By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(SYRACUSE, Utah) — A teen girl who had both of her legs amputated after a car she was riding in was hit by an alleged drunk driver received a hero’s welcome home after spending nearly three months in the hospital.
Sarah Frei, 17, of Syracuse, Utah, was surprised by her doctors, nurses, physical therapists and the University of Utah cheerleading squad when she left the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital in Salt Lake City on Oct. 14.
The hospital staff and cheerleaders lined the hospital’s exit to say goodbye to Sarah, who underwent 20 surgeries after the Aug. 1 crash, in which the car she was riding in with three friends was hit head-on.
Once Sarah left the hospital, she was welcomed home with a police-escorted parade that saw dozens of her family, friends and high school classmates lining the streets.
“I didn’t realize how big it could be,” Frei told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Once we’d pass [people], they’d join in behind, holding signs.”
Just one day after she returned home, Sarah, a cheerleader and high school senior, was able to join her teammates on the field for the last home football game of the season.
“I think that was probably the one thing she was looking forward to the most, just hoping that she would be able to go to that game and have that experience her senior year, the last football game,” said Amy Frei, Sarah’s mother. “The timing of her coming home that Tuesday and the game being that Wednesday, it was pretty amazing that she felt good and was able to do it.”
Sarah has amazed her family and her doctors at every turn during her months-long recovery with both her determination and her optimism.
“We really are just in awe of her,” said Amy Frei, a mother of six who has had to alternate with her husband being in the hospital with Sarah because only one visitor is allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions. “The first time she was able to sit up and she could actually see and feel her legs, there were no tears. The first thing she said was, ‘They did a good job.’”
“It was just beautiful,” said Amy Frei. “She has stayed positive and held us through it and, almost in a way, made it easier on us.”
Dr. Venessa Lee, the spinal cord injury attending who worked with Sarah the four weeks she spent at Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, said she too watched as the teenager maintained her optimism through grueling physical therapy sessions and bad news about her prognosis.
“She made our job very easy because she wanted to work very hard every day,” said Lee. “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.”
Sarah’s injury, a T11 spinal cord injury, means it is unlikely she will be able to use prostheses in the future and will need to rely on a wheelchair for the rest of her life, according to Lee, also an assistant professor at the University of Utah.
Even faced with that type of life-changing news, Lee recalled Sarah as always more concerned with finding solutions.
“Every time she chose to ask, ‘What’s next?,'” she said of Sarah, the youngest patient on the hospital’s spinal cord injury floor. “There were multiple times that we had to go in and break bad news … and she would look at us with a smile and say, ‘Well what do we do about it?’”
When Sarah had to miss her senior year homecoming dance, she, along with her family and friends, recreated the dance at the hospital.
And with family and friends not allowed to visit her much in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sarah and her loved ones found creative ways to stay in touch.
Sarah’s determination to overcome the odds and make the best of her situation has also inspired tens of thousands of people who are following her journey on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtag #SarahStrong.
“We are so grateful for [the support] and it’s been needed,” said Frei. “This has been hard and the support that we have felt has really strengthened us.”
Sarah’s followers have helped organize a GoFundMe, a benefit concert and t-shirt sales to help the Frei family cover medical expenses and the cost of renovating their home to be fully wheelchair-accessible.
Also through her social media following, Sarah has connected with people with similar injuries who have told her about the full lives they now lead.
After completing school work while in rehab, Sarah plans to graduate on time with her senior class this year and wants to become a teacher.
“Everyone who has helped us has been so supportive, which shows that we just have all this love that we shouldn’t take for granted and that people are always there for us, there for me,” she said. “I think it’s good for other people to know that they’re not alone, and that’s something that I’ve learned.”
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