After near fatal car crash, graduate student thrives at LC

Illustration by Maya Winshell

On Dec. 13, 2019, Sarah Ruggiere ’16 was struck by a drunk driver while walking on the sidewalk in Southeast Portland. Ruggiere had just left the bar Dig A Pony after having a drink with her family, and was planning on meeting a friend while her family went to dinner. Saying goodbye to her family is the last thing she remembers before waking up in the hospital. 

“I don’t even know what happened,” Ruggiere said. “I woke up in the hospital, and I didn’t have my glasses on, so I couldn’t see. I couldn’t talk because I had a trach tube in my throat. And I remember seeing my parents, but I was just like, ‘Why am I in the hospital? What are we doing here? Why can’t I talk? Why can’t I see? What’s going on?’”

Ruggiere sustained serious injuries during the crash, including losing three teeth and part of her jawbone, damaging her face and skull, and breaking her right knee. Ruggiere also received a severe cut on her left eye that prompted the emergency room staff to place a cage over her eye and monitor her eye pressure throughout her stay in the hospital. It was not until a month later when Ruggiere returned to the hospital to receive surgery on the bones in her face that she learned her eye had to be removed. 

“So that surgery a month later, I mean I was just really freaked out about it, building up to the surgery,” Ruggiere said. “It was just really stressful. And then when we found out shortly after I had arrived at the hospital that they were going to have to remove my eye, that was a huge thing.”

During her initial hospital stay, the cage placed over her left eye helped Ruggiere adjust to not being able to use it later on. Still, it was not easy for her to adjust to seeing with only one eye, as her depth perception was severely affected. 

“For the month that I was in the hospital, I was adjusting to seeing with one eye, which is really hard,” Ruggiere said. “I would go to grab something and would knock it over, or I would reach the air in front of whatever it was I was trying to (reach). It was really weird.”

Ruggiere is still dealing with the aftermath of the crash and her injuries. To replace her lost left eye, Ruggiere was fitted with a prosthetic eye. She underwent physical therapy for her knee after the crash, but her knee was re-injured by her physical therapist, leading to an extra five months of recovery time. Ruggiere currently has a partial denture to replace the three teeth she lost, but this summer she plans to undergo a cheek implant surgery to give her a more permanent solution. Ruggiere previously underwent a bone graft surgery to replace her lost jaw bone, but the site became infected and she had to have another surgery to remove the graft.

Ruggiere has not only had to recover physically from the crash, but emotionally and mentally as well. 

“I’m doing so much better now,” Ruggiere said. “But because I almost died, it was just very emotional and very traumatic.”

Ruggiere has been in therapy since the crash. At first, it was difficult for her to deal with the knowledge that she had almost lost her life.

“(It is) so terrifying to say your life can be taken away from (you) like that,” Ruggiere said. “My life was out of my hands. This woman decided to get drunk and then decided to get in her car, and then just started to drive away. And then she hit me. So it started off as being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I almost died.’” 

Ruggiere does not remember the crash, which she believes has been beneficial to her recovery and mental health. She describes feeling resentment towards the drunk driver after the accident, and made overcoming that a priority in her therapy.

“I was feeling resentment towards the drunk driver,” Ruggiere said. “I mean, of course, it’s normal to feel that way, this girl almost killed me. So it’s normal to feel that way. But I’m a very positive, friendly person. I don’t hate people. That’s not me. But then all of a sudden I hated this girl, and I just was carrying this resentment towards her. And I wanted to work through that. So that then became the big goal for me.”  

Despite how traumatic the situation was, Ruggiere has been able to learn from her experience. In particular, she learned about her body and its needs, her ability to be resilient and how to advocate for herself. She has also seen how much support she has around her.

“I have also learned how many people are out there to support me,” Ruggiere said. “I mean, I was getting so many messages from people. It was pretty incredible.”

When the crash happened, Ruggiere was enrolled at Lewis & Clark’s graduate school, but she had to take a medical leave due to her injuries. Faculty and staff at LC were incredibly supportive of Ruggiere during that time, including Program Director Linda Griffin. The former dean of students and dean of the college even visited her in the hospital the night of the crash. 

“They were just very flexible and reached out to me all the time to make sure I had what I needed,” Ruggiere said. “Lewis & Clark has been amazing during this whole thing.”

Ruggiere is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching and an endorsement in ESOL (English as a second language) at LC. She plans to graduate this summer.

Aside from her studies, Ruggiere has been engaged in advocacy work against drunk driving since the crash. 

“I have been working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” Ruggiere said. “At some point, I hope to be a volunteer on their (Victim Impact Panels). It’s a group of people who have committed a DUI offense, and I’m there to speak to them about my experiences as a victim of someone who was hit by a drunk driver.” 

The main takeaway Ruggiere has learned from her situation is to value your life and live without regrets. 

“The big thing I’ve learned through all of this is enjoy your life,” Ruggiere said. “Because you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you. Have no regrets. And if you have regrets, work through them.”

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