From tragedy to triumph

Published 8:54 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2009

It was the summer of 2007. Savannah Smitherman was looking forward to starting her senior year at Chilton Christian Academy. In less than a year, she would be walking across the stage and getting her diploma. After that, the sky was the limit.

But all that changed July 18 at the intersection of Friendship Road and Highway 145 in Clanton.

Savannah was getting ready to pull out on Highway 145 when she saw an 18-wheeler approaching with its turn signal on. But when the truck didn’t turn, it struck Savannah’s car on the driver’s side.

Savannah was treated on the scene and airlifted to UAB hospital. She has no memory of the next two days.

When Savannah woke up, she found herself in the intensive care unit of UAB. She couldn’t feel any pain but soon discovered she was unable to move her arms and legs. It must be because of the medicine, she thought.

“I thought I was fine,” she recalled.

In reality, Savannah’s neck was broken. The wreck had injured her brain stem and part of her spine, paralyzing her body.

“Savannah didn’t have any speech whatsoever for about three months,” said her mother, Phyllis. “She couldn’t swallow. She could only move her eyes.”

In order to communicate, Savannah would roll her eyes back and forth. A nurse would have to close her eyelids for her at night, however, so her eyes would not dry out.

The news from doctors wasn’t very encouraging. They said there was no hope for recovery, even when Savannah showed slight movement in her legs.

“Most of the time the doctors would say it was an involuntary movement,” Phyllis said.

But encouraging words from nurses, friends and family allowed the Smithermans to keep hope that Savannah would get better. And gradually, she did.

On Oct. 22, 2007, Savannah got to go home. Wheelchair bound and unable to return to school, she started home schooling and was soon able to complete Spanish and economics.

But outpatient therapy and rehabilitation made it difficult to continue the home schooling. Academically, she would have been able to finish with her class, but she decided to take it slow.

In August 2008, Savannah returned to school full time with a fresh start. She had no problem making friends with her new classmates, who would help carry her books to and from class.

Friday night, Savannah will walk across the stage and receive her diploma. She is co-salutatorian of her class.

Chilton Christian Academy Principal Charles Gotshall said Savannah is a big inspiration to everyone who knows her.

“To see what she’s gone through and to still have a good spirit — when you see somebody like that, you’ve got to admire them a lot,” he said.

Savannah’s future plans include attending Jefferson State Community College, then returning to UAB —this time to become a nurse.

“I’ve always wanted to become a nurse, but now I really see the need and that nurses are an important part of people’s recovery,” she said.