A Cardinals game in late August 2003. A beer or two with friends, then maybe one or two at the stadium then, okay, maybe a few shots.
Sarah Panzau was good to go.
The 5'10" former Southwestern Illinois College (SIC) volleyball star, then a bartender at a downtown St. Louis sports bar, got into her Saturn coupe with a blood alcohol level of.306 milligrams per deciliter, nearly four times the legal limit in Illinois.
Seatbelt? What seatbelt?
Panzau managed to get across the bridge to Illinois but missed her East St. Louis, Ill., exit, rolled the Saturn four times, and was ejected from the rear window.
She was lucky. A cop on an overpass picking up shell casings from a shooting the night before and an ambulance crew happened to be on the scene. According to her Web site, they considered calling the coroner until they saw her breathe. The crew immediately intubated her. She was then stabilized and air-lifted to St. Louis University Hospital, where she spent two weeks in a coma and four weeks in intensive care, on a ventilator.
"This is the body I am trapped in for the rest of my life"
Her injuries included – if you're squeamish you might want to skip this part – a left arm so mangled it had to be amputated, a jaw fractured in seven places, degloving (scalping) of the whole back of her head and left neck down to the carotid artery and jugular vein, disarticulation of the left knee that severed three major ligaments, a fractured left clavicle and scapula, degloving down to the muscle of the left scapular area, liver laceration, a partially severed right ear and much, much more.
"This is the body I am trapped in for the rest of my life," a tearful Panzau has said, displaying her scarred body and severed arm.
Panzau spoke before a rapt audience at Southwell Arena in late September that included Columbia College men's basketball and female volleyball players, conspicuous in their uniforms and knee pads. They were listening, but Panzau's message rang out without a word: she was dressed in black athletic garb that clearly showed her injuries. Panzau's presentation was sponsored by Anheuser-Busch's corporate social responsibility beerresponsible campaign.
According to her Web site, Panzau had been offered 23 full-ride scholarships in her senior year of high school. She chose SIC to stay close to her family, was freshman of the year, smashed multiple school records, was named to seven all-tournament teams and the National Junior College Athletic Association All-America team, not once, but twice.
Like most students, she started to experiment. "I only lived for today," she has said. "I lived like I would never die ... I quit school, gave up a full-ride volleyball scholarship to be a bartender! I had no direction in life."
She now pleads with students to spot the telltale warning signs in others, not to succumb to peer pressure and never to allow friends to drive drunk. She also underscores the urgent need to seek help. Those hip friends? She has said that none visited her in the hospital.
This is what a former Columbia College student, now a part-time, employee had to say:
"I went to Southwell to see Sarah speak. I really didn’t know what to expect —her story is very powerful! Most speakers look the same as you and I. But when you see Sarah, and you hear her story, it is hard to forget the message."
But Panzau's message is more than just cautionary; it's also about determination and perseverance. Despite losing her arm, Panzau was able to play volleyball on the USA Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team and compete internationally.
Panzau will never be the same again; because of ongoing complications of her more than 30 surgeries, she can't even play sitting volleyball anymore. And she's only 26. "But for those who want to whine and mope, I am going to tell you that you're never going to get anywhere … You know what? Life is hard. And it gets harder the older you get. There are plenty of times where I easily could have given up, because I hurt too bad. I just didn't want to go on living. But I never did give up."