Drunk driver shares harrowing lesson

Herald Staff Writer

HUNTINGBURG — When she was 21, Sarah Panzau believed she was indestructible.

She had been a star volleyball player at Southwestern Illinois College, twice earning junior college All-American honors.

But instead of transferring to a four-year school, Panzau dropped out to become a bartender. She partied heavily, often climbing behind the wheel after having too much to drink.

On Aug. 23, 2003, she stumbled out of a bar and decided to drive home. As she raced along I-64 East near St. Louis, her car spun out of control, slamming into a guardrail at 60 mph.

Besides being drunk — her blood alcohol level was nearly four times the legal limit — Panzau wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

She was flung through the back windshield of her car, and when it was all over, her left arm was gone and clumps of her hair and skin were splattered across the guardrail.

She was found lying beside the road in a puddle of blood.

“It was never supposed to happen to a girl like me,” Panzau, 32, told a packed auditorium at Southridge Middle School on Wednesday.

For an hour, she spoke about that night and its aftermath, telling students that poor choices can have drastic consequences.

She has undergone 36 operations since the crash, including two facial reconstructions. More surgeries are in the offing, including one scheduled for next month.

And almost everywhere she goes, people stare at her missing arm.

“I certainly never thought that this would be the body that I would be trapped in for the rest of my life,” said Panzau, who grew up just outside of St. Louis in Belleville, Ill.

For weeks after the crash, her mother kept vigil over Panzau’s hospital bed. She was there when her daughter woke up from a coma.

She asked why Panzau hadn’t called her for a ride. Even though it was the middle of the night, her mother said she would have picked her up.

“I’m sure your parents, if you were ever in a situation like that, would do the exact same thing,” Panzau said.

Her mother was strict, but now Panzau understands why.

“All you have to do is take one good look at me,” she said, “and you’ll see why your parent do what they do. They’re just trying to protect you.”

Several students hung around to talk to Panzau, who travels the U.S. to lecture on the perils of drunken driving. Tuesday’s presentation was sponsored by Hedinger Beverage Distributing in Jasper.

Eighth-grader Montana Jones said most conversations about underage drinking are the same: They tend to be heavy on statistics and short on emotion. But she was moved by Panzau’s story.

“It was just nice to hear it a different way than what we’re always told,” Montana said. “And how she did it, it was amazing.”

Classmate Ellen Polley agreed, saying, “She was really inspiring, and the way that she connected with all of us, it touched me.”

Jonathan Breckler, also an eighth-grader, liked how Panzau wasn’t afraid to show her feelings.

“It was fun listening to her because she got personal and she was more active with the audience,” he said. “I liked it a lot.”

Contact Tony Raap at traap@dcherald.com.

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