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Awake After 20 Years, Sarah Speaks
Woman's Recovery Harkens Back to Schiavo Murder

CBS News | August 4, 2005

In a two-part series that starts today, The Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith tells the story of Sarah Scantlin, a woman who woke up from her coma-like state after 20 years.

After two decades of floating somewhere between life and death, Sarah Scantlin is fully, and finally, awake.

Since February when she awoke from a coma-like state that had kept her silent and unmoving for 20 years, she has undergone surgery on her long-unused limbs and has had intensive speech therapy to unlock her long-dormant tongue. Her conversations now reveal that she was aware of many of the things going on around her while she seemed to be in a coma.

Sarah Scantlin

Shortly after she awoke, her father asked what she knew about events that had occurred years earlier. "Sarah, what's 9/11?" he asks. She responds, "Bad…fire…airplanes…building…hurt people."

Sarah is not speaking in full sentences yet, and it's still hard for her to move. But her family says it's the same Sarah who left them on a terrible night in 1984 when a hit-and-run accident put her, then 18, in a semi-conscious state.

It's almost as if Sarah knew that her life would be interrupted because she made the most of every minute, her family says.

"She loved life from the very first breath," says her dad, Jim Scantlin.

She came of age in the 1980s and was a cheerleader in high school and leader of a dance team in college.

Friday, Sept. 21, was the first day of autumn, after summer that had seen the U.S. triumph in the Los Angeles games and Ronald Reagan nominated for a second term. And as that night gave way to Saturday morning, Sarah Scantlin walked out of a party at a local bar unaware that a new, cruel reality was hurtling toward her.

It happened just after midnight. Sarah was crossing a street with a couple of her friends when a drunk driver careened out of the darkness and hit her. The force of the impact threw her up onto his car and into the path of oncoming traffic. The driver just kept going.

"About midnight the phone rings and Betsy finally answered it," Jim Scantlin recalls. "She came back into the room and pulled my big toe and said: 'Get up. We've got to get to the hospital. Something terrible has happened to Sarah.'

"I'll tell you. When I was awakened that night, I woke into a horrible nightmare of a new world." Nothing could have prepared the Scantlins for what they saw at the hospital: Their daughter Sarah, the light of their lives and the hope of their world, was gone. What lay on the bed before them was little more than the still-breathing corpse of a young woman. Her face was contorted; her skull was crushed. And her promising life was now shattered beyond repair.

"I take one look in there and it's just gruesome," Jim Scantlin says. "She is horribly mangled, especially in the head because she was hit by a teenage drunk driver, slung over in the path of another car, and that's the one that really got her, right in the head. I couldn't handle it."

His wife Betsy Scantlin adds, "To the nurses in there I said, 'When she wakes up tonight, you come and get me!' And the doctor told us, 'Sarah's not going to wake up tonight.'"

Jim Scantlin continues, "The neurosurgeon sets us down -darkest, darkest day of my life - and said: 'Alright folks. I think I regret saying this but I think your daughter's going to live, physically survive, HOWEVER…' And then he starts to tell us what the head injury is. And I'll tell you, there wasn't any hope in it."

Sarah brain injury was massive: She could breathe on her own, but that was all. There was almost no movement, no communication, no way of knowing what she was thinking, or even if she could think at all. Her long days of silence turned into months and years.

Jim Scantlin says, "Your emotional state is like the day before a funeral, but you never get to go to the funeral and kind of start working through the process."

As the '80s became the '90s, Sarah stayed locked in her solitary world. Her older brother Jim, who worshipped her from the day she was born, felt the bond to his baby sister slipping away.

"I gave up hope a long, long time ago," he says.

His father adds, "There were times when it would get so grinding, I would pretend that Sarah was dead."

But early this year, when it seemed certain that Sarah was gone forever, something miraculous happened. One day in February, the Scantlins got a call from the nursing home.

Jim Scantlin says, "Beth said, 'Someone wants to talk to you,' and she had the speaker phone on (getting emotional). She said, 'It's Sarah.' And I said, 'Sarah!' And she said, 'Hello!' And I just went numb. I don't remember very much after that."

Betsy Scantlin says, "Then I could hear Jennifer in the back saying, 'Tell her what you want! Tell her what you want!' and Sarah says, 'I want makeup!'"

Jim Scantlin adds, "All of a sudden. I began to realize that she wasn't talking about Sarah. She was talking to Sarah.

"She says 'You want to talk to her?' and I said, certainly. And I get the phone and I say, 'This is Dad'… 'Hi Dad. I love you.'"

 

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