Brain-Injured Woman Regains Power of Speech after 20 Years

By Liz Townsend

Editor’s note. Today’s contribution to our year-long “Roe at 40” series illustrates a theme we have written about many times: not giving up on people who have brain injuries. Please share this happy story from the March 2005, edition of National Right to Life News with your friends and family using your social networks.

Stacia Thrash, right, helps Sarah Scantlin read a book Friday at Golden Plains Health Care Center.  (Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News)

Stacia Thrash, right, helps Sarah Scantlin read a book Friday at Golden Plains Health Care Center.
(Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News)

A simple, “Hi, Mom” and “Hi, Dad, Happy Valentine’s Day” may not seem like much. But after years of communicating only through blinking her eyes, Sarah Scantlin, 38, had just spoken her first words to her parents in 20 years.

Sarah’s first words since being hit by a car in 1984 – – “OK, OK” – – came during a speech therapy session a few weeks before. Not wanting to give the family false hope, therapists at Golden Plains Health Care Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, worked diligently with Sarah to help her speak even more, according to the Kansas City Star.

When she improved enough, Sarah called her parents. Her mother Betsy answered the phone February 4 and heard, “Hi, Mom.” Her family has been celebrating the miracle of communication ever since.

That first conversation seemed like a normal one between a mother and her daughter, but it was an answer to her family’s prayers. According to the Associated Press (AP), Betsy Scantlin responded to her daughter’s greeting with an astonished, “Sarah, is that you?” and Sarah answered, “Yes.”

“How are you doing?” her mother asked, and Sarah said, “Fine.” When Betsy Scantlin asked, “Do you need anything?” her daughter replied, “More makeup.”

Sarah also spoke to her dad and gave him an early Valentine’s Day greeting in that same first phone call. “I’ve awakened to another world again,” Sarah’s father Jim told the Star. “I thought to my last breath that I wouldn’t get to talk with her again. I just ached for that.”

A college freshman, Sarah suffered near-fatal injuries when a drunk driver crashed into her when she was walking to her car in 1984. Her first miracle occurred when she simply survived the terrible crash, the Star reported.

She underwent surgery for eight hours the morning after she was admitted, in which doctors removed a clot the size of a fist. Initially in a coma, her eyes opened after about a month. But Sarah did not appear to recognize her surroundings, giving only a blank stare, her mother told Hutchinson News.

Later, there was a second surgery. After a seven-month stay at Wesley Medical Center, Sarah was moved to the Golden Plains Health Care Center.

Over the years, Sarah made small but important strides. She was able to focus and follow someone with her eyes, very gradually beginning to turn her head when people entered the room, according to Hutchinson News.

Golden Plains Administrator Sharon Kuepker told the newspaper, “She would follow eye contact, but we couldn’t tell how much she could communicate or how much she knew when we communicated with her.” About five years after the accident, Sarah began crying out in a loud voice.

She had found her voice, according to nurse Jennifer Trammell, but couldn’t speak. “Most everyone who has been here for a long time believed she wanted to communicate,” Trammell told Hutchinson News.

There were other subtle improvements along the way. Her caregivers noticed that she could blink her eyes, once for no and twice for yes, but could not determine if Sarah could truly understand them, according to the AP.

The breakthrough came in a small group setting this January. “Sarah agreed with what was happening,” Hutchinson News reported. “She uttered an ‘OK, OK.'” Her doctors theorize that pathways in her brain had gradually regenerated, allowing her to form words.

“We’ve cried a lot” in the past 20 years, Sarah’s brother Jim told the Star. “But I spent most of last week giggling. We’re just so pleased it turned out this way.”

Sarah continues to get daily therapy. She still has difficult moments, such as when her brother asked her how old she is and she answered, “22.” When told she was actually 38, she just stared at him, according to the Star.

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But her family is content to celebrate every day they can spend with – – and speak with – – Sarah.

“I challenge anyone who says, ‘Poor thing,'” Sarah’s father told the Star. “She’s 100 percent herself, and a lot of people can’t say that. She’s full of life again. She’s delighting in being able to communicate with people. That’s her favorite thing.”

Every time her family visits, Sarah says goodbye with a smile and the words, “I love you.” Seemingly a small triumph, this means everything to her family. They expressed gratitude to Golden Plains and the caregivers who never gave up on Sarah.

“They have given me my daughter back,” Jim Scantlin told the AP.