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Horrors of crash with drunk driver relayed to high school students

Tiana Tozer was a young woman with big ambitions and "everything in the world" going for her.
Tiana Tozer, who suffered debilitating injuries to her legs in a 1988 crash with a drunk driver, speaks to Duchess Park Secondary School students on Thursday.

Tiana Tozer was a young woman with big ambitions and "everything in the world" going for her.

A second-year student at the University of Oregon, she was studying for a career in international diplomacy with a dream of becoming the United States' ambassador to France. Tozer had even been accepted into the University of Lyon for her junior year.

But on May 14, 1988, a "beautiful spring day," she hopped into the back of a car with three friends and, for reasons she could not explain and against her usual practice, decided against putting on her seatbelt.

"We were heading up the street in Eugene, Oregon and all of a sudden there was a flash and I was on the ground," Tozer told an assembly of Grade 12 Duchess Park Secondary School students on Thursday.

They had been broadsided by a drunk driver who had missed a stop sign partially blocked by a tree growing in a nearby home.

"Without the seatbelt restraint I was thrown out of the car and run over by a 3,000-pound vehicle," Tozer said.

She initially thought she had suffered two broken legs and would be out of the hospital in a couple of weeks.

"Boy, was I wrong," Tozer said.

Facing the likelihood she would not live, physicians transfused her body with blood 2 1/2 times. And while she survived, everything from her left hip down had been broken and the possibility remained that she would lose her lower right leg.

"The muscles had been crushed so badly that they were no longer getting the blood they needed and they were dying," Tozer said.

Tozer was in hospital for the next month and three days, going through surgery every other day as physicians searched for the dying muscle before it became infected and forced them to amputate her leg above her knee.

They removed so much muscle that bone was exposed. They tried filling in the gap with a flap of flesh from a shoulder blade but after a couple days, it had turned blue and had to be removed. More drastic action was taken in the form of taking some muscle from her lower left leg, pulling it over the bone and attaching it to the tendons. But that too failed.

In less than two weeks, she had lost 30 pounds from her 6'1" frame and was down to a scant 135. At the best of times, a woman of her stature needs 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day just to maintain her size. Too heal from those injuries, she needed twice that but was barely eating at all and had to be fed intraveneously.

Through it all, Tozer was in a state of denial believing she would be walking again, just like she had before the crash. She left the hospital in a wheelchair and deeply depressed.

"I was 20 years old and I didn't want to live anymore," she said.

The drunk driver - whose blood alcohol-level was .09, barely above the legal limit of .08 in Oregon - has also paid dearly.

He was driving without a licence, due to a previous driving while impaired, and without insurance and so, has had to bear the full brunt of the more than $250,000 worth of reconstructive surgery Tozer has had to go through over the years.

Each month for 25 years, Tozer would get a cheque for $200 in the mail. Then they stopped even though he still had $160,000 to pay off. As a result of the crash, he was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon which severely limited his job prospects.

"He was unemployed," Tozer said. "He was having difficulty finding employment and the cheques stopped coming.

"For the rest of his life he will never get out from underneath that debt...for the rest of his life he will be paying for the consequence of his actions on May 14, 1988."

Tozer said she too, will continue to pay for the consequences of her actions and noted she has gone through 34 reconstructive surgeries and counting. At one point, she showed a photo of the "bloody, mangled thing" that was once her lower left leg leaving her audience feeling squeamish.

Despite it all, Tozer has led a remarkably accomplished life. She twice played for the USA women's wheelchair basketball team at the Paralympics, winning a silver and a bronze medal. and she has been humanitarian worker in Iraq helping people with disabilities advocate for themselves in that country.

And while she walks with a severe limp more and more she is able to get around without a wheelchair.

Tozer credits "strong support" from the people around her, notably her mother, for bouncing back.

"Even though this awful thing had happened to me, my mother still had expectations of me," Tozer said, noting she was a single mother who worked as a church secretary. "She expected me to do the best I could with what I had and be a contributing member of society."

Tozer was in Prince George as part of an Insurance Corporation of British Columbia campaign to encourage students to keep safe driving at top of mind, particularly as graduation season looms.

On average, seven youth are killed and 400 are injured in 1,800 crashes each year in the North Central region, according to ICBC.

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