LAURA'S MESSAGE Laura Kahlandt shows members of Vermillion's SADD chapter the halo neck brace she had to wear as she healed from injuries caused by driving drunk. By David Lias Three years ago, Laura Kahlandt was living life to the fullest.
She was 19, a sophomore at USD studying math education, with a handful of close friends at Tekamah, NE, her home town.
Laura also had a secret.
For a good five years, those fun times with her friends almost always included alcohol. And Laura found nothing wrong with getting drunk.
Today, she knows better. She has matured greatly.
She regrets, however, that she nearly had to lose her life to realize she was heading down a destructive path.
Those nights partying with her friends always ended, in Laura's opinion, with no harm done.
She made it safely home to bed, and her parents were none the wiser.
The partying continued, overflowing with fun and alcohol. Laura was convinced that her drinking would never rob her of an overwhelming sense of self-control.
"When I was in high school, we would have parents come talk to us," she told the Vermillion chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). "My reaction was always, 'oh, whatever, I drink and drive all of the time, and nothing bad is ever going to happen to me.'
"It wasn't a big deal, the older kids did it, I could do it, it was no problem," she said. "I was really familiar with all of the roads around my hometown. If there was a party somewhere, I knew my way home."
Her knowledge of the dangers of drinking and driving wasn't limited to lectures given by well-meaning speakers.
"I had seen a drinking and driving accident when I was in high school," she said. "I just told myself, 'well that happened to her; it didn't happen to me or to my friends'."
That all changed in the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 2001.
"I'm going home"
Laura was a sophomore at USD that fall. She drove home to Tekamah to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family.
But first, she celebrated with her friends.
"My high school friends, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, decided to hang out and party," Laura said. "We ended up at a friend's house and started drinking, and eventually decided to attend a house party 20 miles away."
The group of college girls packed up coolers full of beer, got into their cars, and quickly arrived at the house party.
"We were drinking and having a good time," she said.
Eventually, however, the party began to break up. Night had turned to morning. In a few hours, the sun would be rising.
"My friends' buddies were leaving. At 3 a.m., my friend who lived at that house was getting ready to leave to take one of his friends home.
"He said 'Why don't you just stay at my house, and we'll call your parents in the morning?' I said, 'No, my parents will freak out. I'm going home; I've driven this road a million times, and I'm going home'."
Laura believes she had consumed 11 or 12 beers that night when she got behind the wheel of her car to leave the party. "And I had more in the back seat waiting for me."
She gave a friend a ride home. Laura then steered her Chevrolet onto a familiar stretch of road for what she thought would be an easy journey home.
It's the last thing she remembers about that morning.
"To get from his house to my house, you have to take a black-topped, back road," Laura said. "I had driven it to work countless times, so I was flying over it. I think I was going about 90 miles per hour."
She lost control. The car skidded across the highway, rolled, and landed on its top in the ditch.
"The next thing I remember, I was lying, freezing cold, on the dome light of my car. I had no shirt on, and I was laying there, and I just passed out again," she said. "I didn't care. I was so tired, and I was so drunk."
Slowly, the fog caused by the accident and the alcohol began to subside.
After lying in her car several hours, she awoke at 8:30 a.m. with a realization of what had happened.
"My neck hurt and my sides hurt. I crawled out of my car and climbed out of the ditch, and walked up a hill toward a farmhouse," Laura said.
A farmer spotted her walking on the road as he was about to pull out of his driveway.
"He picked me up and took me to his house and called the ambulance, and put blankets around me," she said.
Laura was taken to a local hospital, and eventually traveled by air ambulance to the Creighton University Medical Clinic in Omaha, NE.
"I found out I had cracked my C-2 vertebrae, which is the second one down," she said. "That was on Thursday, Thanksgiving day. I was in intensive care until the Monday after Thanksgiving."
Initially, Laura laid immobilized, with her neck in a brace. "They had five pound weights right next to my neck," she said.
The following day, Laura was fitted with a halo � a device that closely resembles something found in a medieval torture chamber.
The main purpose of the halo is to immobilize the head and neck. This is the most rigid of the cervical braces. It is only used after complex cervical spine surgery or if there is an unstable cervical fracture.
The halo looks a lot like the word sounds. It has a titanium ring (halo) that goes around the patient's head, secured to the skull by four metal pins.
The ring then attaches by four bars to a vest that is worn on the chest. The vest offers the weight to hold the ring and neck steadily in place. Patients must wear the halo 24 hours a day until the spine injury heals.
"They (the doctors) screwed this right into my skull," Laura said, lifting her halo to give SADD chapter members a good look. "The halo keeps your neck your straight. I wore it for three months.
"I couldn't shower, I had to take baths, and I had to have a friend wash my hair," she said. "The vest is lined with sheep's wool and I couldn't get it wet."
Laura's life changed drastically. It was difficult for her to get a sense of well-being with a metal brace screwed into her head.
"I couldn't sleep in a normal bed. I slept in a recliner. It was the easiest way for me to sit up," she said.
She returned to USD a week after receiving the halo. So much had changed.
She no longer had a car. She was in pain much of the time.
And, she couldn't focus in class.
"My grades suffered immensely. I missed four tests while I was in the hospital. I couldn't concentrate on anything," Laura said. "Even going into the next semester, I still couldn't concentrate."
In the meantime, law enforcement had pieced together what happened to Laura the morning of the accident.
She laid unconscious in her car for four hours.
At 10 a.m., approximately six hours after the accident, her blood alcohol level at was at .072.
"The legal limit is .08 in Nebraska and in South Dakota," Laura said. "They (law enforcement) figured my blood alcohol level was at .201 at 4 a.m. when I had my accident."
She may not have been legally drunk when she finally arrived at a hospital that Thanksgiving morning, "but I had to go to court because I had beer all over in my car. I reeked of beer. "They wanted to charge me as a minor in possession. I got what's called zero tolerance from the state's attorney," Laura said. "I lost my license for 30 days."
A new awareness
Today, Laura lives with a new sense of freedom, and an awareness that she came so close to ending or significantly altering her life early that Thanksgiving morning.
The halo that caused her so much discomfort now serves as a very effective prop when she talks about the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
"I've stopped drinking and driving, and I don't party as much," she said. "And especially right after everything that happened, emotionally and physically, I was drained."
She's thankful that she's made nearly a full recovery from her injuries.
Her body, however, will probably always provide nagging reminders of the accident.
"After the doctors took the halo off, everything has been fine," she said. "But if I sit in class too long, my back hurts and my neck hurts. When the weather changes, I get pain all the way down my back."
The crash crumpled Laura's car and wreaked havoc with her body. She cracked not only a vertebrae, but several ribs.
"I have some damage to my hip ? some nerves get numb," she said. "And I have some shoulder problems from laying on my car's dome light."
Laura knows that things could be much worse.
"I just feel very lucky today. I know a girl who was in a drinking and driving accident, and she's not doing as well," she said. "She's had to learn how to walk, how to talk, how to learn to use her hands and how to write.
"I could have very easily ended up in a wheelchair," Laura said. "But I never thought these kinds of things would ever happen to me."
Bits and pieces
After she was free of her halo, Laura grabbed her camera and visited the crash site. Her car's tracks were still visible.
"Four months after the accident, you could still see the tire tracks in the dirt," she said.
Bits and pieces of her life were strewn through the ditch.
"I found my portable CD player, a deck of playing cards, and the cap from my car's gas tank," Laura said. "Broken glass was everywhere."
Laura fortunately was wearing her seat belt. The airbag of her car also protected her during the rollover.
She believes she hung limp from her seat belt for a time, and eventually fell out of it, landing on the dome light. In a combination of drunkenness and discomfort, she believes she stripped off her sweater.
But she doesn't remember.
"A lot of my friends let me go on my way that night, even though I had been drinking too much," Laura told the SADD chapter members. "When I came back to college, all of my friends really got in the habit of taking turns being a designated driver."
A simple request
Laura terms her recovery from the accident "the longest three months of my life, and I hope nobody has to go through it, because it is physically and mentally exhausting."
That's why she decided to start speaking to young people while she was still recovering � even before her halo was removed.
"I discovered you can stand up and tell anyone anything you are passionate about," Laura said. "I could have easily killed somebody else. I wanted, in some way, to stop people from drinking and driving."
It's the same type of message she herself rejected so many times.
Laura doesn't expect everyone to listen.
"If I can get to that one person, I could save one life, or I could save five lives � you never know," she said. "I'm asking everyone to please not make the same mistake that I did. It was scary, and I don't wish it upon anybody."
Clay County Deputy Sheriff Dallas Schnack, an advisor to the local SADD chapter, said he asked Laura why she's determined to speak to young people about her accident.
"She said 'You look for one person. One person at a party. One person anywhere can stop something like this from happening,'" he said.
Schnack noted that it's difficult to tell people to not drink and drive.
"It comes off as 'if you drink, you're evil,' and that's never the message that's being sent out," he said. "The message being given is that you need to be responsible."
SADD chapter members, he said, eventually will find themselves in a situation involving alcohol "in which a decision needs to be made. Let Laura's message sway you toward making the right decision. Don't make a destructive decision."
"I am a firm believer in God, and I feel sometimes that this is what he put me on earth to do," she said.