HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — No one would have blamed Sarah Toney if she decided to take the year off from pharmacy school at Marshall University.
The Florida native sustained such critical injuries in a May 2 accident on the West Virginia Turnpike that doctors didn't think she would survive.
But four months later — with a cane, major scars and an elbow that won't bend — Sarah Toney returned to school for the fall semester because she wanted to remain with her classmates, all of whom are part of the first class to attend Marshall's School of Pharmacy.
Sarah Toney chose Marshall, in part, because of the opportunity to be a part of that first class to follow in her father's footsteps. Dr. John Toney was part of the inaugural class for Marshall's School of Medicine in January 1978. She also was attracted by university's reputed standard of education.
She doesn't regret that decision, even though coming here was the precursor to the accident.
On May 2, the day after finals, she set off to drive back to Florida with her boyfriend, Peter Marotta, who had flown to Huntington to accompany her on the ride. There was excitement in the air, as she was ready for a break from a rigorous first year of pharmacy school and was about to serve as maid of honor in her best friend's wedding.
But the couple never made it out of West Virginia. Somewhere before Beckley, a semi-trailer truck nudged the side of her car. She was able to get the car corrected but the semi-trailer passed her and swerved into her car again, this time sending it over the median and head-on into a FedEx truck.
Her side of the car took the brunt of the hit, with Marotta walking away with one broken bone. She had to be cut out of the vehicle, then airlifted to Charleston Area Medical Center with a number of injuries that led doctors to initially think she wasn't going to make it. She suffered a broken nose, crushed orbital bone, cracked sternum, major injuries to the bone and nerves in her left arm, left hip broken in three places, a burst bladder, compound fracture in her right femur, both knees opened, a fracture in her foot and a slight concussion.
"A lot of people were shocked I made it," Sarah said earlier this month after four hours of classes. "They kept me medically sedated because of the injuries. When I woke up, most of the surgeries had been done. I was put back together with metal."
She doesn't remember the accident. The story she tells comes from the eyewitness testimony provided by Marotta and another driver who watched it unfold.
As bad as the injuries were, her spine and brain did not sustain any major damage. And exploratory surgery revealed the burst bladder, but no other vital organs were damaged.
That provided hope that healing could take place, although it would not be quick nor painless. Her mother, Teresa, who quit her job and moved in with her daughter in her Huntington apartment, said there was never a doubt she would live.
"It never crossed my mind that she was going to die," Teresa Toney said. "Call it faith, I guess. But we were taking it one second at a time."
Once awake and made aware of what had transpired, Sarah said she was focused on getting well enough to attend classes in August. That motivation was only strengthened by the support shown by pharmacy school faculty and staff and her fellow students. Dr. Janet Wolcott, a former critical care specialist, was one of the first to get to her side and later helped feed her. Her classmates visited, with some pitching in with a fundraiser to pay for a stair lift at her apartment and another finding her cat, which had been in the accident then sent to a shelter by authorities.
"We coined the word 'pharm-ily,'" Sarah said of the inaugural class. "I had so many friends with me all summer long."
To get ready, though, would take a lot of occupational and physical therapy to help her learn to walk again — a process that still requires two days of therapy each week.
Sarah said she views the ordeal as part of her personal curriculum toward becoming a hospital pharmacist, but not a path she would wish for anyone.
"I really think it will make me a better pharmacist," she said, noting that she is on six different medications. "It definitely opened my eyes to what kind of pharmacist I'll be."
Her stubbornness — her own description — helped her get back to class, but she also is getting a ton of experience in humility. Her mother moved in and does her cooking, cleaning and driving. She even walks her in to school because Sarah can't carry her own books.
"She's always done that, been behind me and everything," Sarah said, taking off her glasses to wipe her tears. "It makes me feel awful for her to be away from dad. If I could ever be half the mom she is, it's all I can ask for."
She also is taking on an inspiring role at the pharmacy school for employees and other students, Wolcott said.
"We had long talks (about her coming back)," Wolcott said. "She'll be a top-notch pharmacist. She inspires you to take yourself to new limits."
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com