Speaking out from experience

Sarah Panzau comes to tell her story about drunk driving

By Allison Price - Managing Editor
On February 8, 2013

  • Campus Missionary Associate Kasey Murphy, dressed in costume, poses for a themed photo shoot. Lauren Andrews

The consequences of driving drunk might not seem as scary as one may think until they experience a particular incident themselves. That is the mindset Sarah Panzau, Alcohol Awareness Speaker, born and raised in Belleville, IL, had before she slid into the driver seat of her vehicle to drive home when her blood-alcohol level was nearly four times the legal limit.

Panzau will present, "Sarah's Journey," on Wednesday, Feb. 13, to share her story with students in the CJ Davidson Center at 6 p.m.

Panzau, 21 at the time, had a wreck after choosing to drive home drunk. Panzau was going 70 mph on a guardrail turn when her car flipped four times and landed on top of a guardrail.

Panzau was hanging outside of her window after she had been drug 30 feet across the guardrail. Panzau was announced dead at the scene, but then she tried to gasp for air. The trauma team stabilized her and she was airlifted to a hospital. After more than 30 surgeries, Panzau was left without a left arm.

"Before my crash and at the time of my crash I pretty much pushed my family away," Panzau said. "My mom and I did not have a very good relationship and I rebelled in spite of my mom. When I woke up from my coma was when I fell in love again with my mom. When I decided I was going to go speak and I had my mind set on it, the people who supported me were my family and my mom. I also have two sisters and brother that I am very close to."

Panzau's younger sister, Katilyn, was at college in South Carolina during the accident and she flew home to say goodbye to her sister, she said.

"When you make poor choices, not only do you affect yourself, but all the people around you are affected," Panzau said.

Panzau said she was inspired to speak out against drunk driving after she awoke from her coma.

"I was your typical person who thought "this" was never going to happen to me," Panzau said. "I remember looking in the mirror one day and I thought, how was I going to look in the mirror for the rest of my life and be okay? I was horrified by what was looking back at me in the mirror. I had dropped 70 pounds and I was mortified. I thought, I am going to get out there and show everyone this body. What was staring back at me was so hard and it was myself. There was nobody else I could blame or point the finger at. I wanted to put all that emotion and feeling into something positive. My mom told me to start writing. She said that I had to know what I was going to say when I get on the stage. I started writing for a couple days and by the time I was done I had 20 pages sitting in front of me."

Panzau's first speech was Nov. 14, 2004, a year and three months after her crash, she said. Panzau knew that she was called to speak about her experiences.

"When God has a plan for you, he will bring it all together," Panzau said. "I believe in God and I believe he chose me to do something very special."

Panzau has traveled the U.S. to share her story with middle schools, high schools and colleges to attempt to dissuade students from drinking irresponsibly.

"I get the nerves every single time I speak," Panzau said. "The fact of knowing that, by the time I am done speaking, I will have made someone in the audience think about the life they are going to live from that day forward. Every motivational speaker wants to know that their impacting somebody.

"The feeling that I can change someone's life again and again is so indescribable, and it really lets me know that I am being a good person," Panzau said. "I don't want to be known as that drunk driver. To know that I can take what has happened to me and formulate a presentation, and change someone's life, the feelings are indescribable."

Panzau said there are multiple messages that can be taken away from her presentation.
"That is the best thing about my presentation," Panzau said. "The overall message is that if you are going to make the first poor choice (underage drink), I beg anyone that hears my story to not make the second poor choice and get behind the wheel. No one is invincible and I am living proof that if you make poor choices, consequences will follow."

Recently, Panzau signed on for her eighth year with her national sponsor, Annheuser Busch (AB), she said. Panzau traveled and spoke on her own before she became sponsored.

In addition to AB, other organizations helping to bring Panzau to ASU include Health Services, The Center for Student Involvement, Student Life, Housing and Residential Programs, ASU Police Department, SAPD, TXDOT, Cares Coalition and the Special Events department.

"When you have a college or university in your community, it is important to see how [much] they collaborate with their community," AB's Corporate Social Responsibility Director Retha Fortenberry said. "Everyone has pitched in, and they are making this a success, and I think a lot of community will be here."

The event will include a roll-over simulator, an apparatus that simulates what happens to a passenger in a vehicle when it rolls over and there are objects inside the car flying around when a passenger is not restrained, Fortenberry said.

"It is a good reminder for everybody as we are approaching spring break to really be thinking about the impact you can have on your life when you drink and drive or if you ride with someone who is drinking and driving," Fortenberry said. "That one mistake could change your life forever."

Clint Havins, Director for Student Life, said he expects Sarah's presentation to be very influential  and suspects there will be a significant crowd.

"We want to do the most we can for students," Havins said. "Safety is definitely a priority; it is important. It is nice to see the campus and the [San Angelo] community come together and make this event happen."

Panzau said there are only so many times someone can play with their luck and no one is able to predict their own future.

"To know that I could have put somebody right where I was or I could have killed somebody that night is where the survivor's guilt comes in," Panzau said. "There are plenty of victims of drunk driving who don't have a voice. I feel like somewhat in my presentation that I give them a voice. To think that there was a time that I was so shallow and I was driving drunk and I knew I was driving drunk and I didn't care. I was 21, young, immature, irresponsible.
"I am not the miracle worker; I do know that if you see my presentation, it will make you think about the choices you will make whether it be with your family or with other people," Panzau said. "I am being Sarah Panzau for one hour and I am giving my heart to complete strangers and that is what you will see in my presentation."

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