Accident, amputation helped her turn her life around

Sarah Dean of Bainbridge Island admits she was not living the best life in 2016 around the time she was hit by a truck and almost died.

“I was headed 100 miles per hour in the wrong direction — not caring about consequences, not caring about myself,” she said Dec. 28, the sixth-year anniversary of the hit-and-run on Highway 305 at Johnson Road near Poulsbo.

Dean, 39, said the only reason she was even walking in 26-degree weather along the highway in the rain at about 7:30 that night was she got out of a car after the driver who she had drinks with started touching her inappropriately. Even though she said she is gay, Dean said she had an uneasy feeling about the guy. “I should have went with my gut.”

She ran across the highway to be safer walking toward traffic. She started “hugging the guardrail” to make sure she kept out of the road. She called her girlfriend to tell her she was on her way home. She’d only walked for a few minutes when a truck suddenly came right at her. Her reflex was to kick at the vehicle as she had just finished a kickboxing class. She was knocked over the guardrail less than a mile from her house.

“It was like in slow motion,” she said, adding she then had a spiritual experience. She saw a light or dark option to live or die. “I choose life, I choose life,” she thought. Everything went black, and then she saw the faces of family members. “I felt like my whole family was dying but not me.” She was angry because she was going to be left alone. “No you can’t have me.”

The next thing she remembers is being on her back with water all around her. She felt no pain but did see a bone sticking out and lots of blood. Despite all that, she said she was at peace. “I could have stayed there forever. From here on out, I’m not scared to die, just scared how I die.”

She knew she had to move. She did the army crawl up the embankment and lifted herself over the guardrail. She waved down three cars, and the next thing she remembers is being loaded onto a helicopter bound for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“I knew that wasn’t good” so a scared Dean fought being put into the chopper. But a woman, whom Dean described as being “very motherly,” told her: “You don’t have a choice. Everything will be all right.” Dean said she died on the copter and again later that night but was obviously brought back to life both times.

She ended up in Harborview for three months, having eight surgeries and four amputations. “There were a lot of times I wanted to die,” she said, adding she didn’t know if she wanted to live as an amputee. She went into depression because she just wanted to go home and have things be normal, but realized that would never happen.

She recalled how quiet it was just before being told her leg would have to be amputated below the knee. She was told her foot lost blood flow to it, and it’s going to turn black. You decide when to cut it off. It’s as simple as that, she paraphrased. She said she wasn’t ready, so they put her into a burn unit until she decided. After seeing the kids there she was inspired to move on.

Dean admits her stubbornness may have hurt her recovery. She started off in physical therapy, but then decided to do it herself. She taught herself to walk by getting out of her wheelchair and slowly taking it step by step to the laundry room. “I never looked back,” she said. She continued her own physical therapy by repeatedly hitting a golf ball, lying down the club, walking wherever the ball landed and then returning to the club.

Because she taught herself, she said she sometimes doesn’t use the correct form. So she has the letters “L” and “I” all over the place to remind her to keep her “leg in,” otherwise she’ll develop a limp. She then gets conscientious of people staring at her. “Being a female I’m insecure about my looks and have fragile emotions.”

Dean was a professional surfer living in Hawaii at the time of the accident. She had just come home for Christmas break. She decided that she was going to return to that lifestyle, “as soon as the doctors said I couldn’t. I love it when people tell me I can’t.” She remembers telling her family her plans at a restaurant. “Sarah, they don’t believe you,” she told herself.

Well, she did make it back. She is still a top-level snowboarder and skier, but competes in para competitions. She said her greatest athletic accomplishment was after the accident. In 2019 she placed third competing in surfing against men at the U.S. Open because there weren’t enough women to have their own event.

That led to more success. Dean said the snowboarding coach for the paralympic team happened to be there and recruited her. But she said, “COVID ruined everything,” as those conpetitions were canceled. But she will never forget that experience. “I made friends for life,” she said, including Olympic coaches and gold medalists.

Dean said she’d like to try the Olympics one more time. Snowboarding is too painful, but surfing is still a possibility, and “The rowing coach wants to meet me.” She said being an amputee gives her an advantage in athletics because it’s such a small community. “I’ve made a name for myself. I’m not ready to stop quite yet.”

WSP report

A Washington State Patrol report obtained through a Public Records Request says the felony hit-and-run involving Dean is inactive pending any further information.

Because she didn’t suffer internal injuries, she was likely hit with a glancing blow by the Dodge Dakota — the right front fender, passenger door and mirror, which was the main evidence at the scene. Pieces of the mirror were found from 21 to 85 feet from impact, the report says.

The state Crime Lab could not locate any trace evidence of vehicle paint on her clothing. Just east of the guardrail was a large pool of blood by a large rock. There was shoe scuff near the fog line and blood on the underside of the guardrail.

One witness said she saw Dean at about 5:40 p.m. and had her sit inside her car for a while. She said Dean looked “out of it.” Later, Dean said she blacked out and couldn’t remember any of that. Two other witnesses said they saw Dean at about 7:19 p.m. trying to flag down traffic. Another witness was the one who spotted Dean in the ditch just a few minutes later.

Dean had severe injuries to her right ankle area and was transported to Harrison Hospital then to Harborview. She had cuts and bruises to her face and her left eye was closed due to swelling. Her right hand was fractured, and she had a large gash on the inside of her right ankle with a broken bone.

The man she drank with said they went to a Poulsbo bar at about 4 p.m. and shared a Percocet. They then drank three shots of tequila. She was intoxicated so he gave her a ride home inside the entrance to the Eagle RV Park around 5:30 p.m. Her blood alcohol was .17%, the WSP report says.

Growing up

Dean was adopted at birth, and even though she was raised on BI, she got interested in snowboarding early in life at about age 4. Her dad who adopted her, Michael Dean, would take her all the way to Snoqualmie Pass for lessons. “Snowboarding was my first love. My snowboarding roots got me to surf,” she said.

Her mom, Barb McKenzie, said she was always adventurous, creative, athletic and ambitious. “She was not afraid to make something. She was always whipping up things that would surprise us.”

McKenzie said her daughter excelled at soccer when she was young, and then in water polo in high school. She didn’t get her athleticism from her mom. “I’m no athlete. It’s in her DNA.”

After graduating from Bainbridge High School in 2001, Dean told her parents she was moving to Hawaii to become a professional surfer, even though she had never even tried that sport before. “My parents weren’t happy at all. But I have to be me,” she said.

After just three days on Waikiki, she met a professional surfer who coached her for three years. She said she learned on some of the toughest waves in the world — the Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. “The first thing for everything for me is a full commitment to the extreme, and it ends up working out,” she said.

Also during that time she attended the University of Hawaii and got a bachelor’s degree in Communications. She then became a third-generation Realtor in the family, selling Wyndham timeshares. Her mom works for Coldwell Banker on BI, while her retired stepdad Rodney McKenzie was a developer.

Dean’s mom said she’s not surprised her daughter was able to recover from the accident and amputation to remain a world-class athlete.

“It was horrifying to watch her go through that,” McKenzie said. “But if anyone was going to recover from something like that Sarah would be the one. She will always have that drive to succeed.”

Moving on

Dean said fairly early on she forgave the driver of the truck who hit her. She figures the driver was an alcoholic, so she can’t judge as she was, too. She doesn’t even bother checking with police anymore to see if there’s any update in the investigation. The only evidence was a side mirror that came off a Dodge Dakota. “I’m doing better than they are. That person needs more help,” she said, adding she’s better off as an amputee than that person who thought they killed someone and then left the scene.

However, she said she only recently forgave a nearby casino that refused to show surveillance video that may have helped solve the crime. She alleged that could be because it may have overserved the driver. But as part of her sobriety program, she’s “making a lot of amends. Spiritually it was eating at my soul.” So she told a representative of the casino recently, “I need to forgive you, and we had a beautiful, loving conversation.”

Dean said she has always been spiritual and believed in god, “a higher power,” and that the accident may have been a blessing in disguise. “I’ve been an extremist since Day 1,” she said, adding if she had continued her extreme party behavior she “would have done something stupid.” Now she has a purpose and sets goals, “Otherwise you’re just wandering through life.”

She’s doing some public speaking to inspire others. She recently spoke to the Rotary and the Boys and Girls Club in Sequim. “I like to give people hope. If I can do it, I know they can do it,” she said.

Dean said she’s at a crossroads in life as she winds down competing for 20 years. She has a lot of interests and is unsure which direction to take.

She makes some money shooting landscape photography. Recently she’s been teaching swim lessons. She’s thought about going into prosthetic product and apparel design but thinks going back to school would be too much. She’d really like to coach in the Paralympics. And just the other day she taught a mentally challenged person to surf at Crescent Beach near Port Angeles and, “That was really beautiful.” Early in 2023, she got a job in Seattle managing a friend’s shop.

Dean said throughout her ordeals her family has been 100% supportive. She said sometimes she still feels like she’s 18. “I do care what they say,” Dean said, adding she appreciates when they reprimand her because: “I need guidance. I don’t want to screw up in life.”

McKenzie said whatever career her daughter chooses she will work hard at it and have fun. “I hope and pray she finds success, peace in life, love and happiness.”

Dean said the emotional part of the accident has been harder to deal with than the physical part. Dean said she hadn’t seen Michael Dean, her dad who adopted her, for seven years until recently; he hadn’t been able to deal with her accident. It also bugs her that she has to buy two pairs of shoes because her prosthetic is one size bigger than the other.

“It’s the simple things, like having to put on a leg to go pee,” she said. “It still can be frustrating not being able to do the things I could before.”

Sarah Dean with her mom Barbara McKenzie, who adopted her when she was young.

Sarah Dean with her mom Barbara McKenzie, who adopted her when she was young.

Putting on her prosthetic just to do the smallest things still can bother her, she says.

Putting on her prosthetic just to do the smallest things still can bother her, she says.

Sarah Dean has saved some of her old prosthetics.

Sarah Dean has saved some of her old prosthetics.

Relaxing on a sailboat.

Relaxing on a sailboat.