The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 3, 2013

Lucky No. 13? Return to volleyball has Mapleton girl pushing through recovery

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

— Sabrina Bushlack’s favorite number is still 13, despite the lucklessness she endured one summer day when a careless driver left her for dead on an Indiana street.

Still 13, even after all that?

Why not? she reasons, because if you look at it another way, she’s lucky to be alive.

The Mapleton resident and senior at St. Mary’s University in Winona has returned to college and her volleyball squad teammates much sooner than her doctors had surmised.

“They said, ‘Don’t even think about coming back for a year,’” she says.

But they underestimated the will of an athlete who doesn’t want her volleyball days to end until her body tells her so.

And since the accident, she’s essentially been telling it to hold off on any call of surrender until she’s sweated through all the requisite rehab.

“I’m going about this as if I’ll play again.”

She hopes to rejoin her team for its preseason training regimens leading up to the fall volleyball schedule. That’s when she’ll have that inner chat with herself.

Her coach Mike Lester says he wouldn’t bet against her.

“She’s such a hard-working kid. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she could come back. Our hope right now is that she can join us this spring on a limited basis.”

Meantime, the United South Central High graduate who hopes to be a large-animal veterinarian is working out daily to up her percentages. By her estimates, she has 80 percent of her memory back and 60 percent of her strength.

Not bad, considering the crash put her into total respiratory failure, necessitated a nine-day coma, fractured her skull, erased five weeks of her memory, and forced her to spend 50 days in hospitals.

All because a 24-year-old woman suspected of driving drunk blew through a red light on a Fort Wayne, Ind., street and plowed broadside into a taxi Bushlack was riding in.

Depressed afterward? Sad? Mad?

“All of the above,” she says.

In July, Bushlack was participating in a Fort Wayne beach volleyball tournament. After a night out on the town, she and her friends got into a cab. Bushlack sat in front, the others in back.

The careening driver smashed into the front-passenger side of the taxi and fled the scene.

Apprehended later, it was learned she was operating an uninsured car, she possessed only a learner’s permit, and the vehicle contained an open alcohol container at the time of the accident.

No one else in the cab was injured, and by a stroke of that “13” luck, a hospital was only four blocks away. That comes in handy when one’s heart stops and paramedics can arrive within moments.

At the hospital, the 5-foot-10 well-conditioned Bushlack says she was a handful after being put into a medically induced coma due to swelling on her brain. In her delirium a team of nurses had to hold her down as she tried to rip IVs from her body.

She was transferred to a Rochester hospital, and months of speech and physical therapy followed.

Her cognitive functions began to improve, sometimes in strange ways.

“I couldn’t remember my mom’s first name. Remembered her middle name, though. And I kept thinking I was in St. Peter.”

Now, her daily workout routine consists of 90 minutes in the gym performing a slew of exercises.

She says during her ordeal she lost 35 pounds — a good deal of that muscle acquired from weightlifting — but has gained back much of it. She’s also working to improve her vertical jump. It was 22 inches pre-accident; it’s 15 inches now.

Although Bushlack says her motivation is driven by her desire to play volleyball again, she harbors no illusions that it’s a done deal.

Whatever happens, her coach says there will be a place for her, either on the team or as an integral part of it.

“With Sabrina, even prior to the accident, she brought so many things to our team beyond the court.”

Including her inspirational jersey — No. 13, naturally — that the team last season placed on the bench at every match.