The car crash that almost took Felicia Calderon Tew's life was unlikely: A defective seat belt ripped off and sent her flying from the compact car in what could otherwise have been a minor crash. But her recovery was more of a miracle.
With a brain injury that was expected to kill her or leave her in a permanent vegetative state, she has fully recovered.
In March, the Gilbert resident became one of three recipients of a Survivor and Triumph Award from the Brain Injury Association of Arizona. The awards are given in an effort to recognize brain trauma survivors and encourage hope among others.
The crash occurred a couple of months after Tew, now 36, graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in education and began teaching. It happened as Tew began what was to be a promising career in special education, and had been named a student teacher of the year.
Tew was in the passenger seat of a friend's sedan on the way home from a vacation in northern Arizona in November 1994. The driver began veering off the road and overcorrected, causing the car to flip and Tew's door to fly open.
She was thrown against an embankment, causing several injuries to her spine and brain to the extent that doctors said surgery was not an option. Tew's seat belt - found still plugged together - was later recalled.
"It was a choosing. Right before the accident, I asked the Lord to give me a testimony," Tew said. "He sure handed me one."
The impact burst an artery near the brain; she nearly bled to death as she lay waiting for two hours for a helicopter. Two teenage girls who had stopped to help attracted another driver who was a registered nurse and kept Tew from choking on her blood.
Her family and friends prayed, and spent months helping her recover, despite an initial lack of hope.
Today, Tew's doctors call her to the hospital to encourage or give hope to brain injury patients and their families.
"People would hear about this, and they would come to the house to talk to 'Felix' and just to get a glimpse of where Felicia had been with God," said her mother, Gloria Calderon.
Within a year of the crash, Tew learned to walk again despite the belief she would be paralyzed, and she returned to work. Once there, she said, she felt discriminated against because of her injury.
Today, she is a special-education teacher at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe. This year, she was named Latina teacher of the year by Chicanos por la Causa.
Since her recovery, Tew was inspired to get a master's degree in counseling from Arizona State University, which she just completed. Her goal is to remain a special-education teacher while counseling.
She said the unlikely nature of both her crash and survival, as well as a near-death experience, lead her to believe she was chosen to help open minds and bring hope.
"I shouldn't be able to do anything, but I'm fine."