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Woman finally speaks after two decades in silence

HUTCHINSON, Kan. -- For 20 years, since she was struck by a drunk driver, Sarah Scantlin has been mostly oblivious to the world around her. Today, after a remarkable recovery, she can talk again.

Scantlin's father knows she will never fully recover, but her newfound ability to speak and her returning memories have given him his daughter back. For years, she could only blink her eyes -- one blink for ''no," two blinks for ''yes" -- to respond to questions that no one knew for sure she understood.

''I am astonished how primal communication is. It is a key element of humanity," Jim Scantlin said, blinking back tears.

Sarah Scantlin was an 18-year-old college freshman on Sept. 22, 1984, when a drunk driver hit her as she walked to her car after celebrating with friends at a teen club. That week, she had been hired at an upscale clothing store and won a spot on the drill team at Hutchinson Community College.

After two decades of silence, she began talking last month.

On Saturday, Scantlin's parents hosted an open house at her nursing home to introduce her to friends, family members, and reporters. Dressed in a blue warm-up suit, she seemed at times overwhelmed by the attention. She spoke little, mostly answering questions in a single word.

Is she happy she can talk? ''Yeah," she replied.

Scantlin still suffers from the effects of the accident. She habitually crosses her arms across her chest, her fists clenched under her chin. Her legs constantly spasm and thrash. Her right foot is so twisted it is almost reversed. Her neck muscles are so constricted she cannot swallow to eat.

A week ago, her parents got a call from Jennifer Trammell, a licensed nurse at the Golden Plains Health Care Center. She asked Betsy Scantlin if she was sitting down, told her someone wanted to talk to her.

Scantlin started talking in mid-January, but asked staff members not to tell her parents until Valentine's Day to surprise them. But last week she could not wait any longer to talk to them.

''I didn't think it would ever happen; it had been so long," Betsy Scantlin said.

Scantlin's doctor, Bradley Scheel, said physicians are not sure why she suddenly began talking but believe critical pathways in the brain may have regenerated.

''It is extremely unusual to see something like this happen," Scheel said.

Family members say Scantlin's understanding of the outside world is mostly from news and soap operas that played on the television in her room.

On Saturday, her brother asked whether she knew what a CD was. Sarah said she did and knew it had music on it.

But when he asked her how old she was, Sarah guessed she was 22. When her brother gently told her she was 38, she just stared silently back at him. The nurses say she thinks it is still the 1980s.

Her father, Jim Scantlin, understands that Sarah will probably never leave the healthcare center, but he is grateful for her improvement. ''They have given me my daughter back," he said.

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