'Sober Prom' brings tears

Assembly a painful reminder of ugliness of drunken driving

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The short walk from the front-row seats in Steamboat Springs High School's auditorium to the on-stage podium is hardly remarkable -- unless Steamboat Springs resident Mike Westphale is the one doing the walking.

Westphale, 21, a 2000 graduate of the high school, made an emotional return Thursday morning to the same auditorium where he once sat through four "Sober Prom" assemblies.

The school holds Sober Prom assemblies annually during prom week, and like past assemblies, tears accompanied Thursday's painful reminder of the devastation drunken driving inflicts on individuals, families and communities.

Pausing periodically to catch his breath and calm his nerves and emotions, the former hockey player shared his firsthand experience with drunken driving with a packed-house audience.

Just five months ago, Westphale was a student at Denver's Metro State University, dividing his time among studies, work and friends. Just after the New Year, Westphale and a friend planned a road trip to California.

Westphale traveled only a few city blocks before his trip -- and his life -- suffered a tragic twist.

Completely sober, Westphale was driving through an intersection when his car was T-boned by another vehicle. The other driver, a 22-year-old with a young son and a fiancee, was drunk.

Westphale's injuries were extensive: Collapsed lung. Broken bones. Lacerations to his spleen. Brain trauma. The list goes on.

Doctors at Denver Health Medical Center gave Westphale a 5 percent chance of surviving his injuries.

He spent the next three weeks in a coma. Feeding and breathing tubes protruded from his body and his hands and ankles were bound to the bed to prevent what doctors called "severe agitation."

Wayne Westphale, Mike's father and a Steamboat attorney, recalled receiving the phone call at 3:40 a.m. the morning of the accident.

"It was probably the most sobering call I've ever gotten," he said. "The blood just drained from my body when I got that call."

Wayne Westphale and his girlfriend were in a car and driving through a snowstorm over Rabbit Ears Pass just minutes after the receiver was back on the hook.

When he arrived at Denver Health Medical Center, Westphale pushed past security and into the emergency room. Fighting back tears as he recalled it, the elder Westphale explained the brief time he spent in the ER.

"I was there only long enough to answer the question: Is this your son? That's the hardest 'Yes' I've ever said."

Wayne Westphale spent much of the next two months at his son's bedside.

"Most of the time he was unconscious," Wayne Westphale recalled.

Despite doctors' grim predictions, Mike Westphale slowly began to recover. Wayne Westphale said his son only survived because of the proximity of Denver Health to the accident scene and because a police officer was tailing the drunken driver.

Mike Westphale eventually was transferred to Denver's Craig Hospital, one of the nation's most renowned rehabilitation facilities, where six rehabilitation sessions each day retaught him how to talk, walk and perform other everyday functions that, Westphale now knows, too many people take for granted.

"Gradually, I learned how to walk," Westphale told the silent crowd of high school students Thursday. "But all of this is something I hope no one will have to experience."

Unfortunately, Westphale's hope will not come true.

In 1999, 15,786 people were killed in alcohol-related accidents, an average of one death every 33 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin-istration. Hundreds of thousands more are injured every year in alcohol-related accidents.

Motor vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 21. And although Westphale survived his injuries, the ramifications of that accident will stick with him throughout his life.

Unable to live on his own due to his injuries, Westphale returned to Steamboat in March to live with his father. He still goes to rehabilitation sessions daily. Westphale said it will take another two years before he is fully recovered.

"Who's responsible for making me go through what I had to go through?" Westphale asked. "His name is Adam Mitchell. When Adam Mitchell got behind the wheel of that car, his blood-alcohol level was 0.207. He won't get to see his family, his kid (or) his fiancee for 12 years. That's his sentence.

"What did I learn? I learned to appreciate the small things -- how blue the sky is on a sunny day. I also learned that this can happen to anyone."

Westphale said he plans to return to school soon. He concluded his story with a heart-felt plea to high school students:

"Please don't drink and drive. I can't ask you enough. I can't beg you enough. You'll never know how many people you will hurt. I know there will be drinking. All I hope is that you don't get in a car. Any one of your parents would rather hear from a drunk you than they would from a hospital or morgue."

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