In a two-part series, The Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith brings the story of Sarah Scantlin, a woman who woke up from her coma after 20 years. The following is her report.
In 1984, a hit-and-run accident left 18-year-old Sarah Scantlin in a semi-conscious state. She stayed that way until earlier this year, when -for no apparent reason- she began to speak. Sarah Scantlin is not speaking in full sentences yet, and it's still hard for her to move. But her family says it's the same Sarah who left them on a terrible night so very long ago.
It's almost as if Sarah Scantlin knew that her life would be interrupted because she made the most of every minute.
"She loved life from the very first breath," says her dad, Jim Scantlin.
And she came of age in the 1980s. Besides school, there was cheerleading, parties, friends, boys. As a college freshman, she led the dance team and reveled in the life of someone who knew no limits until one day in 1984.
It was Friday, Sept. 21, the first day of autumn, after a momentous summer that had seen the U.S. triumph in the Los Angeles games and Ronald Reagan nominated for a second term. That week, a new sitcom made its historic debut. But for Sarah Scantlin, there was no time for TV.
"She was too busy living life," Jim Scantlin says.
Weekend nights were for fun, and as that September Friday night gave way to Saturday morning, Sarah Scantlin walked out of a party at a local bar unaware that a new, cruel reality was hurtling straight toward her.
It happened just after midnight. Sarah Scantlin was crossing this street with a couple of her friends when a drunk driver careened out of the darkness and hit her. The force of the impact threw her up onto his car and into the path of oncoming traffic. And the driver just kept going.
"About midnight the phone rings and Betsy finally answered it," Jim Scantlin recalls, "She came back into the room and pulled my big toe and said: 'Get up. We've got to get to the hospital. Something terrible has happened to Sarah.'
"I'll tell you. When I was awakened that night, I woke into a horrible nightmare of a new world."
"I take one look in there and it's just gruesome," Jim Scantlin says, "She is horribly mangled, especially in the head because she was hit by a teenage drunk driver, slung over in the path of another car, and that's the one that really got her -right in the head. I couldn't handle it."
His wife Betsy Scantlin adds, "To the nurses in there I said, 'When she wakes up tonight you come and get me!' And the doctor told us, 'Sarah's not going to wake up tonight.'"
Jim Scantlin continues, "The neurosurgeon sets us down -darkest, darkest day of my life - and said: 'Alright folks. I think I regret saying this but I think your daughter's going to live, physically survive, HOWEVER…' And then he starts to tell us what the head injury is. And I'll tell you, there wasn't any hope in it."
Sarah Scantlin's brain injury was massive: She could breathe on her own. But that was all. There was almost no movement, no communication, no way of knowing what she was thinking, or even if she could think at all. Her long days of silence turned into months and years.
Jim Scantlin says, "Your emotional state is like the day before a funeral, but you never get to go to the funeral and kind of start working through the process."
As the '80s became the '90s, Sarah Scantlin stayed locked away in her solitary world. Her older brother Jim, who worshipped her from the day she was born, felt the bond to his baby sister slipping away.
"I gave up hope a long, long time ago," he says.
His father adds, "There were times when it would get so grinding, I would pretend that Sarah was dead."
But early this year, when it seemed certain that Sarah Ccantlin was gone forever, something miraculous began to happen. One day this past February, the Scantlins got a call from the nursing home.
Jim Scantlin says, "Beth said, 'Someone wants to talk to you,' and she had the speaker phone on (getting emotional). She said, 'It's Sarah.' And I said, 'Sarah!' And she said, 'Hello!' And I just went numb. I don't remember very much after that."
Betsy Scantlin says, "Then I could hear Jennifer in the back saying, 'Tell her what you want! Tell her what you want!' and Sarah says, 'I want makeup!'"
Jim Scantlin adds, "All of a sudden. I began to realize that she wasn't talking about Sarah. She was talking to Sarah.
"She says 'You want to talk to her?' and I said, certainly. And I get the phone and I say, 'This is Dad'… 'Hi Dad. I love you.'"
After 20 years of floating somewhere between life and death, Sarah Scantlin was fully, and finally, awake.
Tune in Friday morning as Sarah Scantly talks about what she remembers from her old life. And what she learned when everyone around her thought she was completely unaware.