From brink of death to competitive edge


When Sandra LaPlanche travels to Los Angeles in February to participate in the Miss Fitness USA pageant, it will be her first trip to the West Coast.

But the distance the Pasadena woman will have traveled is more than can be measured in miles.

In July 1992, the car she was driving was struck head-on by a vehicle driven by a drunken driver. She was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma. Her brain was bleeding, her neck broken in three places, her jaw, collarbone and knee fractured, her face disfigured.

Doctors doubted she would live through the night. Her priest administered last rites. No one could have imagined that she would even live, much less walk. And certainly no one could imagine that within a year after the wreck, she would enter her first fitness contest.

Ms. LaPlanche knows what she will tell the judges in the February contest: "I personally experienced the essence of fitness: a strong mind that makes you persevere, a strong body that helps you endure and a strong soul to believe."

Doctors attributed Ms. LaPlanche's quick recovery to her overall fitness and strong will to live. An exercise buff since high school, Ms. LaPlanche was starting to train for the Miss Maryland Bodybuilding contest and had aspirations to model before she was injured.

Today, she has no recollection of the night she was hit while driving from a bar in Arbutus. Nor does she remember the first two weeks she spent in Shock Trauma.

Most of what she does recall of those subsequent days was the pain of having her tracheotomy cleaned, the discomfort of wearing a halo to keep her neck in place, the friends and relatives who supported her and her determination to get out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Doctors expected her to stay in Shock Trauma for three months. She was out in 2 1/2 weeks. She was sent to the Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital. They told her she would be there at least two months. She was home in three weeks. Less than two months after going home, she was back in the gym, lifting light weights to regain her strength.

She said the wreck has changed her forever. Although not to blame in the accident, she now is more careful driving. She insists passengers in her car wear seat belts, which she believed helped save her.

"I have a whole different outlook on life," she said. "I appreciate things a lot more. I appreciate even simple things like taking a shower."

Although scars from the accident are still evident on her face and neck, she hopes plastic surgery will remove nearly all traces of the injuries. She still suffers from headaches and some memory loss, but her body has recovered. In fact, she received the highest marks in physique at the Miss Fitness New Jersey contest in July.

"I didn't even imagine me coming back as quickly as I did," she said.

As fifth runner-up in fitness contests in Washington, New Jersey and Maryland, she qualified for the Miss Fitness USA contest in Los Angeles.

With her body in shape, the 24-year-old bartender has been concentrating on the talent portion of the contest, her martial arts routine.

Ms. LaPlanche said she wants to do well to set an example for others who may face impossible odds.

In addition to her bodybuilding, she wants to work for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, letting others know the tragedies that can result from drinking and driving. She also wants to promote physical fitness, which she believes saved her life. "I'd like to be -- an inspiration for others," she said.

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