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VCSU student's recovery after lake crash nothing short of 'miracle'

Sara Gulickson

A Spiritwood, N.D., woman is returning home today after she was injured when her car plunged in Hobart Lake near Valley City, N.D., about three weeks ago.

Hospital officials called her recovery "a miracle."

Sara Gullickson, 19, recovered at Innovis Health Center and MeritCare Hospital in Fargo after she crashed the 2002 Pontiac Grand Am she was driving on April 29, landing in near-freezing water and being submerged for 30 minutes.

The Valley City State University softball player was westbound on Interstate 94 about 3:30 p.m. Witnesses say she swerved to avoid hitting a goose - an action typical of Sara, her grandmother said.

"She wouldn't kill an animal if her life depended on it, which she just about did," Connie Gullickson said.

MeritCare discharged her Thursday.

Medical professionals didn't expect such a rapid recovery, said Karen Benjamin, registered nurse and clinical coordinator of the rehabilitation unit at MeritCare Hospital.

"She's doing phenomenal and like I said, it's a miracle, and it's not a term we use lightly," Benjamin said.

After emergency responders got Sara out of the car, they performed revival procedures and transported her to Mercy Hospital in Valley City.

Sara's lungs had filled with water and her body temperature was 85 degrees, Connie Gullickson said.

"(She was) in a coma, but no body injuries," Gullickson said. "When they took her out of the car, everybody knows, she was flat-lined."

And family members feared the worst, she said.

"I didn't think that we'd have her anymore."

Sara first opened her eyes about six days after the accident.

Sara's brain was deprived of oxygen while she was underwater, Benjamin said. So Sara had to recover some cognitive, physical and psychological skills as well as other functions. Occupational, physical and speech therapists helped her regain muscle movement and strength.

"I could definitely feel that that (accident) happened," Sara said. "I could barely walk or anything."

Now Sara is speaking, walking and even skipping her way through therapy sessions. She doesn't remember the accident, but her short- and long-term memory is OK.

Part of her recovery is to rest, but Sara expects to attend her cousin's graduation this weekend in Lisbon, N.D., Connie Gullickson said.

"I can move quite a bit. I'm getting stronger every day," Sara said.

Outsiders have aided Sara's recovery, said her mother, Wendy.

Friends, family and even strangers sent cards, letters and gift certificates. Sara's Caring Bridge Web site received more than 86,000 page views.

"To see the people that were behind us and supporting us and praying is just overwhelming," Wendy said.

Many of the Caring Bridge visitors adopted Sara's penny-in-the-shoe good luck charm.

In high school, Sara found a face-up penny on the ground and put it in her right shoe before a softball game, said Scott Gullickson, her father. The team won its game that night, and Sara has continued the tradition ever since.

Some of the Caring Bridge followers also adopted the tradition, Sara said, including a softball pitcher in Michigan who heard the story.

"I can't imagine the number of pennies in people's shoes right now," Scott Gullickson said.

Sara still has some recovery to go and will continue treatment in Valley City. Hospital staff said her prognosis is good.

"I don't have any doubt that she'll get back to 100 percent," Benjamin said.

And as for Sara's family, that prognosis is something they'll take to the bank, Wendy joked.

"Vegas, here we come. She's just been so lucky and fortunate," she said.