In the 30 minutes following the automobile rollover, 11-year-old Sara DeWitt was not expected to live.
Once the paramedics arrived and saved her life, they believed she had suffered a disastrous level of brain damage.
A few days after the Jan. 5th accident, however, Sara opened her eyes and began to talk, despite three very serious skull fractures, in addition to a broken clavicle.
Since then, slowly but continuously, Sara's condition has improved. And although the depth of damage to her memory remains unknown, her doctors expect that the Rim Country Middle School sixth-grader will be able to leave the Carrie-Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque, N.M. and come home to Payson within three weeks.
"I have a feeling that she will be whole," said Sara's father, local pediatrician Dr. Dexter DeWitt, during a phone call from his daughter's hospital room. "What I don't know is whether she'll have the same personality as before. Right now, she seems tentative about things, and a little less mature as if it jogged her personality back a couple of years. But we're very encouraged."
That's positive news in the midst of tragedy. Yet there is an extra layer of pain to Sara's accident that's difficult to escape difficult, at least, for the thousands of Rim country parents who have watched Dr. DeWitt help, heal, save, or do everything in his power to save, their own children.
Parents like Tracy Allen, the mother of 5-year-old Ashley Allen, who died last March after an 18-month struggle with brain cancer.
"Dr. DeWitt meant everything to us; he meant the world," said Allen. "(Doctors) are taught to be compassionate to a point, but to not get emotionally involved ... but he gets emotionally involved. He can't help it because he is so loving."
Despair and hope
According to DeWitt, his wife Julie and their daughter were driving home from a visit to New Mexico when Sara dropped an energy-bar snack onto the floor of the family's 2001 Expedition traveling 40 miles north of Albuquerque, at 75 miles per hour. Seconds after Sara unbuckled her seat belt in order to reach the energy bar, Julie swerved to avoid hitting another car that had carelessly pulled onto the freeway.
"My wife lost control ... and she thinks she flipped when the car hit the gravel on the median," DeWitt said. "It rolled several times and landed on the driver's side. Julie called Sara's name, then realized Sara wasn't in the car. She climbed out of the sunroof ... and found Sara 20 feet behind the vehicle, moaning."
Among the first people to stop and offer assistance were a nurse, a paramedic and an emergency medical technician. Within 30 minutes, the ambulance arrived, and soon after that, Sara was air-lifted to Carrie-Tingley Hospital. Julie, who was not seriously injured, was escorted to her daughter's bedside by New Mexico police.
"Sara was unconscious from that Saturday until the next Tuesday, when she opened her eyes and seemed to recognize Julie and I," DeWitt said. "I told her that if she could remember any of her girlfriends' phone numbers, we could give them a call. She couldn't. But the next day she remembered three numbers."
Meantime, a CAT scan revealed "some subtle suggestion of ... brain damage that's not severe," DeWitt said. "The fact that she woke up in three days is miraculous.
"Her memory is selective; she can't write in cursive, but she can print. Her spelling is bad, her arithmetic is inaccurate. But she's walking pretty good, despite some left-sided weakness. That is wonderful, though, because when Sara was in the ambulance, she could not move her extremities at all."
When she returns, Sara will undergo therapies for traumatic brain injury, speech and physical movement, her father said, in addition to having to regularly travel to the Valley for neuro-psychological testing.
DeWitt said he hopes to be back to work in his Payson office by next Wednesday. Julie will stay with Sara, in her hospital room, until she is allowed to come home.
"It seems like we've got a lot of people praying for us and, God knows, it's really helped," DeWitt said, his voice cracking with emotion. "If I was compassionate before, I'm even more adamant about that now. You know, you can never quite appreciate what happens as much as when it happens to your own."