Road to Recovery

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Maria Rea (’02) realizes now that seconds count and that she is lucky to be alive.

On February 25, 2011, the Georgia Southern alumna, wife, and mother of two, did a simple act nearly all of us have done at one time or another – answer her cell phone as she was driving to work. This ordinary distraction changed Maria’s life forever.

The innocent reflex led to a tragic, one-car accident that left Maria critically injured. Her liver, lungs and spleen were ruptured, while her hip and pelvis were shattered along with her knee, shoulder and arm. Maria’s back was broken at the T11 and T12 vertebrae. Paramedics rushed Maria to the nearest hospital where emergency room staff quickly realized her situation was dire. Although doctors wanted her airlifted to a larger hospital, severe weather at the time meant Maria, who lived in Hazlehurst, Georgia, had to be transported by ambulance to Memorial University Medical Center, two hours away in Savannah.

Although surgery would stabilize her condition, and save her life, Maria would be left paralyzed from the waist down.

She would go on to endure a total of 12 surgeries throughout her recovery. Along with the physical damage to Maria’s body, she suffered anguish over the accident, and the natural thoughts about what her life would become moving forward. The guilt. What would happen to her family? Her husband? Her kids? Her own young children as well as the boys and girls she taught as a pre-K school teacher.

Maria credits her faith and family, as well as her extended family, with inspiring her recovery. Rea spent weeks in a medically induced coma, and also spent nearly a year at Shepherd Center in Atlanta recovering from injuries doctors said were some of the most extensive they’d seen. Throughout her recovery, Rea’s number one goal was to get back in the classroom. Her husband, Shane, and two children, Dylan and Rylie Brooke, her parents, in-laws and sisters, along with support from friends, the community and her faith all gave her the support and motivation she needed. “Giving up was never an option,” she said.

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Rea, an eight-year teaching veteran, holds a degree in child and family development from Georgia Southern. She credits her time at the University for helping her find her true passion – working with children.

“My experience at Georgia Southern helped me in so many ways. I became independent there, and I did most of my studies in the family life center where I got to work with children one on one. This is really where it all started for me and I could see my career unfold,” she said.

After nearly two years of recovery, returning to the classroom was a reward in itself, Rea said. “I always loved my job, but it had so much more meaning when I returned because I fought so hard to get back there. Plus, I work with some of my very best friends and it was one big happy reunion when I came back. It was such a bittersweet moment.”

But the Universe had other rewards in store for Maria – an unexpected honor every educator would be thrilled to receive. A nod to the hard work, passion and dedication put into their jobs. A reward for impacting the lives of future generations as well as fellow educators. Through the adversity, and despite occasional self-doubts, Maria was named the 2014 Jeff Davis County Teacher of the Year.

To say being awarded Teacher of the Year was a great accomplishment for Rea is an understatement. After spending several years out of the classroom recovering, she never imagined this is where the road would lead.

“I was so honored and thrilled to be named Teacher of the Year,” Maria said. “I never would have imagined three years earlier, lying in a hospital bed at the Shepherd Center unable to move or speak, that this dream would ever come true. But through faith, a great support system and sheer willpower, it did.”

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