HUTCHINSON, Kan. – For 20 years, Sarah Scantlin (search) has been mostly oblivious to the world around her — the victim of a drunken driver who struck her down as she walked to her car. Today, after a remarkable recovery, she can talk again.
Scantlin's father knows she will never fully recover, but her newfound ability to speak and her returning memories have given him his daughter back. For years, she could only blink her eyes — one blink for "no," two blinks for "yes" — to respond to questions that no one knew for sure she understood.
"I am astonished how primal communication is. It is a key element of humanity," Jim Scantlin said, blinking back tears.
Sarah Scantlin was an 18-year-old college freshman on Sept. 22, 1984, when she was hit by a drunk driver as she walked to her car after celebrating with friends at a teen club. That week, she had been hired at an upscale clothing store and won a spot on the drill team at Hutchinson Community College (search).
After two decades of silence, she began talking last month. Doctors are not sure why. On Saturday, Scantlin's parents hosted an open house at her nursing home to introduce her to friends, family members and reporters.
A week ago, her parents got a call from Jennifer Trammell, a licensed nurse at the Golden Plains Health Care Center (search). She asked Betsy Scantlin if she was sitting down, told her someone wanted to talk to her and switched the phone to speaker mode:
"Sarah, is that you?" her mother asked.
"Yes," came the throaty reply.
"How are you doing?"
"Do you need anything," her mother asked her later.
"Did she just say more makeup?" the mother asked the nurse.
Scantlin still suffers constantly from the effects of the accident. She habitually crosses her arms across her chest, her fists clenched under her chin. Her legs constantly spasm and thrash. Her right foot is so twisted it is almost reversed. Her neck muscles are so constricted she cannot swallow to eat.
The driver who struck Scantlin served six months in jail for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident.
Scantlin started talking in mid-January but asked staff members not to tell her parents until Valentine's Day (search) to surprise them, Trammell said. But last week she could not wait any longer to talk to them.
"I didn't think it would ever happen, it had been so long," Betsy Scantlin said.
Scantlin's doctor, Bradley Scheel, said physicians are not sure why she suddenly began talking but believe critical pathways in the brain may have regenerated.
"It is extremely unusual to see something like this happen," Scheel said.
The breakthrough came when the nursing home's activity director, Pat Rincon, was working with Scantlin and a small group of other patients, trying to get them to speak.
Rincon had her back to Scantlin while she worked with another resident. She had just gotten that resident to reply "OK," when she suddenly heard Sarah behind her also repeat the words: "OK. OK."
Staff members brought in a speech therapist and intensified their work with Sarah. They did not want to get her parents' hopes up until they were sure Sarah would not relapse, Trammell said.
On Saturday, Scantlin seemed at times overwhelmed by the attention. Dressed in a blue warm-up suit, she spoke little, mostly answering questions in a single word.
Is she happy she can talk? "Yeah," she replied.
What does she tell her parents when they leave? "I love you," she said.
Family members say Scantlin's understanding of the outside world comes mostly from news and soap operas that played on the television in her room.
On Saturday, her brother asked whether she knew what a CD was. Sarah said she did, and she knew it had music on it.
But when he asked her how old she was, Sarah guessed she was 22. When her brother gently told her she was 38 years old now, she just stared silently back at him. The nurses say she thinks it is still the 1980s.
Her father, Jim Scantlin, understands that Sarah will probably never leave the health care center, but he is grateful for her improvement.
"This place is her home ... They have given me my daughter back," he said.