Sarah Frei had something important to tell her parents before she was wheeled into surgery. She just couldn’t figure out a way to say it.
It was day two of being in the hospital after the car accident on July 30, 2020, in which Sarah and a group of friends had been hit head on by a drunk driver. Sarah, age 17, was paralyzed from the waist down and sustained many injuries in the accident, including internal bleeding, damage to her abdominal aorta, a broken back, spinal cord injuries, a broken ankle, and facial fractures. And although doctors informed her that her legs needed to be amputated, she later wouldn’t remember anything that happened that day—or in the weeks that followed.
But in that moment, Sarah, who was unable to speak due to her ventilator, had something more important on her mind. For the next 15 minutes, she tried bringing her swollen hands together across her stomach in an attempt to communicate with her parents, Amy and Greg Frei. They made their best guesses as to what she wanted—but Sarah just shook her head to every suggestion they made.
Finally, the swollen fingers of her left hand successfully pushed down the third and fourth fingers on her right, forming a message that was suddenly clear.
“Oh, I love you?!”
“That’s all she wanted to tell us. It wasn’t, ‘I’m hurting,’ or ‘I need something.’ It was, ‘I just want to tell you I love you.’ It was powerful,” says Amy.
Sarah’s parents say that one message set the tone for their daughter’s entire recovery.
After that, whenever someone FaceTimed with Sarah, she continued to make the “I love you” sign to each of them, her main concern being that she wanted them to know everything would be okay. But concern for others rather than for herself isn’t unusual for Sarah. In fact, looking back, the Freis have realized that Sarah has been making the “I love you” sign all along—even as a baby, she would always suck on her third and fourth fingers, making the sign without even knowing it.
Sarah has a gift for loving people from the minute she meets them, her family says. It’s this gift of love and optimism that instinctively draws people to her—so much so, in fact, that nearly 77,000 people have started following her journey on the Instagram account “Sarah Strong,” which documents the teen’s journey since that terrible day last summer when her life changed forever.
The Small Miracles
Sarah and three of her friends were headed down Logan Canyon at about 7:30 p.m. after a trip to Bear Lake when their car was hit. The opposing vehicle was headed toward them at approximately 70 miles an hour, and there was nowhere to swerve in the narrow canyon. While Sarah’s condition was the most severe, all occupants sustained injuries such as broken bones, bruising, and back and neck pain. Based on the speed of the collision, the Freis say it was a miracle everyone survived.
Sarah, far left, and three friends during a trip to Bear Lake. Following their trip, Sarah and her friends were hit by a drunk driver in a car accident on July 30, 2020, which would make Sarah a paraplegic and double amputee.
But the miracles didn’t end there. Some bystanders at the scene of the accident happened to be off-duty Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), and one even had a cervical collar in the trunk of his car that he placed around Sarah’s neck. There was no cell service in the area, but fortunately a bystander had a satellite phone and could call for an ambulance which took 45 minutes to arrive.
“They were all conscious, all just in shock, crying, and they had these first responders that were just a blessing to them, just angels there with them,” Amy says. “Some of them have even said there were angels there with these kids, with them, protecting them—they could feel just a spirit there.”
Amy and Greg, who live in Syracuse, Utah, didn’t hear of the accident until about an hour and half after the fact when they were notified by a social worker that their daughter was in the Logan hospital. They were then in a “holding pattern,” Greg says, since they were unsure whether Sarah would be transferred to another location. Unsure which direction to drive, they received updates every 10 to 15 minutes on Sarah’s condition until they received word that she was being moved to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, nearly an hour’s drive from their home. They headed there immediately.
Amy Frei visits her daughter Sarah in the hospital.
“When you think about coping with this tragedy . . . we can’t look at it as a bad thing happening. We look at it as there were angels—there were guardian angels. There was help that was given in these kids’ time of need, and the tragedy could have been a lot worse,” Greg says. “So that brings meaning to us, anyway, as we process the events that happened.”
A Family’s Faith
Greg gave Sarah at least two priesthood blessings during his daughter’s 75-day stay at University of Utah Hospital, where she was eventually transferred. Her first amputation had been at the knee, but as more muscle tissue died, more had to be removed. But Greg had to choose his words carefully—Sarah was still unaware her legs had been amputated and he and Amy wanted to tell her about her condition when the time was right.
Then, one day, that time came.
“You know, the day she found out that she had lost her legs, her reaction to that—it just floored us. It was just amazing how she handled that. I mean, she said, ‘I’m so lucky.’ Those were her words. ‘I’m so lucky to have you.’ No tears. It was just incredible,” recalls Amy.
Just three months earlier, Amy’s mother—Sarah’s grandmother—had passed away due to breast cancer. The experience had been the hardest thing Amy’s family of seven sisters had ever been through and it brought them closer together. But Sarah’s accident deepened that connection even further, Amy’s sister Amanda Tesch says.
“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. For almost two weeks, I sat on my couch holding my phone in my hands just waiting for updates on Sarah, because we didn’t know if she was going to make it,” Amanda recalls, noting all her sisters felt the same way. “Every time I talked to Amy, I would text her, or call her, and I’d say, ‘I hope you know we’re here. My heart is with you. My heart is not here at my house. My heart is with you.’ . . . It connected our spirits. It connected our lives in a way that only this deep, terrible kind of tragedy can do.”
Amanda remembers the first time she saw her sister after the accident. At the time, Greg was taking his turn with Sarah—hospital COVID-19 regulations only permitted one parent to visit a minor every 24 hours—and Amy was at home in her bedroom. But upon hearing her sisters’ voices in her house, she left her room and was instantly encompassed by their love.
“We saw her, she saw the three of us sisters walk in, and she just collapsed to the floor and we collapsed around her. Our knees buckled. We didn’t have the strength to stand,” Amanda says.
For the next three months, Amanda says her sister and brother-in-law were like “ships in the night,” barely seeing each other long enough to give one another a hug before switching shifts at the hospital. It was a blessing, Amy says, that Sarah was still 17 years old—had she not been a minor, no visitors would have been allowed due to coronavirus precautions. And yet, this meant that sometimes Greg and Amy would go days without seeing each other. They also had to wait alone as Sarah underwent surgery after surgery—there were 20 in total—while relaying information to one another via phone calls.
“They handled it with so much grace and so much positivity and such incredible faith that they didn’t make it look very hard,” says Amanda. “They just trudged through each and every day with faith. And I just think that that was what kept them together: their faith in Christ—their faith in Christ’s power to heal or not heal—was what kept them from coming totally unglued.”
Many have supported the Frei family during this time. When Sarah returned from the hospital, the community gave her a homecoming parade, her cheer team often supported her with encouragement, and many people held bake sales and fundraisers in her behalf. Neighbors have also shown up to help with yard work, her new wheelchair-accessible bedroom was decorated by two friends, and even strangers from Japan to the UK to Australia have expressed their love to Sarah and her family.
“Just as we know there are armies of angels on the other side of the veil, there has been an army of angels here,” says Amanda. “And it’s been so moving and so incredibly beautiful and profound to watch this community rally around Sarah and her family.”
Feeling that support has meant everything to the Freis, adds Greg.
“Family and friends are an extension of heaven,” he says. “And that love is the most powerful thing on earth.”
Sarah Frei poses for a photo with her Clearfield High School cheer team following the car accident which made her a paraplegic and double amputee. Sarah was able to perform at her high school's last home game of the season and has performed with her cheer time since.
“I’ve Had Christ and Angels with Me”
Sarah has also felt the love and support of family beyond the veil. Prior to her grandmother’s passing last April, Sarah, who has a talent in calligraphy, created inspirational quotes and sayings to hang in her grandmother’s room. Those same quotes were then hung in Sarah’s room during her hospital stay, and the Freis believe that Sarah’s grandmother was watching over her during that time. Sarah says she has also felt especially close to the Savior.
“One night, I just had a really spiritual experience with my dad when I was reading scriptures about how God and angels are always with me,” Sarah recalls. “I feel like that is why I’m so happy, and that’s why I can be happy, is because I’ve had Christ and angels with me. And I can always feel the Savior walking right next to me in my wheelchair holding my hand and just being with me and supporting me through all of this.”
She adds that her relationship with the Savior and her understanding of His Atonement has deepened as she’s understood her dad’s love for her.
“There was this thing that my dad and I would do when I was just kind of having a rough day, or almost every day. He would come over to my hospital bed, just right next to me. And we would press our foreheads together and he would tell me that he was taking away my pain. And I just felt like he wanted to take away my pain just as the Savior wanted that. And the Savior wanted to take away my pains, and He did, and He suffered for me. And it’s just something that really brings me peace, and I can love the Savior just as I love my own dad and they both want the same thing for me,” Sarah says.
“Nothing Can Stop Her”
The recovery has been anything but easy while Sarah has strengthened her shoulders, arms, and core and had to relearn how to balance. She was also initially nervous to start therapy, knowing it would be difficult and she physically felt weak. But from the start, her therapists did fun activities in their sessions and even found ways to incorporate Sarah’s love of dance. She also began setting goals for herself like rolling in both directions, getting to the edge of the bed, and sitting up from the back and the side—all of which she’s achieved.
“I’ve learned so much here in the hospital,” Sarah wrote in an Instagram post. “We can always be grateful for what we have. Always say, ‘I love you.’ Compliment people if it comes to your mind! I love seeing the smile on my nurses or CNA’s faces when I give them a compliment! Thank you for all the support and for the goodness you’ve shown me and the world. I love you all!!!”
Amanda remarks that the rate at which her niece has progressed—and continues to progress—is truly remarkable.
“She had said even [recently] when I visited with her, she’s like, ‘I thought I would never be able to sit up on my own,’ . . . cause she just felt so weak and it was so difficult. But here she is months . . . later and she’s rolling over like nothing and transferring herself from the car to the couch to her bed to her wheelchair. She’s just so determined. Nothing can stop her, and that is such an inspiration to see up close.”
Her triumphs, Sarah says, are celebrated by the entire family as she has made progress throughout her recovery. And her successes have certainly added up. As she has been adjusting to her new circumstances, Sarah continues to live life to its fullest and has performed with her cheer team, gone swimming, started learning guitar, gone bowling, been on a date, and gone shopping at the mall—to name just a few.
“I’ve always been very social, and if I couldn’t hang out with friends, it would be like a disaster. I love hanging out with friends because they can always cheer me up and they’re so relatable to me and stuff like that.”
Linsey Austad, a friend of Sarah’s since elementary school, says Sarah always makes her laugh and that she “loves to make the people around her happy and smiling.” Recently, Sarah also invited her friend to join her in a Book of Mormon reading challenge, and Linsey says she’s grateful that Sarah always pushes her to be her best self.
“The biggest takeaway I’ve learned from her is living in the moment. Life—especially high school and the world we are living in today—is full of drama and arguments and silly little things that make you mad. But seeing Sarah and how she has handled things has made me realize that none of that is important. What’s important is the smiles—it’s the happy. Sarah, more than anyone, has brought this out to me,” Linsey says.
Sarah Frei with her friends in the Frei home.
Last summer before the accident, Amy spontaneously suggested that their family write letters to Sarah’s best friend and brother, Jake, who is serving a mission in Frankfurt, Germany. There was no special occasion for sending him letters through the mail at the time, but it turned out to be a tender mercy that they did: the package arrived the same day Jake found out about the accident. Unable to mourn with his family in person, having his sister’s letter to carry with him was a blessing.
Just as Sarah’s words comforted Jake in his sorrow, her brother has comforted her in many ways, and the two often talk and laugh together over FaceTime when Jake’s schedule allows. Additionally, Sarah recalls one conversation with Jake that they had before he left on his mission which has left a lasting impression on her.
“We were in the car one day, going somewhere and I was freaking out,” Sarah recalls. “I was like, ‘You’re going to be late,’ and this traffic was so frustrating. And then he said, ‘Sarah, it’s okay, there’s nothing we can do about the traffic right now, so you might as well be happy.’ And that just really helped me for everything in life. Like if there’s something you can’t control, you might as well not worry about it.”
Her brother’s words made more of an impact on her that day than either of them would realize.
“I feel like my whole life perspective mindset changed after that,” she says. “That conversation really prepared me. . . . My mindset had changed a little bit and I was happier. But now, it’s like that really [has] come into action about happiness and things that we can’t control.”
Still, while Sarah chooses to be happy despite her trials, she still has challenging times, and her Instagram page doesn’t shy away from that.
“Part of this was for Sarah . . . to be able to show, ‘I’m going to have bad days. I’m going to have frustrating days, and upset days,’ and that it’s okay. And if people aren’t always at the top of their game, they allow themselves to be down for a little bit and pick themselves back up,” says Greg, noting that for a time, Sarah was experiencing a lot of days that fit that description.
For those going through extreme challenges, Sarah says that in her experience, the most helpful thing one can do is to rely on loved ones and on the Savior.
“I would tell them that through their hard times to hang on to the people that they love the most and . . . always know that you are not alone, ever,” she says. “Always remember that He’s right by your side, and He’s dealt with it, and He knows exactly what you’re going through. And so, I would hang on to Him and the people that you love rather than pushing them away through your hard times, because it’ll definitely be worth it if you do.”
Sarah Frei pictured with her parents, Greg and Amy Frei.
Before the accident, Sarah planned on attending Utah State University and becoming an elementary school teacher—and those plans haven’t changed at all. Even though there might be some added challenges due to wheelchair accessibility, she isn’t going to let that stop her from attending the university.
“I love that determination,” her aunt says. “She’s like, ‘I’m not changing my plans. Yeah, it might be harder. Who cares?’ It’s such a great attitude. And she’s just up for . . . the challenge. She’s like, ‘I’ll show you.’”
While this trial has been emotional and difficult, Amy says that Sarah was born with confidence and a knowledge of her self-worth, which makes her able to conquer anything.
“She knows she’s a daughter of God. She knows He has a plan for her. She knows He loves her,” she says. “She doesn’t care about what other people think, and she’s going to be who she is. And she’s been such a light and an example, I think, to a lot of people.”
Sarah’s example of light is one that is clearly due to many factors—her optimism, her bubbly personality, and her faith in Jesus Christ being just some of them. But at the end of the day, so many people seem to feel Sarah’s light because she wants them to know what she wanted her parents to know that day back in August when she was lying in her hospital room unable to speak: She loves them, and she loves the Savior. And she isn’t afraid to show it.
In fact, it seems that Sarah’s love for others and for the Savior is what makes her able to rise to the challenges she faces each day with faith rather than fear. It may even be the heart of why she believes this accident truly happened to her for a reason, and why she smiles through the hard days.
“We all think that I was prepared before this for this,” Sarah says. “I’ve been blessed with the personality that I’ve been blessed with because this was supposed to happen. And I was born to be confident because of this. And I was born to always be happy because of this.”