“I’m sure there are many people here in Fresno, California, that will go out tonight. They will drink, tonight. They will do drugs, tonight. And they will get behind the wheel, tonight.”
Such was one of the powerful lines delivered by Sarah Panzau, 31, a drunk-driving-accident survivor who spoke to more than 100 students at the Satellite Student Union Tuesday night. It was the first event in Fresno State’s observance of National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week.
Panzau, a former two-time National Junior College All-American volleyball player who grew up in Melville, Ill., got into her car on Aug. 23, 2003, and suffered a crash that costed her dearly—but her life was spared.
“You guys can clearly see that was my left arm,” Panzau said while a projector displaced pictures from the scene of the accident. “Completely ripped right off my body. And guess what? It’s never going to be there again.”
Along with the loss of her arm, Panzau was subject to nearly 40 surgeries for medical complications that, among others, included: seven jaw fractures, a complete loss of the back-left side of her scalp, severed ligaments and at one point the potential loss of her left leg.
During the speech, Panzau demonstrated her spirit as she walked animatedly around the floor, engaging students with direct questions and humor.
At time, she described the night of her accident with gruesome imagery that served as a reminder of the dangers of drunk driving.
“I rolled my car four times off the highway,” Panzau said. “As my car flipped up on top of the guard rail and it was drug 40 feet, I was hanging out of the window. You know how I know that? They found clumps of my hair and scalp on five different guard rail posts.
“I was lying on the highway, pretty much dead,” she said. “No heartbeat, no pulse, no blood pressure.”
At other times, Panzau spoke of hope and progress, even in the face of devastating odds.
“You know what? I know I’m different,” Panzau said. When I go out and people look at me they think ‘wow, what happened to her?’ But I learned I need to accept the body that God gave me.”
Another theme of the speech was the importance of personal choice when it comes to alcohol and getting behind the wheel.
“I did not fly all the way from St. Louis to blame my accident on anyone else,” Panzau said. “There was nobody to blame but myself. All because I made that choice— one choice— to drink and drive.”
While Panzau didn’t blame others, she made it clear that the people she considered friends were not who she thought they were.
“That night, I was with the people who I thought cared about me,” Panzau said. “But who, out of those friends who I was out drinking with, were by my bedside? Who was there? None. None…Think about who you consider your true friends.”
Instead, Panzau said that family is sometimes the truest friends of all.
“You know who was there by my side and wouldn’t leave me?” Panzau asked. “My mom. The woman I thought was the devil himself. She was there.”
Panzau’s speech was received well and, at times, had students in tears as well as laughter.
Francisco Vallejo, a 22-year-old public health major, said that he felt the presentation was effective.
“It stuck with me when she was talking about how nobody’s invincible,” Vallejo said. “She made sure to put across that you have to think twice, and you have to think about what could happen.”
Panzau was invited to speak at the campus at the behest of DAAWG, the Drug and Alcohol Awareness and Wellness Guide program, which promotes responsible student use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
Rosendo Iñiguez, the student coordinator for DAAWG, said that in light of the recent incident regarding Philip Dhanens—the 18-year-old freshman who drank himself to death inside the now-disbanded Fresno chapter of the Theta Chi fraternity—the presentation hit closer to home.
“Even with that incident, a lot of students still have that mentality that they’re invincible,” Iñiguez said. “Hopefully this presentation makes students more aware that these decisions can really have some horrible consequences in their lives.”
After the speech, Panzau said that as soon as she came out of a coma— that lasted more than two weeks— she knew presentations like the one she delivered Tuesday were going to be her life’s new goal.
“I didn’t care how long it took,” Panzau said. “One day I was going to make my voice heard. At the time, my jaw had been wired shut. It was completely snapped from my face, so I remember telling my mom on a notepad I was going to have my voice heard when I got out.”
Following that determination, Panzau took an effort that went from speaking in her local community to earning a national sponsorship from the Anheuser-Busch brewing company to speak in cities such as San Diego and Charleston, S.C.
Through it all, Panzau said she has kept her fighting spirit.
“Pushing aside all the negatives that happened to me today, I can honestly say I feel better than I ever have,” Panzau said.
“I just hope nobody has to go through what I go through, because there’s always a better choice.”