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Mitchell teacher reflects on near-death experience, inspires students to be the best they can be

A stray crayon on the floor could be a nightmare for art teacher Cassondra Grogan. Carefulness is key, as a potential step, slip and fall could aggravate injuries she sustained in a near-death car crash seven months ago. On May 13, the 24-year-ol...

Cassondra Grogan laughs during an interview on Thursday in a classroom at L. B. Williams Elementary in Mitchell. Grogan has had five surgeries since her accident, and is scheduled for a sixth next summer. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Cassondra Grogan laughs during an interview on Thursday in a classroom at L. B. Williams Elementary in Mitchell. Grogan has had five surgeries since her accident, and is scheduled for a sixth next summer. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

A stray crayon on the floor could be a nightmare for art teacher Cassondra Grogan.

Carefulness is key, as a potential step, slip and fall could aggravate injuries she sustained in a near-death car crash seven months ago.

On May 13, the 24-year-old elementary art and special education teacher at Mitchell School District was driving to Hartford when she checked a text message on her phone. What resulted was a vicious car crash, several broken bones and surgeries. Perhaps most important, though, is that Grogan is using the incident as a first-hand, teachable moment for her students.

"In a way, my accident has helped the students bond with me," she said. "I have been pretty open and honest with them and I have talked to them about the dangers of not wearing their seat belts and distracted driving."

When the crash occurred, Grogan was driving 50 mph down a gravel road. She became distracted while reading the text and, before completely veering off the road, Grogan overcorrected her pickup twice. That sent her vehicle rolling into a five-foot ditch four times.

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Not wearing her seat belt, Grogan was thrown from her vehicle and was found 70 feet away in the opposite ditch.

Grogan does not remember the next three days.

"I remember looking up from my phone and my body kind of lifting," Grogan said. "And I remember dewy gravel on my face. That's it."

The Brandon native was taken to the emergency room at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, where medical officials realized immediately she had internal bleeding due to a damaged artery in her left hip. She lost approximately six units of blood during the crash. The internal bleeding required immediate surgery, and now she has a small metal coil in the artery.

That was just the beginning of the surgeries.

Grogan broke her neck in two spots, she said, and one break was so severe, she was told she was lucky it did not cut off her air supply. Surgery fixed her neck, but now she has a plate, four screws and a cadaver bone in this spot.

Grogan had severe injuries in the vertebrae in the upper and lower part of the back.

To top it off, she also broke her right femur, which was repaired by surgery. A rod was inserted into her femur along with two screws. She will have another surgery in June to remove the rod and screw.

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And those are the broken bones. Grogan said she also had a concussion and her left hip was separated from the sacrum - which now has two screws holding it in place. She separated her left shoulder and tore several ligaments that were repaired with surgery. Four screws and two metal plates now hold her shoulder together.

So far, Grogan has had five surgeries, and she will have a sixth surgery in June. But mostly she's just grateful she survived the rollover.

"Doctors have said that surviving this crash in itself is a miracle," Grogan said. "The fact that I didn't sustain a traumatic brain injury or become paralyzed is another miracle that doctors cannot explain. I must have landed just right."

Grogan said it was Friday, the 13th - an unlucky day - but it was also her father's birthday. Unfortunately, he was greeted at the emergency room doors by a priest, Grogan said, because nobody believed she would be survive.

Taking the time to heal

Knowing their teacher is delicate and still in the healing process, Grogan said, her students are much better about cleaning up their art supplies.

And today, nobody would know that Grogan had been in a life-threatening crash seven months earlier. She hides her scars and walks as if nothing happened.

Grogan was discharged from the hospital three weeks after the crash. She went home to live with her parents in Brandon. But because of her injuries - the broken femur and separated hip in particular - she had to learn to walk again.

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This was an overwhelming process that consumed her life, Grogan said, but she was determined to heal quickly. And one factor that motivated her was the hundreds of students she had waiting for her at the Mitchell School District.

Prior to the crash, Grogan was hired as the art teacher for L.B. Williams and Longfellow elementary schools. Knowing she had students waiting and counting on her in August helped the healing process, she said.

"When I found the determination to get up and learn how to walk, one of the factors that helped me was my students here in the Mitchell School District and my desire to be here," she said. "If I had not had the desire to come here and to meet all roughly 600 of my students I would have had a more difficult time."

Because of her injuries, Grogan was unable to move to Mitchell right away in August. For the first three days she was employed at the school district, Grogan commuted from Brandon. Finally, during that first weekend, she was able to move to Mitchell. But she didn't have her apartment set up, nor her classroom.

She rushed to prepare the best she could, and has been doing well since. Occasionally she has to miss half days to attend doctor's appointments.

And with curious students, questions popped up.

Filled with love for their new teacher, Grogan said the kids have completed a random act of kindness project, making cards for all of her doctors, therapists and paramedics.

The curiosity doesn't end. Grogan said the students have asked multiple times to see pictures of her pickup and photos of her neck X-ray.

Wanting to be honest with her students, she tells them the truth, but phrases it in a way that if someone breaks the law or the rules, bad things happen.

"There are several kids who are like, 'Well I'm surprised I'm not dead. Mom texts all the time while she's driving' or, 'Mom and dad don't wear seat belts,' " Grogan said. "But it's making them kind of aware. I don't know if parents will be happy with them knowing, but it's something you need to think about."

'Life is beautiful'

Grogan hadn't planned on being an art teacher.

She originally attended the University of South Dakota taking general courses, but then transferred to Augustana University.

Considering medical school, she wasn't sure what to study. She then realized she missed art. So she obtained a degree in K-12 art education and K-12 special education, graduating in 2015 from Augustana.

While she teaches art at both L.B. Williams and Longfellow, Grogan also is a special education academic tester, allowing her to visit all of the schools within the Mitchell School District.

"It's perfect here right now, because I wanted to do special ed and art," Grogan said.

New to the Mitchell area, she said it was quite the transition after the crash from having people constantly helping her to living alone in a new town. But she kept her determination to heal and start a new life.

And in October, she ran a 5K.

"When you're told you can't run again, it makes you want to run. So I ran. I didn't run all of it, but I ran and I wasn't last," Grogan said.

Grogan doesn't shy from sharing her story about her near-death experience, and she wants people to know that life is precious. To share her story, Grogan started a blog and hopes more people can learn from her experience.

"It's just really important when you're given the gift of life that you share with others and try to tell them that life might have you down right now, but you have to keep pushing," Grogan said. "Life is beautiful. There's something to be said when you have a near-death experience. Things are brighter. The sunsets are prettier."

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