The morning of August 23, 2008, Sara Lopata '11 was involved in a serious single-vehicle rollover accident in rural Benton County, Iowa. At the scene of the accident her neurological assessment score on the Glasgow Coma rating scale (3-15) was a 4, with 3 considered "brain dead."
An Ambrose junior at the time, Sara remained in a coma for more than two weeks. Later, intensive inpatient therapy involved relearning how to walk, talk, swallow, read and study, as well as refamiliarizing herself with the social aspects of everyday life. Another year of outpatient therapy followed.
During her stay in the hospital Sara held fast to the goal of returning to Ambrose to complete her degree in human performance and fitness, "something that kept me focused on what I needed to do," said Sara. "I had to find something positive out of this situation and to be able to say ‘It's all good' to the not-so-great things."
Family and friends played a key role in keeping her focused and positive, as well as the strength of her will. Once back in school, Ambrose faculty Ragene Gwin, Matt Laurent, Heather Medema-Johnson and Darla Baumgarten "served as a rock for me to stay stable," said Sara. "The professors kept my head above water when it all started to become overwhelming."
Prior to her accident, Sara worked for Rev. Joseph DeFrancisco, who visited her in the hospital while she lay in a coma. Later, Father Joe welcomed Sara back and she resumed the campus work study position that had been a part of her pre-accident life. "Father Joe always could put a smile on my face even on bad days," she said.
The assistance offered by Student Disability Services was critical. "I never imagined ever having to tap into such resources." But Sara learned new ways to study for classes, experiencing "good and bad days" related to studying and taking tests. "Being a smaller campus, there were a lot of people that actually knew and cared about my situation," she said. "Without those people preparing, assisting and encouraging me, I would not have been successful."
Sara still struggles. "Although I realize I have been blessed with an amazing recovery, each day I have to find new ways to accomplish tasks that need to be done. A brain injury often leaves little to no outside marks, so people don't realize the ongoing struggle."
Sara would eventually like to help families and loved ones of those impacted by a brain injury. "I know what it is like to feel helpless and in great need of someone. I think my positive outlook on life and being able to say, ‘It's all good' would be a great tool for someone else to see and practice."
Last May, the new graduate with a hard-earned degree–and a 3.2 GPA–made a generous financial contribution to the university. When asked why, she quickly replied, "I would not have graduated without the amazing support from faculty and staff."
And her philosophy on life?
"I believe that life is good–sometimes unfair, but good. The accident strengthened this philosophy. I have a ‘make every day count' type of attitude."
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