Sarah Frei of Syracuse, Utah, is known for setting goals. She creates a "bucket list" each year, drawing up plans for new experiences and accomplishments. She'd achieved more by age 17 than many do in a lifetime.
But, as Summer 2020 was winding down, Sarah's family wondered whether she'd get to check anything else off one of her to-do lists. A car accident had left Sarah paralyzed and fighting for her life.
"She's always made a bucket list. Every year," said Sarah's mother, Amy Frei. "But, after her accident, we couldn't even comprehend what Sarah would be able to do."
They'd soon find out there was no stopping Sarah.
The Day That Changed Everything
Sarah was headed home on July 30, 2020, from Bear Lake in Northern Utah. She and her three friends stopped for milkshakes and began making their way through Logan Canyon when a drunk driver swerved and hit their car.
All four teens were injured, but none more severely than Sarah. Emergency responders rushed her to Logan Regional Hospital before airlifting her to Primary Children's.
"Sarah's dad and I pulled into the parking lot as Sarah's helicopter was landing, but because of COVID-19, only one of us was allowed in at a time," Amy said. "I saw Sarah as they wheeled her into surgery. I talked to her and told her she was going to be fine."The two said their "I love yous," then Sarah was off to the operating room for several blood transfusions and surgery to stop internal bleeding.
X-rays revealed the accident broke Sarah's back and severed her spinal cord. She also suffered damage to her aorta, the artery that carries oxygenated blood to the legs. Not yet stable enough for another surgery, Sarah would remain in the intensive care unit (ICU). Her aortic repair would have to wait. Sarah's legs, deprived of blood and oxygen, would need to be amputated.
Doctors transferred Sarah to University of Utah Hospital, which was better equipped for the aortic repair and amputation surgery.
"We knew she was in the best place she could be," Amy said. "The comfort that brought to us was amazing."
It wasn't until about two weeks after the accident that Sarah fully understood what had happened.
"As I began to wake up more and become more aware, my parents filled me in," Sarah said. "I remember feeling OK. I wasn't scared. I knew the doctors and nurses were doing all that they could."
Amy recalls the first time Sarah sat up in a chair. "I was nervous about how she was going to react to her legs," Amy said. "She reached down and felt the end of her legs and said, 'They did a really good job.' It was pretty amazing."
In total, Sarah spent five weeks in the ICU, underwent 20 surgeries—including a spinal fusion—and fought through several life-threatening infections before moving on to amputee rehabilitation at University of Utah Health's Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital.
A Spirited Fight
Sarah, now 18, was looking forward to her senior year of high school and final year of cheerleading when she was injured. Determined to rejoin her squad, the young woman who had rooted for others became a cheerleader for herself.
She worked hard to relearn basic tasks, like getting dressed. She also learned new ways to roll on her side and sit up.
Sarah's nurses, occupational therapists, and physical therapists incorporated fun into her recovery and rehabilitation. They used dancing as balance practice, baked, and created a spa day complete with manicures and face masks.
On October 13, 2020—75 days after the accident that left her paralyzed—Sarah left U of U Health for her home in Syracuse. Hospital staff lined up to cheer her on, and her local community came together for a welcome home parade.
That night, Sarah said to her parents, "Now on to the new and improved Sarah."
"It blew me away," Amy said. "She had this attitude that nothing was going to hold her back or stop her from fulfilling her dreams. Her attitude helped us so much. We knew if she was going to be OK, then we'd be OK, too."
Sarah's care team agreed.
"She made our job very easy because she wanted to work very hard every day," said Venessa Lee, MD, a member of Sarah's medical team at Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, in a 2020 interview with Good Morning America. "We would try to give her permission to complain or to say it's OK to have a bad day or be grumpy, and she never complained."
On October 14, 2020, the day after Sarah's return home, she joined her cheerleading squad on the field for the last home football game of the season. She went on to cheer through basketball season, participate in end-of-year performances, and graduate high school on time in May 2021.
After graduation, Sarah interned at her former elementary school. Now enrolled at Utah State University in Logan, she's living on campus and studying elementary education.
A New List of To-Dos
Sarah has used the past year to reflect on her life and the things that matter most. She's shared her positivity with others through more than 40 invited speaking engagements as well as interviews and podcasts.
Sarah also took a fresh look at her bucket list. So far in 2021, she's gone skydiving and visited Disney World. She also revisited several past accomplishments, like ax throwing and boogie boarding, to prove she could do the things she'd done before.
"She can still do the things that we thought might be impossible," Amy said.
An off-road wheelchair paid for with funds raised by Steve Westover, who ran 100 miles in her honor, has allowed Sarah to camp and hike. And in March 2021, country singer Russell Dickerson gifted Sarah with a fully equipped Chevrolet Traverse, giving her the freedom and independence she deserves.
On July 30, 2021, one year after Sarah's accident, all of those affected by that day gathered for dinner and a balloon release.
"We talked about how lucky we are to be alive," Sarah said. "We'll probably mark the day in a similar way each year."
Sarah spent the first anniversary of her homecoming—October 13, 2021—sharing her story as a guest speaker for a company retreat in Park City. Her message: gratitude.
"It's so important to be grateful for what you have," Sarah said. "Stay focused on what you can do and not what you can't. And be grateful every day."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one person dies every 52 minutes due to drunk driving crashes. Though Sarah and her friends survived, they and their families saw a gap in the law meant to deter people from drinking and driving.
"The driver that caused the crash on July 30, 2021, was arrested and released on bail within just a few hours—while Sarah was still in surgery for life-threatening injuries," Amy said. "Just like they would have for a fender bender. This just didn't seem right."
Sarah, her family, and the others affected by the 2021 crash wanted to see higher bail set for drunk drivers who cause accidents that lead to death or severe bodily injury. They met with state lawmakers to draft House Bill 47, also known as Sarah's Bill, which gives judges more discretion in setting bail. The Utah legislature signed Sarah's Bill into law in early 2021.