Sarah Panzau has a sense of humor about the ordeal now.

She had a gym full of New Hope Academy high schoolers cracking up as she recalled her visit to get a new driver's license several years ago.All she thought she needed was a new card.

Hers had been lost amid the wreckage when she was in an accident in 2003 as a 21-year-old.

But her situation had changed dramatically since that accident, Panzau told the students. She was told she would now have to retake the driver's test because she was now classified as disabled.

Panzau had lost her left arm in the wreck that caused her car to flip four times and paramedics to nearly pronounce her dead on the scene before she gasped to life.

Sarah Panzau, a national speaker who lost her arm after a drunk driving crash, talks to students at New Hope Academy during an assembly Wednesday.
Sarah Panzau, a national speaker who lost her arm after a drunk driving crash, talks to students at New Hope Academy during an assembly Wednesday. (Andrew Shaw)

Panzau, making light of suddenly being a handicapped driver, joked, "I'm the one who gets the VIP parking up front" and cracking wise about hanging the stump of her left arm out of the driver's side window.

Panzau told the students she smiles now because that accident changed her life and turned her into a better person, one who is getting a second chance.

The accident wrecked her body, but it transformed her life.

Needed 'courage': The "shallow" person who got in the car on Aug. 23, 2003, had a blood-alcohol level four times the legal limit, and what's worse, "I did it all the time," Panzau said of driving drunk.

Panzau, 31, spoke at New Hope Thursday morning and later at York College about her experience and how she wants students to realize the serious consequences of driving drunk, grasp the ability to rise above tragedy, and see people for who they are and not what they look like.

Panzau was a two-time All-American volleyball player at the junior college level who had more than a dozen scholarship offers coming out of high school. But she threw it away when she was faced with having to take her schoolwork seriously, instead opting to become a 19-year-old bartender.

On top of that, Panzau told the New Hope students she had a strained relationship with her mother, who is a high-ranking military official.

Panzau was partying all the time and felt she couldn't talk to her mom about what she was doing anymore. That, she learned, was one of her biggest mistakes.

Because as her life slipped away, Panzau didn't think she could call her mother to pick her up that August night when she was too drunk to drive.

When New Hope sophomore Cecilee Valdez told Panzau if she were in that situation, she'd call her parents, Panzau told the rest of the students Cecilee "exemplifies the type of courage I never had growing up."

Instead, that night Panzau was ejected from the car and had her jaw nearly ripped off and her arm severed. More than 30 surgeries later, she still battles chronic pain.

Later at Panzau's bedside, her mother asked her why she didn't call to get picked up. Panzau said she scrawled out the word "TROUBLE!!!," and watched as her mother sobbed at the thought her daughter figured it was worth taking a chance driving drunk rather than risk getting in trouble. Breaking her mother's heart, Panzau said, is still something she wrestles with to this day.

That's why Panzau told New Hope students they need to build communication with their parents and trust that their parents would rather pick up their child who is drunk than have to deal with what her mother went through.

"Don't make a second poor choice and get behind the wheel," Panzau said.

Panzau's talk made sense to senior Brittany Campo and freshman Amanda Gladfelter.

After hearing Panzau's horror story, if a student tries drinking and driving now, "that's pretty stupid," Amanda said.

Campo took to heart the other part of Panzau's story - how she overcame adversity. Panzau, other than being a national speaker through Anheuser-Busch Companies' consumer awareness and education program, also got to play on the United States Paralympic volleyball team and got engaged this year.

"It showed me that's not the end," Campo said.

- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com