Desirae Swepston thought she would never walk again.
She doesn’t remember the head-on collision, or for that matter, the laborious effort by first responders to pry her from her mangled car.
The details emerge when she looks at her scars: Upon impact, her car’s dashboard caved inward, pinning Desirae’s legs against the floorboard. She was trapped and in excruciating pain. First responders used a Jaws of Life hydraulic tool to remove sections of the vehicle to get her out. The lifesaving device was in their arsenal thanks to a grant from the Gary Sinise Foundation’s First Responders Outreach program.
After five weeks in the hospital and 15 surgeries — one rod and two screws inserted into her left leg, and one pin and 13 screws inserted into her right ankle — Desirae has a new lease on life.
“Ever since then [crash], I feel like I have this whole new chance at life to do so many things that I was too afraid to do before — I was just too worried of what other people would think,” the 17-year-old said. “And I just really became who I truly wanted to be after the car accident.”
On Sunday morning, November 10, 2019, Desirae left home feeling excited and a bit nervous about her upcoming performance in her high school’s rendition of Miracle on 34th Street. She was dressed as one of Santa’s elves.
While approaching a blind turn at the top of a hill, an oncoming truck veered into her lane. The head-on collision happened only minutes away from her home. Yet none of those details from the day — not even the pancake breakfast she had with her family that morning — register in her memory.
Photos from the wreckage shock her. Fleeting dreams about the crash frustrate her. “Sometimes, it does make me think what really happened because I’ll never really know how I felt in that moment because I had the ketamine [pain medication used to induce anesthesia].”
One year later, and with more time to think about the crash than she cares to admit, Desirae explained, “I don’t think of that day and everything that’s happened. I think of what has changed my life because of it.”
She never met the man whose lapse in judgment behind the wheel upended her teenage life. But if the opportunity did arise, Desirae said, “I would ask him if he’s ok because I know that in that moment, he probably was too scared to even talk to me...I want to know more about him because if I was in his position, I would feel like I would be thinking about that kid and how they’re doing and if they’re ok.”
When she returned to campus in September for her senior year — after being homeschooled following the crash — an enthusiastic, yet tapered down, reception because of COVID-19 awaited her. “Had it been a normal year, there would have been a red carpet and a parade probably,” said Matt Dunn, who has taught Desirae since her freshman year from basic algebra to advanced mathematics this term.
In a way, 2020 became a defining year for her. Desirae was at one-time content singing in the school’s Women’s Choir just as she has done since her freshman year. Trying out for the elite Madrigals squad (the school’s cream of the crop vocalists), she assumed, was beyond her talent and potential. “Up until my senior year, I felt like I was too shy or too scared in a way to audition,” she said.
Those feelings fell by the wayside this year. Each month in her recovery (using a crutch while playing varsity tennis this summer in-between surgeries) unleashed a sense of self-assuredness with an attitude to boot: “You have to think hard, pray hard, and fight hard.” Since joining Madrigals in the fall, she’s been “super ecstatic and happy” competing in individual and ensemble performances against other schools.
Throughout her time at Waverly High School in Pike County, Ohio, Desirae has volunteered at the local YMCA, coaching children’s volleyball and helping in the afterschool program. Her good deeds also standing out in the hallways. “She’s the type of student who notices someone’s having a bad day and she would bring them something, she would write them a small note,” Mr. Dunn said.
Even with classes split between virtual and in-class, Mr. Dunn observed, “She is still looking at cheering up other people in the middle of everything going on, and that’s been very impressive.”
With coronavirus infections on the rise in recent months, Desirae has lent a hand at the community food pantry twice a month. Seeing people struggling to make ends meet has left a lasting impression on her. “I just want to help in any way. I just want to get my hands dirty and help out.”
Desirae plans on enrolling in the radiologic technology program at Shawnee State University next fall. Before classes start, she’ll spend the summertime volunteering at Jackson Township Fire and Rescue Department — working alongside the men and women who a year ago were on-scene when her young life took an unexpected turn.
The person she’s become, and the pathway to serving others she sees for herself in the future, shaped by a near-tragedy turned altruistic opportunity. “I think I might want to be a firefighter because they helped me tremendously, and without them, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the car accident.”