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January 15, 2021

Treatment strikes a chord with patient after life-altering accident

By SharingMayoClinic

Sara Groves was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident that changed her life. Among other things, the accident left her with paralysis in her right arm. She credits her medical team at Mayo Clinic in Arizona for helping her move forward and for the courage to pick up her guitar again.

Arizona resident Sara Groves leads a purpose-driven life. From running a service whose goal is to prevent drinking and driving to serving as the co-chair of the Phoenix Police LGBTQ Advisory Board, she looks for ways to change her community for the better.

Before 2015, Sara's life was headed in a different direction. A musician and hairstylist, she expressed herself through art. But that came to a screeching halt in May 2015 when, while riding her motorcycle, she was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident that ultimately changed her world. 

Sara was on her way to visit her mom, who was in the hospital at the time, when she caught sight of a speeding vehicle. That car knocked her and her motorcycle over the median into oncoming traffic. An approaching car could not stop in time and ran her over. Despite wearing her helmet and protective jacket, Sara’s injuries were grave.

"The last thing I remember was that I saw the car come all the way up to my thigh," Sara recalls. "And then I was out."

The driver of the car that accidentally ran over Sara stayed on the scene and called paramedics. The driver of the vehicle that caused her to be projected over the median never stopped. To this day, that driver has not been apprehended. 

The accident left Sara's right arm shattered, with 20 fractures, a brachial plexus injury, and serious nerve damage, complications that changed her life. The crash also shattered Sara's clavicle, and she suffered fractures at the base of her skull, entire vertebrae, ribs, legs and scapula. She admits that she doesn’t remember the exact number of fractures she sustained. The crash also left her with neuropathy.

Sara recalls that when she regained consciousness while in the hospital, her first instinct was to try to move her right arm.

"I’m a guitarist, so being a musician, it's just natural to check to make sure you can do what you do," she says. Her fear about her right arm was confirmed. It was paralyzed.

"It wasn’t just losing arm function," Sara says. "It was my life. I was a guitarist. I was a hairdresser. I was a doer. It was very traumatic."

Meeting her Mayo Clinic team

After being treated at other Phoenix-area hospitals, where she underwent surgeries to restore function and sensation of her triceps (the muscles responsible for the extensShelley Noland, M.D., Plastic and Hand Surgery, who performed brachial plexus surgery for Sara. "It was like a rock star was coming into my room," she says.

The brachial plexus is a network of nerves that sends a signal from the spinal cord to the shoulder, arm and hand. With the goal of getting bicep function, Dr. Noland performed surgery that removed Sara's gracilis muscle from her inner thigh and connected it to her collarbone and tendons of the bicep.  

Sara’s injury to her arm greatly affected her lifestyle, including her love of playing the guitar and working as a hairdresser. She doesn’t let it discourage her. She manages to cut her own hair.

Getting creative about everyday challenges

"I have this best friend I call Duct Tape. Duct tape is my right hand," Sara quips. "In the morning when I get up, I have taped my bathroom counter with all the utensils I might need for cleaning or clipping my nails, or doing my hair."

Some chores, though, are harder than others. Eating is a particular challenge. A usually simple task like opening a packaged burrito, for example, becomes a challenge tackled with only one arm and often her teeth to help with the task. 

Unable to enjoy her hobbies or work as a hairdresser, Sara had to consider where she would go from there. A recovering alcoholic, and believing that the person who hit her was drunk, Sara decided to dedicate herself to encouraging people not to drink and drive. 

She also bought an old bread truck, decked it out with vivid artwork and laser lights, added upbeat music and a dance floor, and created the "Jam Tram." Her plan was to attract young people in the downtown Phoenix entertainment area — with the goal to have them ride safely on the Jam Tram if they had been drinking. She would only ask for a small, optional donation.

"I knew I was giving back to the community. It made me happy to know that they weren't on the street," she says. "My hope was that people were safer."

A new purpose, a sense of community

Sara is passionate about her volunteer work in the community to encourage safe driving. She maintains two forums on Facebook, one focused on overcoming adversity, and the other a brachial plexus injuries support group, where members discuss tips for completing everyday tasks. 

She still gets upset when reflecting on the accident and knowing the driver who was the cause is still somewhere out there, perhaps not even knowing what happened.

"I don't know if that person was impaired. I have no idea what was going on in that person's life at the time," Sara says. "Coping can be difficult at times, but for the most part, I try to do things that help me move forward. Being that I was not born disabled, it is hurdle after hurdle. ... But I stay focused on the positive. I keep myself challenged, trying to be a role model, and I put a lot of effort into social impact."

As the years since her accident go by, Sara says her perspective on the life-changing crash is evolving and growing better by the day. Her dedication to working with people who cope with alcoholism gives her a purpose. 

A dream of playing the guitar again

"I love Mayo Clinic," says Sara. "Before coming to Mayo, I saw some doctors elsewhere who wouldn't even say their names."

She credits her Mayo physicians, Dr. Noland, Alanna Rebecca, M.D., in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and Pelagia Kouloumberis, M.D., in Neurology, along with her physical therapists for moving her life toward acceptance — and continuing to gain strength.

"They have been fantastic," says Sara. "They go way beyond to try to do something I want, rather than something they want." 

Sara was a bit reluctant to ask, but she told her physicians that her dream is to play the guitar again. "That's my request, and the doctors have tried to help me with that, so that's awesome," she says.

"It seems like I have grown fonder of my life now, and in weird ways I am grateful for my life being altered," Sara says. "It has sent me in a better direction. Every step is a step forward."

Given Sara's dedication to working with her physical therapists at Mayo, she is more able to build some muscle strength and to flex her arm. On the night of Oct. 28, 2020, an elated Sara sent a Facebook message to legions of her friends. Thanks to a robotic brace that is helping her restore some function in her arm, she wowed herself by cautiously strumming the strings of her guitar. 

She plans to fine-tune that effort, and promises, "One day I will sing a song to the people I love."

Watch: Sara Groves talks about her journey of healing at Mayo Clinic.

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Tags: brachial plexus, Dr. Alanna Rebecca, Dr. Pelagia Kouloumberis, Dr. Shelley Noland, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Plastic Surgery

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