Submitted by Denair Unified School District
July 17, 1994. It’s the day when the arc of Michelle Stevenson Fuller’s life was forever altered. The day that two of her Denair High classmates died and she was seriously injured. All were passengers in a car being driven by a drunken driver.
In the blink of an eye, so much changed, so much was lost.
Fuller’s scars – physical and emotional – remain. So does the white cross on Zeering Road, marking the site of the incident.
Friday morning, Fuller, now 38 and a mother of two, shared her story with students at her alma mater who were not yet born in 1994. Her speech was part of the school’s “Every 15 Minutes” presentation, which involved a simulated crash scene, multiple “deaths” and a memorial service to emotionally underscore the dangers of drinking and driving.
But there was nothing made up about Fuller’s example.
Not quite two months removed from graduation at Denair, she and some friends were at a party in Turlock on a typical summertime Saturday night. Music was playing. Teens flirted. And alcohol was readily available. Someone in the group knew of another party in Denair. So six teens piled into a four-seat Suzuki Sidekick with a girl who had been drinking.
“It was a solo accident; no one hit us,” Fuller said. “She lost control and overcorrected. The CHP estimated we were going 80 mph.”
The Sidekick rolled 2½ times and ended up against a tree. One of Fuller’s best friends was killed. So was a boy who was a junior and had jumped in the vehicle just to get a ride to the next party.
Another teen was badly hurt, as was Fuller, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt. She ended up pinned beneath the Sidekick, her right ankle shattered; her pelvis, left check bone and six teeth broken; her liver bleeding; and her face full of asphalt.
Amazingly, the driver and one of the other passengers survived with minor injuries.
“I have these pictures that I show of me from high school and me from the accident with asphalt on my face,” Fuller said.
Fuller’s face still is scarred. But it was her ankle injury that was the most severe. For a time, doctors told her she may never walk again. They even warned her that her foot might have to be amputated. Six pins were inserted and she wore a cast for six months. After months of physical therapy, she slowly regained some movement. Her foot was saved, but she had to relearn to walk.
“Two of the pins are still in it. It still aches today, especially after a long day on my feet,” said Fuller, who lives in Denair and commutes to her job as a charter school principal in Fresno.
She admits to having “survivor guilt” and being depressed after the accident. Her older sister spurred her to attend classes in a wheelchair at Modesto Junior College, where she once hoped to play softball.
Soon, she discovered one of the ways that helped her heal emotionally was to talk about that fateful night. That’s how she became involved with the “Every 15 Minutes” program, which is coordinated by the California Highway Patrol. Presentations are scheduled at many high schools each spring, timed just before prom and graduation season. Fuller participates a few times a year.
“I feel God saved me for a purpose,” Fuller said. It’s worth it, she said, if her story helps save even one person. “It’s very emotional, especially when I do it at Denair. I’ve done it there one other time. It really hits home because that’s my home turf.”
She tells teens who believe they’re “invincible” not to assume that what happened to her can’t happen to them.
“They go out and drink and drive, and it’s their intention to get home safe,” she said. “… I tell them they have the world in their hands right now. Don’t jeopardize all that with one bad choice.”
She also hopes her experience will motivate parents to talk with their sons and daughters about the risks of alcohol use.
“I tell parents to have that conversation. Wouldn’t you rather have your child call you and you pick them up rather than see them in a hospital, like my parents did, or worse yet, they’re dead?”