated my left leg, broke my left hip. Everywhere from my knee down on my left leg was twisted all the way around.”
Not one single ‘friend’ who watched her leave the bar drunk showed up at the hospital.
“I had to learn who my true friends were the absolute hardest way possible,” Panzau said. “It was never supposed to happen to a girl like me.”
The crash made her become aware of who was there for her while she was struggling for her life.
“I realized that my family is my number one priority — my mom is number one,” Panzau said. “Take a hold of what you have, not what you don’t have because those are the people that will be there for you.”
Despite all of her injuries, Panzau thinks she looks just fine.
“Our differences are what makes us beautiful,” Panzau said. “I hope everyone thinks about that before they decide to judge someone else.”
She made sure to share a piece of advice to those in attendance. She hopes to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
“When you guys go out, you have to have a plan,” Panzau said. “You have people there for you and you have friends to help you out if you are ever in that situation. I never thought about the long term consequences that I had to face.”
After spending 77 days in a hospital and having 38 surgeries in 11 years, she lives to tell her story to junior high and high school students.
“I signed with Anheuser Busch to be a part of the AB Speakers Bureau,” Panzau said. “It allows me to share my story with students from coast to coast.”