A life can change in an instant.
That was the case for Katie Sharify. While on her way to Los Angeles on Nov. 2, the 2006 graduate from Amador Valley High took her seatbelt off and her eyes from the road for just a few moments. She wound up ejected from her car, hospitalized and paralyzed.
Sharify said her mother had left fruit and energy drinks on the floor of the passenger seat, and the noise from them rolling around had begun to bother her.
On Interstate 5 with the cruise control set to 70, she leaned over to move the cans, a decision that would change her life forever.
"I just unbuckled my seatbelt for a second. I looked down for two whole seconds -- I looked up and my car was veering to the left," she said.
She tried to swerve right but couldn't bring the car back under control.
"I ended up just going off road and crashing into the little hills," Sharify said. "The impact ended up sending me through the back window. I was ejected and when they found me I was 20 feet away from the car. The last thing I remember is the air bag opening. ... The car was just flipping and flipping. I don't remember any of this, it was just what I was told."
"Next thing I remember was being put into the helicopter," she continued. "I was airlifted to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto."
There, she received blood transfusions and had spinal surgery. The accident left her with head injuries, broken ribs, a broken spine and a bruised spinal cord, along with the bruising and swelling one would get in any accident. The most serious was the damage to Sharify's spine.
"My injury is what they call t3/t4. Those were the vertebrae that were bent," she said. "My whole torso is still numb. I'm very lucky to have my hands."
Sharify said 80 percent of people with such injuries end up with little chance for full recovery.
"The others get better, little by little, but hardly any walk," she said.
She is holding onto hope that new treatments will help her.
"There's stem cell research that's going on. My kind of injury is what they're looking for in the research," she said. "I've been trying to qualify. Basically what they'd do is open me up, putting the stem cells in and hope for the best."
She added that she hoped the stem cell research done on her can ultimately help others with similar injuries.
Sharify remains upbeat, although she realizes that walking again may be unlikely.
"I'm hoping my attitude will speed up my recovery, taking it day by day and not thinking about the future," Sharify said. "I'm hoping the surgery and the stem cells will help me."
She said the therapy she's going through, learning to do simple tasks in new ways, makes her feel like a newborn again, and not in a good way.
"We take a lot of things for granted," Sharify said.
Perhaps part of the reason Sharify is so upbeat is because of the support she's been getting from her family and her network of friends.
Her sister Julie visits at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where Sharify been going through rehabilitation. Realizing that her best friend had no insurance led Ghadeer Sayij to set up a website to bring in money to help pay for medical bills.
"I felt really helpless," Sayij said. "I just wanted to show her that I was there for her and the only thing I could think of was to try to ease the medical expenses. That's been going surprisingly well. I thought I'd get maybe $500 together, but we could definitely use a lot more so I'm going to keep it going as long as possible."
She's raised $3,000 so far, mainly through appeals to Facebook friends of hers and Sharify's. An account, moneyforkatie.weebly.com, has been set up to take credit card donations through PayPal. Friends and well-wishers are welcome to send cards to her at 751 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose CA 95128.
Sharify said she's a living example of how badly things can go wrong in seconds. Had she been wearing a seatbelt, she said, she might have had some broken bones but nothing more serious.
"I'm the kind of person who's very cautious," she said. "This is a freak accident and there's no one to blame, but just for a second I took my seatbelt off and I want to reinforce how important that is."