TIFTON -- A young Fitzgerald woman who had to learn to swallow, eat, walk and talk again after a near-fatal car wreck two years ago graduated fifth in her Fitzgerald High School class this year and plans to attend Mercer University to become a physician's assistant. She plans to specialize in pediatrics.

"I just want to work with kids," said Sara Beth Rogers. "So many nurses worked with me and I saw what they did and I really got interested."

Rogers has thought about being a nurse for several years. Her experience with nurses who took care of her after a horrendous car accident three years ago confirmed her decision.

On July 2, 2003, Rogers, then 16 years old, and her brother George were traveling on Interstate 95 toward Ft. Lauderdale to meet their parents and older sister Mary Alice.

George was driving and Sara Beth was asleep in the back seat. George didn't see a dump truck traveling ahead of them because its lights were dirty. When George realized the vehicle was there, he didn't have time to avoid hitting it in the rear. The car flipped and skidded 300 yards on its roof and Sara Beth was tossed like a rag doll.

Sara Beth was transported to a trauma unit in West Palm Beach, 15 miles from the accident. Her parents, Becky and Richard, traveled to the hospital and learned that Sara had brain injury and might not live. They also learned that it was possible their daughter might remain in a vegetative state.

"A piece of the door post was all that was between her head and the pavement," Becky said. "She had a six or seven inch gash across her forehead, her skull was cracked and she had damage to the optic nerve in her left eye."

Sara Beth was in a coma for a month, remained hospitalized for six months and had eight major surgeries. She had to re-learn the most basic skills of living, just as if she was a new baby.

"It was devastating," Mrs. Rogers said. "I think the uncertainty is one of the hardest things. All her progress was extremely slow. It was one small step at a time, from where she had to learn to hold her head up without wobbling to taking her first step. It seemed like years."

Mr. Rogers recalled how his son George looked as he lay in his hospital bed.

"George looked like he'd been in a fight with a bear," he said. "Sara Beth was already in the intensive care trauma center. We went straight from George to her. They could tell you nothing. Our first view of her, she had all these tubes hooked up to monitors. Her head was swollen. She was almost unrecognizable. Her color was extremely gray and pale. She felt cold. The only way you knew she was living was to look at the monitor and see she still had a heartbeat."

Sara Beth has no memory of the wreck. With some brain injuries, patients have what is called post-traumatic amnesia.

"I don't remember about a month or a month and a half before the accident and I don't remember any of the accident or about six months after the accident," she said.

Before the accident, Sara Beth was a member of All-State Chorus for four consecutive years, received the University of Georgia Certificate of Merit, received the Scholastic Musician Choral Award, was voted most talented senior and was a member of the competitive cheerleading squad. Away from school, she performed vocal and piano solos for churches, civic clubs and nursing homes. She was a volunteer in the Christian Kitchen and a Vacation Bible School and camp worker.

Perhaps Sara Beth is most proud of being named winner of the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. The award is presented annually by the Georgia Women's Intersport Network.

"It was really special," she said. "My competition cheerleading coach nominated me, and she did a great job. It's all really amazing. They say if I had been in the front passenger seat and buckled up, I would have been killed instantly. God brought me through it all."

Sara Beth is still a high-achiever, but she is having to work harder since the accident. She was relieved from physical therapy in January and from speech therapy in May.

"She is still working on handling frustrations and she has worked so hard with the obstacles against her and she has beaten some incredible odds," her mother said.

Sara Beth is currently enrolled in an introductory psychology class at ABAC and will head to Mercer's Nursing School in Atlanta in August. She encourages others with similar struggles to keep trying.

"Have faith and trust in God and he will bring you through it," she said. "I know that God was the one who brought me through it."

To contact city editor Angie Thompson, call 382-4321.

James Riley, marketing director for Great Southern Wood Preserving, Inc., contributed to this article.

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