In June of 2005, Dara and David Wanzer threw a huge party and invited hundreds of their friends and the health care workers that had nursed Dara back from a traumatic injury that could have left her life devastated.
This was a celebration of life and love. It was held at Will Rogers Theater.
The two told their friends, “There's going to be booze and there's going to be food and everybody's going to have a great time.” The partygoers were in for more than just booze and fun, they soon found out.
As the party got underway, it became clear that this wasn't just any party. Dara and David secretly had planned the event as a flash wedding of sorts.
“As soon as I got out of the hospital, I knew I was so grateful for my fiance and how much he'd done for me. I thought ‘OK, why have we been wasting so much time?'” Wanzer said.
After a seemingly minor accident caused major trauma to Dara's brain, the couple, who had been together for years, gained a new perspective on the fragile nature of life and love.
“The bond between us had strengthened so much and we just thought it was really important to go ahead and get married as quickly as possible,” David Wanzer said.
It was the best wedding ever, Dara Wanzer said. About 300 people were there, 30 of whom had been directly involved with Wanzer's therapy and rehabilitation.
“The best part about it is that we wanted it to be this enormous thank-you party for all of my caretakers and all the people that had done so much for me,” Wanzer said. “I hope that they understood that it was a tribute to them. It was awesome. I will never regret it.”
An ‘egregious mistake'
Nobody knows exactly what happened the day in November 2004 that left Dara Wanzer with a gaping hole in her memory she'll probably never retrieve.
She and a friend were riding around her neighborhood on his new scooters. About two blocks from Wanzer's home, her friend looked back from his scooter and saw Wanzer on the ground.
The next thing she remembers is emerging from a mental fog after a coma and a period of semiconsciousness.
Apparently she'd fallen from the scooter and her head took the brunt of the impact on the asphalt road.
“I wasn't wearing a helmet, which was a huge, egregious mistake in hindsight,” Wanzer said.
She was immediately taken to OU Medical Center, where she spent two days in a coma followed by two weeks in a state of semiconsciousness before the fog lifted and she became aware of her surroundings. She saw her fiance there by her side, as he had been since the evening of the accident.
David Wanzer had spent most nights sleeping in a pullout bed in her hospital room. When he couldn't be there, Dara's father would be.
“I thought it was very important for me to be there. I wanted to be there and give her a familiar face,” David Wanzer said. “I wanted to give her the constant support and love to get the best recovery possible.”
Dara Wanzer's fall from that scooter resulted in three severe brain injuries, bleeding and swelling of the brain and a broken collar bone. A large portion of her brain atrophied and died as a result of the pressure and bleeding.
Wanzer needed specialized therapy to help her rebuild the functions of thinking, reasoning and speech in her brain that had been destroyed in the accident.
A few of her advocates pushed to get her admitted to Integris Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation.
There, her physical therapy was intense, with physical and cognitive therapies, major speech therapy, and even classes to relearn daily functions such as cooking and brushing her teeth, she said.
“I basically had to learn how to think again because there is literally a chunk of my brain missing,” she said.
Wanzer was released after about three weeks of intensive therapy at Jim Thorpe and was overjoyed to go home, though her therapists said she still had a long way to go and that she was then functioning at the level of an eight grader. She didn't care — she was ready to go home.
Once home, Wanzer continued her therapy, keeping busy exercising her brain.
“I spent a lot of time doing puzzles and reading, charting those new pathways,” she said.
She also spent a lot of time planning the surprise June wedding, the Wanzers' celebration of life and love.
Coming full circle
That fall, not even a year after her accident, Wanzer went back to OU School of Law to finish her law degree. After graduation, she worked at a few law firms but her gratitude for the health care workers who cared for her had her longing to work in the health care field.
About seven months ago Wanzer came full circle and is now back at Integris — not as a patient this time but as Integris's Human Resources attorney. Her determination to follow her dreams of a law career, to survive and thrive despite her brain trauma, and her strength of spirit are just a few reasons she is receiving a Jim Thorpe Courage Award on Saturday. These days, not surprisingly, “Wear your helmet” is Wanzer's manifesto. She and her husband, now married for eight years, spend every day celebrating life, love and the wondrous human brain.