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Teen crash victim receives royal treatment at Kaneland

Sam Garcihomecoming dance. | Submitted photo

Sam Garcia at the homecoming dance. | Submitted photo

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Updated: November 18, 2012 6:13AM

Samantha Garcia was more than a little nervous about going to the Kaneland High School homecoming football game Friday night — her first school event after missing all of her senior year so far because of a serious car accident in July.

But it turned out to be an evening fit for a queen.

The 17-year-old Montgomery girl — in a wheelchair, wearing the #57 jersey of left tackle Zack Thies and her face smeared with black paint — accepted her homecoming crown at an emotional halftime ceremony that also celebrated how far she’s come since the accident.

“She was overwhelmed,” said Lisa DeFranze of the warm reception her daughter received at the game, not to mention the surprise of being named homecoming queen. “She was so happy, although later she told me she hoped she didn’t win just because of the accident.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, no one can argue Sam Garcia didn’t deserve it after fighting back so hard when her life took a sudden and near fatal swerve in the road.

She wasn’t even a mile from home when it happened.

Her mother had warned her about the roads in this predominantly rural school district. Too many Kaneland kids over the years did not live to see graduation because of the many miles of country roads and highways. And that stretch of Route 30, from her home on the far northwest side of Montgomery to Route 47 had seen more than its share of accidents.

Sam was heading to Elburn to spend the night with best friend Baylee Lancaster when she veered off the gravel-lined asphalt, tried to overcompensate and rolled her car a half-dozen times, according to the accident report. Ejected from the vehicle — she was not texting or speeding but failed to buckle her seatbelt — Sam landed 50 yards away, face down in a bean field.

Luckily, a couple of witnesses quickly called for help. She was airlifted to Loyola University Medical Center with fractured ribs and a crushed right arm — along with brain trauma so severe, the doctor told family “the Sam they knew would not be back.”

But Sam is a fighter ... spunky and motivated, says her mom. And gradually, as summer turned to fall, those who loved her watched a slow awakening. Movement under closed eyes. A yawn. A slight grip that grew ever so stronger. Eyes open. Tracking. Finally, six weeks after the accident, she said her first words — “Hi. I’m sorry.”

Two weeks ago, Sam took her first steps.

The best way to describe her daughter’s progress, says DeFranze, was comparing it to a beautiful glittery present that slowly began to unwrap — gradually revealing the gift inside.

Buoyed by a community that rallied behind her during her month at Loyola, and another two months at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center in Wheaton, Sam was eager — and nervous — about her first appearance in public last Friday night. Even before her name was announced as homecoming queen, she was surrounded by a circle of fans, many of them wearing the light blue “Rowdie Shirts” that bear her name, a butterfly and the phrase: this too shall pass.

It was the same design and phrase that only months before the accident Sam had tattooed — with much opposition from her mom — on her ankle.

“I didn’t want her to get it,” said DeFranze, “but now I see how perfect it is.”

Half the proceeds from those Rowdie shirts will go toward helping Sam’s family with medical expenses. The community also held a benefit in September to help with costs. DeFranze said she had to quit her job in retail sales to give her daughter the round-the-clock care she needed. Even now, “it takes an hour just to get her dressed in the morning.”

Sam, who was the third basemen on the Knights softball team, gets frustrated at times with the slow pace of her recovery. She was always health conscious, eating right, working out, said DeFranze. “It’s hard for her to accept the fact she can’t just jump on a treadmill.”

Although she had not planned on going to the homecoming dance the following night, after receiving her crown at Friday’s football game, Sam knew she had to be there to head up her royal court. It was a good thing she had bought her dress a month before the accident, her mom noted.

There’s no doubt the weekend went a long way in helping Samantha reclaim her senior year. A tutor will soon begin helping her get caught up with her studies, and Sam hopes she can be back at Kaneland full time next semester to graduate with her class.

Her dream is to become a nurse. And this veer in the road has only reaffirmed that desire.

Doctors have said it may take time, but a full recovery is not out of the question.

Those who know her agree: If anyone can do it, Sam can.

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